The best British TV series ever made?

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Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective

The unconventional TV drama gave the great actor Michael Gambon, who died last week, his defining role. It blazed a trail – and stands as one of the greatest British series ever made, argues Adam Scovell.

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With the death of Irish actor Sir Michael Gambon last week, it was inevitable that headlines celebrating his life and career were to be dominated by associations with various “Potters”. The majority led with the wizarding kind due to the actor taking over from Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. But the high point of Gambon’s long and accomplished screen career was thanks to another Potter: arguably television’s greatest screenwriter Dennis Potter and his innovative miniseries The Singing Detective. Unfortunately, this masterpiece is not currently available to watch on any streaming platforms (though it is available to buy on DVD); we can but hope that changes sometime soon, particularly in light of its great star’s passing.

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Directed by Jon Amiel and produced for the BBC by Kenith Trodd and John Harris, The Singing Detective was, by any measure, an unusual and complex series. Over its six episodes, broadcast in the UK on BBC One between 16 November and 21 December 1986, viewers followed the life of Philip E Marlow (Gambon), a pulp fiction writer left bedridden in hospital by a case of psoriatic arthropathy – a debilitating combination of the skin condition psoriasis and arthritis. As Marlow’s body deteriorates, his vivid imagination takes him on a surreal journey where he embodies his namesake protagonist in his own Raymond Chandler-esque crime thrillers.

Michael Gambon (shown with Alison Steadman) starred as pulp fiction writer Philip E Marlow in the groundbreaking 1986 series The Singing Detective (Credit: BBC)

Michael Gambon (shown with Alison Steadman) starred as pulp fiction writer Philip E Marlow in the groundbreaking 1986 series The Singing Detective (Credit: BBC)

Blurring the line between reality and fiction, the narrative unfolds in several parallel worlds, with the noir-inspired detective story interwoven with Marlow’s real-life struggles in hospital, his own childhood and a variety of incidents in his life over which he feels the guilt. As Marlow begins to recover, his writer’s block eases; the fantasies allow him a creative escape as well as catharsis over several traumas, past and present, all aided by the optimistic presence of Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) who looks after Marlowe’s health in spite of his consistent grumblings.

Potter’s drama smuggled in its complexities via an incredibly skilful and entertaining melding of autobiography (Marlow’s illness, for example, directly matched Potter’s own health struggles) and a daring approach to form. Potter was one of television’s great stylists, refusing to bow to pressure to play drama straight, instead fragmenting it, following his own idiosyncratic obsessions, and, most famously, allowing access to the interiority of his characters via song-and-dance numbers (usually lip-synced to pre-war jazz of various kinds).    

Culmination of creativity

The Singing Detective was arguably the culmination of Potter’s creativity, building on themes he originally explored in his debut novel Hide and Seek (1973), as well as bringing in material and stylistic quirks from the writer’s long and varied career, in particular honing the lip-syncing scenes first properly deployed in Pennies from Heaven (1978). In other words, the drama had huge ambition and a plethora of ideas to carefully balance.   

Discussing the screenplay in 2013 at the British Film Institute, Gambon recalled dealing with its complexity. “It was so vast in my mind,” he told Samira Ahmed, “so long and complicated, that every morning Jon [Amiel, the director of the series] would help me go through it.” Gambon’s performance is the drama’s backbone, his brilliant dual role an effective stabilising factor among the constant shifts between dream, memory and reality. It unsurprisingly earned him a Bafta for best actor in 1987.

Perhaps due to being the author, with full knowledge of the real memories being replayed, Potter himself saw the play in simpler terms. Interviewed by John J O’Connor for The New York Times in 1988, he described the series as “a detective story about how you find out about yourself, how an event has lodged inside you and affects how you see things…”.  Potter often found the most surreal ways to explore deeply personal themes.

Potter’s life was ultimately his raw material, whether he was channelling his experiences of politics into Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (1965), processing the abuse he suffered in childhood in Moonlight on the Highway (1969) or dealing with his illness in The Singing Detective. When asked later in the O’Connor interview about the specifics of The Singing Detective in relation to his own life, Potter was, however, more cautious. The drama was “not autobiographical in the emotional sense,” he suggested, “but it was accurate in the observed, exterior, physical sense.”

Arguably, the most striking thing about Potter’s work, epitomised by The Singing Detective, is how the writer made such deeply personal, often troubling aspects of his life feel so relatable to an everyday audience. He showed that, in drama, the personal could retain its peculiarity, while the uniqueness of personal experience could still be translated into a universally appealing work, if the artist was ambitious and talented enough, that is. Luckily, Potter was both.

Dennis Potter wrote many remarkable TV screenplays – arguably, The Singing Detective was his masterpiece (Credit: BBC)

Dennis Potter wrote many remarkable TV screenplays – arguably, The Singing Detective was his masterpiece (Credit: BBC)

Appropriately, when asked what he thought of The Singing Detective in 2013 at the BFI, Gambon, in typical down-to-earth fashion, simply replied “Oh me? I just thank God I was in it. I was very privileged and lucky”. Looking back on the careers of both Potter and Gambon, it is undeniable that the wider viewing public were also lucky that an actor and writer of such calibre ended up working together; the results are still one of the great pieces of British dramatic art seen in the last century.

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