Year: 1986
Director: Jon Amiel
Writer: Dennis Potter
Starring: Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Joanne Whalley, Janet Suzman

The Singing Detective is a six-part multi-plot story where not only do the same actors appear in different plot threads under different guises, but the main threads bleed into each other to blur the story’s multi-faceted characters and multiple timelines even further. This might sound foggy but the overall effect is crystal clear and The Singing Detective is widely regarded as legendary TV writer Dennis Potter’s finest achievement. Nominated for no less than 11 BAFTAs (including both Michael Gambon and Patrick Malahide for Best Actor), it eventually won three with Gambon deservedly getting the Best Actor nod.

Episode 1: Skin

The Singing Detective opens in the post-World War II noir-ish pulp fiction landscape of a seedy nightclub called Skinscapes frequented by Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide), a man of independent means and uncertain motives. The scene shifts to a modern (well, 1986) hospital ward where writer Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) is bedridden with psoriatic arthritis. Although missing the final ‘e’ from his surname, it’s an explicit name-check of the protagonist of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled 1940s detective novels. Marlow’s psoriasis is so acute that he is covered from head to toe in a painful rash; his joints so inflamed he cannot hold either a pen or that indispensible film noir accessory, a cigarette. The physically incapacitated Marlow resorts to trawling through his own out-of-print dime-store novel The Singing Detective in his mind.

The Singing Detective

Marlow inserts himself into his own novel as the titular character, a trench-coat-wearing, chain-smoking dance-band singer who doubles as a private eye and fixer: “You’ve stepped in something nasty and you want me to clean it up, isn’t that right?” He stands on the Hammersmith Bridge and watches as, in one of the series’ key visual motifs, a woman’s naked body is fished from the river. The connections with skin—and particularly the sexual areas of the body—continue as, in the first of The Singing Detective’s several iconic moments, Nurse Mills (a fabulously wide-eyed Joanne Whalley) greases the immobilised Marlow to reduce his itching. As the nurse greases his thighs, Marlow—who doesn’t suffer the same affliction as Graham in Sex, Lies, and Videotape—struggles to think of something boring so he doesn’t get physically aroused. “I’m sorry, but I shall have to lift your penis now,” Nurse Mills intones, moistening the corner of her mouth with her tongue as she morphs into a provocative chanteuse at Skinscapes, where sex is dispensed like (and with) champagne.

It’s too much for poor Marlow, who—echoing Dave in Wish You Were Here, Frank in Blue Velvet and Tenoch and Julio in Y Tu Mamá Tambíen—ejaculates after this minimal, supposedly non-sexual, contact. It’s the first clear sign of the deep-seated shame seen throughout Sexcatraz. Embarrassed, Marlow mumbles an apology. “We don’t need to talk about it, do we?” Nurse Mills says reproachfully, reiterating society’s sweep-it-under-the-carpet attitude to all matters sexual. The theme of the shameful nature of the human body is reinforced by another of the ward’s patients, Mr Hall (David Ryall), who is outspoken on all issues except when it comes to requesting a bedpan; shame at the perfectly natural function of urinating reduces him to a dormouse. In another sexually humiliating moment a dementia patient staggers over to Marlow’s bed and tries to mount him.

Back at Skinscapes the setups come thick and fast. Binney is some kind of intelligence operative, though on whose side is uncertain. Two mysterious men (Ron Cook and George Rossi) shadow Binney as he meets a Russian prostitute called Sonia (Kate McKenzie) who will later accompany him home—and later still bed Binney’s doppelganger in the contemporary plot strand. Potter then dispenses a large chunk of exposition in a hugely entertaining scene in the hospital ward. Doctors discuss Marlow’s medical history with complete disregard for Marlow the person. Dennis Potter draws on his own long experience of psoriasis in The Singing Detective, with Marlow hurling savage insults at the medical establishment: “…slobbering cretins who turned out to be escapees from the local loony bin. They thought they were doctors and nurses.” The doctors laugh off Marlow’s vitriolic ravings as The Singing Detective veers into the best of its musical numbers, a hilarious rendition of ‘Dry Bones’ sung by the doctors while the nurses do the can-can and fake skeletons are pressed into service as percussion instruments.

The Singing Detective

But Marlow’s problems are more than skin deep. A well-meaning doctor tries to engage Marlow in a reasoned conversation about his attitude, saying he has seen patients with worse symptoms who “don’t behave like they’ve just fallen into a sewer.” The doctor foolishly asks Marlow about his beliefs. “Compulsory depopulation by infanticide, suicide, genocide or whatever other means suggest themselves… I also believe in cigarettes, cholesterol, alcohol, carbon monoxide, masturbation, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the Daily Telegraph, and not properly labelling fatal poisons.” Marlow’s worldview is entirely toxic, and it is judgment—in particular the judgment of sex—that makes it so. We may see ourselves as modern humans, free to choose how we think and feel. The reality is that, like Marlow, we are beholden to ancient, unconscious beliefs that make us regard sex as fundamentally shameful, acceptable only within a very narrow range of behaviour while anything outside it is disgusting and degrading, an aberration both moral and mental. The doctor suggests seeing a psychotherapist but Marlow rejects this, and the attendant implication that he is mentally ill—an association already seen in both Wish You Were Here and Asylum—until the death of an adjacent patient makes him reconsider.

Episode 2: Heat

Marlow takes up the doctor’s suggestion to visit the hospital psychotherapist, Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson). Marlow is rattled to see that Gibbon has done his homework: he’s raided the bargain bins and not only found a copy of The Singing Detective but read it for clues to its author’s neuroses. Gibbon is unfazed by Marlow’s bilious sentiments, describing them as a “desperate pastiche.” “I don’t like Italian food,” Marlow bites back. The penetrating exchanges between Marlow and Dr Gibbon are among the highlights of The Singing Detective, peaking with Episode 5’s word association game. “You regard sexual intercourse with considerable distaste or, what’s more to the point, with fear,” Gibbon observes, eliciting further insults from Marlow in a sure sign that he’s hit the mark. Gibbon questions whether Marlow’s skin condition is a mirror of his distaste for sex—in other words, his repression returns through his psoriasis—an insight that Freud may have agreed with but Marlow rejects. Current medical knowledge may not corroborate Gibbon’s theory, but it’s a useful visual metaphor and an idea that Dennis Potter, who suffered acutely from psoriasis, took seriously enough to use as the spine of a 6-hour mini-series.

Meanwhile, the two mysterious men from Skinscapes stake out Mark Binney’s flat while he has sex with Sonia, the Russian prostitute. Afterwards he asks why she’s in Britain. No answer. Binney looks out the window and sees the mysterious men. Sonia panics, divests herself of Binney with a head-butt and flees. She ends up face down in the Thames, her luminous skin glowing in the moonlight as the police fish her from the river. Binney becomes the prime suspect. In a tersely scripted scene he hires the singing detective to clear his name. “I’m not paying you to make me feel small,” Binney protests after the singing detective—revealing his adherence to the prevailing sexual covenants—disparages Binney’s socially illicit liaison with Sonia. “You don’t have to do that,” quips the singing detective. “That’s thrown in without charge.”

The Singing Detective

In the hospital ward Marlow isn’t faring so well. Following his unsettling visit to the psychotherapist he develops a temperature. His fevered mind spins back to his childhood in the Forest of Dean, a magical landscape for Potter as well as for the young Marlow (Lyndon Davies) who loves nothing better than to hide in the treetops. This allows him to escape the arguments at home between his sensitive, artistic mother (Alison Steadman) and his grandparents, a traditional coal-mining couple. Marlow’s father (Jim Carter) won’t stand up to his own parents, leaving his mother isolated. She is ultimately ejected from the family, an emotional catastrophe for which the young Marlow feels responsible.

In the hospital Marlow’s fever subsides and he drifts into the stillness of sleep just as his ex-wife Nicola (Janet Suzman) visits. She watches Marlow at rest then leaves. But he was only feigning sleep. Marlow wakes and, echoing the character Michael Gambon played with such verve in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, fires a barrage of sexually-themed insults at the departing Nicola: “Who are you opening your legs for now, you rutting bitch?” Women, sex, betrayal… as Dr Gibbon has correctly divined, it’s all Marlow knows. It’s the same prison of sex-negative beliefs seen throughout Sexcatraz. In Marlow’s case, not only is he trapped in a cell of constricting beliefs—his psoriasis imprisons him within his own body.

Episode 3: Lovely Days

“There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think… The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth. The thinking comes with the tune. So that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing, I can think the thinking, but you’re not going to catch me feeling the feelings.” Episode 3 begins with the singing detective crooning ‘Paper Doll’, a song about the virtues of exchanging a real woman for a lifeless substitute, which—whether it’s a stuffed toy or an inflatable sex doll—is incapable of betraying its owner’s sexual access rights. In the voice-over Marlow admits his inability to feel and, by extension, his rejection of the repressed feelings welling ever more insistently inside him. Marlow’s lack of feeling is no coincidence; he has unconsciously shut down his ability to feel precisely to avoid those painful, shame-based sentiments trying to burst into his conscious awareness through the agency of the return of the repressed.

The Singing Detective

The scene shifts to the young Marlow and his distraught mother making the train journey to London after the collapse of her marriage. The end of the war is near. The carriage is packed with soldiers. They ogle Marlow’s mother, from the glimpse of petticoat beneath her dress to the lipstick she endlessly applies to distract herself from her inner turmoil. She finally bursts into tears, giving the sex-starved soldiers the chance to offer her any solace she might desire. The implicit sexual dimension of the soldiers’ offer hangs over the scene like a London fog. It’s a traumatic journey for the adolescent Marlow. Like Spook in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Renato in Malèna, he is a powerless witness as the fallout from sexual shame twists his own childish innocence into emotionally and sexually stunted adulthood.

By the time of Marlow’s next visit to the psychotherapist his condition has improved. Marlow may not be ready to feel all of the pain he repressed as an adolescent, but all this dredging up the past allows that pain to slowly seep into his consciousness where it can be acknowledged, accepted and ultimately reconciled. Dr Gibbon tricks Marlow into turning his previously immobile head, showing Marlow that—to some extent at least—his illness is psychological.

Just as Marlow makes progress so does his alter ego the singing detective, who accuses Mark Binney of assisting fugitive Nazis—hence the interest of the Russian secret service, firstly Sonia and now another woman who lurks outside Binney’s flat where Marlow lies in wait: “she’s as red as a London bus; she doesn’t trade in Nazis and she wonders why you do.” To Marlow, raised in the war years as Dennis Potter was, the Nazi is the ultimate fiend. The singing detective’s accusation is confirmed when Binney opens a drawer: there’s a brief but distinctive glimpse of the butt of a Luger pistol.

The Singing Detective

Flash back to the Forest of Dean once again. This time the young Marlow spies from the trees as his mother has sex with a man named Raymond Binney; like Mark Binney, he too is played by Patrick Malahide. Ray Binney = Mark Binney; adulterer = Nazi. In a fine example of how we recycle and conflate repressed emotions, the ultimate fiend from the young Marlow’s childhood—the man who soiled his mother—re-emerges as a Nazi sympathiser in the adult Marlow’s novel.

Leaving Binney’s apartment, the Russian agent approaches Marlow. He schedules a meeting for 30 minutes later then strides off, cursing, as if he’s read the script and knows what will happen next: the two mysterious men shoot her then flee into the foggy night. The singing detective rushes to the woman and her identity is revealed: Marlow’s mother. He cradles her lifeless body. Emotion almost cracks through his imperturbable façade before he bottles it up. “I’ll get you, whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are,” he says with a steely voice. Pause. “I’ll get you,” he screams into the night. The cracks are starting to show: Marlow’s ability to resist his own repressed pain is lessening.

Episode 4: Clues

Episode 4 introduces two of the series’ key sub-plots. The first of these involves Marlow’s ex-wife Nicola—ostensibly looking after his affairs while he is bed-ridden—finding a letter from a film company seeking to option the screenplay rights to Marlow’s novel, The Singing Detective. Marlow is less interested in this business opportunity than who Nicola is sleeping with; although they’ve been separated for some time Marlow retains a sense of sexual ownership of his ex-wife and is convinced his access rights are being violated. This holding onto grudges, the inability to forgive and move on from past disappointments, is another marker of entrenched shame.

The Singing Detective

The second sub-plot centres on an incident during the young Marlow’s schooldays, when an unknown person surreptitiously defecated on the teacher’s desk. The teacher, magnificently played with mindless cruelty by Janet Henfrey, casually dispenses violence with unprovoked claps ‘round the ear and prods with the cane. In a fabulously written scene, the schoolteacher beseeches Almighty God to set aside all His higher duties—“with the whole earth to turn… the weight of the mountains and the deeps of the oceans, the day and the night… all of these things, you oh God, thee oh God, Almighty and awful Creator, you leave for the moment”—and expose the culprit. By the end of the prayer, young Marlow is in tears. He is hauled before the class and accused of leaving the deposit on the teacher’s desk. Crucially, while the young Marlow awaits his fate, Mark Binney (the son of Ray Binney who seduced Marlow’s mother) pulls a face at him. The question of guilt—who done it—hangs over every thread of The Singing Detective.

In hospital, the adult Marlow correctly divines that the issue of the screenplay option and Nicola’s current sexual partner are intertwined. Nicola schemes with an aspiring film producer called Mark Finney (Patrick Malahide’s third role) to get Marlow to sign over the novel’s film rights to Finney’s company, while at the same time Marlow’s screenplay for the novel—which has been mouldering in a shoebox for years—is passed off as Finney’s own work and on-sold to Hollywood. Marlow would thus receive a pittance while Finney would get both the profit and the credit. What Nicola stands to gain from this scheme remains to be seen. But as Episode 4 ends there’s a notable shift in the overall arc from development towards conclusion.

The Singing Detective

Firstly, the two mysterious men descend on the Laguna dance hall where the singing detective performs. It’s clear that the detective is next on their hit list, though why—or even who these men are—is still unclear. More importantly, in his classroom, the young Marlow admits seeing Mark Binney leave a particularly smelly calling card on the teacher’s desk. Young Binney weakly refutes the accusation until several of Marlow’s classmates back up his story. The schoolteacher condemns Binney to “a caning that not one of you will ever forget.” Marlow certainly never did.

The flashbacks to Marlow’s childhood represent the release of buried emotions as the bedridden Marlow accepts, processes and relinquishes powerful feelings that have festered inside him since adolescence and poisoned every relationship in his life. While Swimming Pool’s Sarah Morton and Ann Bishop Millaney in Sex, Lies, and Videotape gradually open up to their own sexuality in the present moment, what Marlow does is consciously remove the judgment, the stigma of shame, via his memories. As he does so his psoriasis—the external manifestation of his shame—gradually fades.

Episode 5: Pitter Patter

The action resumes at the Laguna with the mysterious men assuming the textbook agents’ back-to-back position on the balcony. This doesn’t pass unnoticed on the bandstand, where the singing detective twirls a parasol and sings ‘The Old Umbrella Man’. A hail of bullets rains on the bandstand, puncturing the parasol. It tumbles to the ground, revealing the fatally wounded drummer.

The Singing Detective

The singing detective opens fire with his own shooter, shattering one of the Laguna’s cherubs before the mysterious men flee once more. While the flashbacks to Marlow’s childhood represent repressed memories, the plot strand with the singing detective represents the adult Marlow’s inner adjustments as little by little—it is a slow process, punctuated by moments of emotionally shattering catharsis—he releases his lifelong shame. Significant emotional growth is always accompanied by a sense of our old selves dying and a new self being born.

The hospitalised Marlow, now significantly improved, receives another visit from Nicola. Marlow’s attitude is much less bellicose, occasionally even veering beyond mere civility into moments of tenderness. Marlow even fancies sex, though his underlying shame is still present: “I want to sleep with you again, with a big mirror alongside… So when it starts spurting up in me and shooting out of me I can twist to one side, coming off your hot and sticky loins and spit straight in my own face.” Ignoring Marlow’s shame-laced diatribe, Nicola wheedles him into signing over the novel’s screenplay rights and thanks him with a Judas kiss.

While Nicola and Mark Finney exult in victory, the bedridden Marlow is finally ready to recall the repressed pain of the sexual betrayals that shaped his adolescence: his mother having sex in the woods with Ray Binney, their train journey to London, his mother standing alone on Hammersmith Bridge, working as a prostitute to make ends meet.

The Singing Detective

A woman’s naked body is lifted from the Thames. Who is she? Echoing Boys Don’t Cry and Shame, as Marlow approaches the core of his repression the narrative becomes increasingly fractured.

And then the story segues into another of its seminal scenes. In a visit to Dr Gibbon, Marlow continues to argue for the meaninglessness of human existence: “from time to time and completely at random, we are visited by what we cannot know, cannot predict, cannot control, cannot cannot cannot understand, and cannot cannot cannot escape: fate.” Marlow clings to the belief that his betrayals, childhood and adult, his misogyny, his disgust at sex, his premature ejaculation and his psoriasis are all random, inchoate, disparate elements, a bad draw in the scrabble game of life that—through no fault of his own—cannot be assembled into a seven-letter, triple score word. Dr Gibbon begs to differ and engages Marlow in a word association game. But it’s much more than a game; it’s a battle of wills between the holistic, humanistic, emotionally whole psychotherapist and the cynical, fatalistic, psychologically fractured Marlow. As long as Marlow views all the painful elements of his life as, to quote Bob Dylan, “a simple twist of fate,” he can remain the hapless, helpless victim. As soon as he accepts they are part of a cohesive pattern—the premise of Sexcatraz—then Reason, not Fate, is the dominant force and he must assume responsibility for changing that pattern. The game swings back and forth with Marlow’s fundamental worldview at stake, dependent on a handful of often-monosyllabic words. Gibbon: “woman.” Marlow: “fuck.” Gibbon: “fuck.” “Dirt.” “Dirt.” “Death.” Dr Gibbon elicits Marlow’s associations between sex, death and pollution, already seen in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Potter’s material is magnificent and the actors rise to the occasion, creating a landmark in TV viewing. “No diagnostic value… It’s words, just words…” Marlow shrugs unconvincingly at the game’s end. “Just words,” Dr Gibbon mimics, knowing full well who won. Marlow falls silent, the wordsmith for once at a loss. “I don’t think I’ll come here again.”

Potter then tightens the noose even further. Flash back to Mark Binney sleeping with Sonia. The shot changes—and it’s the modern-day Marlow, prior to his psoriasis, having sex with the same prostitute. “Doesn’t it disgust you, what you do… being paid to stretch yourself out and let a stranger enter you?” Marlow asks, repeating words earlier voiced by the fictional Mark Binney. Until now Marlow has dealt with his most distressing feelings by keeping them at a fictionalised distance. In a clear sign of improved wellbeing he is increasingly able to process the real thing. But the malicious, scheming Marlow hasn’t entirely departed yet—he is completely aware that Nicola and her lover Mark Finney are trying to dupe him over the screenplay of The Singing Detective and savours his revenge.

Episode 6: Who Done It

Despite his earlier intention, Marlow returns to the psychotherapist. His rash has now almost subsided and his exchanges with Dr Gibbon are open and congenial. The real identity of the woman fished from the river is finally revealed: Marlow’s mother, who committed suicide by drowning. Further, Marlow admits that he was responsible for defecating on his schoolteacher’s desk, an act he then blamed on Mark Binney. As Marlow recalls the caning young Binney received, his remorse finally breaks through and he sobs heavily. Dr Gibbon seizes the moment and encourages Marlow to once again stand on his own two feet.

The Singing Detective

The happy moments don’t end there. Nicola and Mark Finney celebrate their heist late into the night—until the Hollywood production company who bought The Singing Detective calls. And here Marlow has his revenge. The producers want script changes, changes that Finney is unable to deliver[1]. The conversation shifts to the topic of the lead actress. In a beautiful double-whammy from Dennis Potter, Finney promotes Nicola—her occupation previously elided—for the role. This was to be her payoff for getting Marlow to sign over his rights. But the production company has already cast a better-known actress; to protect his screenplay deal Finney sacrifices Nicola with barely a whimper. It’s her turn to experience the sense of betrayal that so affected the adolescent Marlow.

The scene shifts to the young Marlow returning to his father in the Forest of Dean. But the forest—earlier shown in its summer lushness, now stripped bare by winter—has lost its magic. Cut back to Mark Finney’s apartment. Finney lies dead on the floor, a stiletto protruding from his jugular. A blood-spattered Nicola sits nearby. The two mysterious men arrive on the scene—except that Nicola has gone and the dead Mark Finney is now the dead Mark Binney, the same knife sticking from the same throat. One by one Marlow lays his ghosts to rest—ghosts that stem from a walling off of his own capacity to feel and from a profound distrust of women and sex acquired during adolescence. As the mysterious men search Binney’s apartment, they suddenly realise that they—like the audience—have been traipsing through The Singing Detective for the best part of six hours without knowing who they are, who they’re working for, or what they’re doing. There is only one person who can answer that question: the writer.

The mysterious men enter the hospital ward and demand to know from Marlow who they are. Marlow screams as they wrench open his psoriasis-locked fingers. “Somebody please help me,” he begs. His cries echo down a hospital corridor, where the singing detective casually lights a cigarette before pulling out his revolver. “When you’re dealing with the devil, then praise the lord and pass the ammunition.” Potter remains true to the pulp fiction genre till the end.

The Singing Detective

A shootout erupts in the hospital ward, though only the two mysterious men and the two Marlows, bedridden and detective, are aware of it. The ward disintegrates around the blissfully unaware staff and patients even as one by one they are killed by stray bullets—intriguingly, Nurse Mills, adorable object of many a teenage male sex fantasy, is not among them. The singing detective finally kills one of the mysterious men. The second one surrenders, standing just behind the bedridden, modern-day Marlow. The singing detective approaches, pistol raised, only one bullet remaining in the chamber of his service issue Webley. A shot echoes. The mysterious man blinks: he’s still alive—but the hospitalised Marlow is dead.

“This was one sick puppy,” intones the singing detective, “and I reckon I’m man enough to tie my own shoelaces now.” The repressed has returned, been accepted and released. The old, toxic, shame-filled Philip Marlow has been symbolically killed off. In his place a new, improved Marlow arises from the plot strand where the bedridden Marlow was processing and adjusting to a life beyond shame—the pages of his dime-store novel. The ward is suddenly restored to its former glory. Marlow, dressed in the singing detective’s signature trench coat and hat, hobbles out, a new and better life ahead.

The Singing Detective is a brilliant, comprehensive portrayal of the rollercoaster psychological journey from within the walls of Sexcatraz to a healthier emotional landscape beyond. Like Samantha Morton in Swimming Pool, Ann and Graham in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Tenoch and Julio in Y Tu Mamá Tambíen, Philip Marlow has escaped from Sexcatraz… but where to?

Next: Beyond Sexcatraz


[1] Dennis Potter himself was unable to deliver a workable feature-length script when The Singing Detective was finally made in Hollywood with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.

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