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The Singing Detective is a critically acclaimed BBC television serial, written by Dennis Potter, starring Michael Gambon. Jon Amiel directed. The episodes were "Skin", "Heat", "Lovely Days", "Clues", "Pitter Patter", and "Who Done It".

The serial was broadcast in the U.K. on BBC1 in 1986 on Sunday nights from November 16 to December 21 with later PBS and cable television showings in the United States. It won a Peabody Award in 1989. It ranks 20th on the British Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, as voted by industry professionals in 2000. It was included in the 1992 Dennis Potter retrospective at the Museum of Television & Radio and became a permanent addition to the Museum's collections in New York and Los Angeles. There was co-production funding from the Australian Broadcasting Corporationmarker. The DVD set was released 15 April 2003.

The serial was adapted into a 2003 film featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, with the setting altered to the United States.


The story revolves around mystery writer Philip E. Marlow and his most recent hospital stay. Having reached its peak, his psoriatic arthropathy (a chronic skin and joint disease) forms lesions and sores covering his entire body, and partially cripples his hands and feet. Dennis Potter suffered from this disease himself, and wrote with a pen tied to his fist much in the same fashion Marlow does in the last episode. Although severe, Marlow's case was intentionally understated compared to Potter's real case: Potter's skin would sometimes crack and bleed.

As a result of constant pain, a fever caused by the condition, and his refusal to take medication, Marlow falls into a fantasy world involving his Chandleresque novel, The Singing Detective, an escapist adventure about a detective (also named "Philip Marlow") who sings at a dance hall and takes the jobs "the guys who don't sing" won't take.

The real Marlow also experiences flashback to his childhood in rural England, and his mother's suicide in wartime London. The rural location is presumably the Forest of Deanmarker, Potter's birthplace and the location for filming, but this is never stated explicitly. The death of his mother is one of several recurring images in the series; Marlow uses it (whether subconsciously or not) in his murder mystery, and sometimes replaces her face with different women in his life, real and imaginary. The noir mystery, however, is never actually solved; all that is ultimately revealed is an intentionally vague plot involving smuggled Nazi war criminals and Soviet agents attempting to stop them. This perhaps reflects Marlow's view that fiction should be "all clues and no solutions."

The three worlds of the hospital, the noir thriller, and wartime England often merge in Marlow's mind, resulting a fourth layer, in which character interactions that would otherwise be impossible (e.g. fictional characters interacting with non-fictional characters) occur. This is evident in that many of Marlow's friends and enemies (perceived or otherwise) are represented by characters in the novel: particularly, one of the boys from his childhood, Mark Binney, becomes conflated with Raymond, Marlow's mother's lover, and appears as the central antagonist in the "real" and noir worlds (although the "real" Binney/Finney is ultimately a fantasy as well). The use of Binney as a villain stems from an event in his early childhood where Marlow framed the young Binney for defecating on a disciplinarian elementary teacher's desk, a perverse act of vengeance for the affair Marlow has witnessed between his own mother and Binney's father. The innocent Binney is brutally beaten in front of the student body, and Marlow is lauded for telling the "truth". These events haunt Marlow, as it is revealed that the real Binney eventually ends up in a mental institution. The villainous Binney/Finney character is killed off in both realities.

Some members of the cast each play several different parts: Marlow and his alter-ego, the singing detective, are both played by Gambon. Marlow as a boy is played by Lyndon Davies. Patrick Malahide plays three central characters - the contemporary Finney, who Marlow thinks is having an affair with his ex-wife, played by Janet Suzman; the imaginary Binney, a central character in the murder plot; and Raymond, a friend of Marlow's father who has an affair with his mother (Alison Steadman). Steadman plays both Marlow's mother, and the mysterious "Lili", one of the murder victims.


In Potter's original script, the hospital scenes and noir scenes were to be shot with television (video) and film cameras respectively, with the period material (Marlow's childhood) filmed in black-and-white. However, all scenes were ultimately shot on film, over Potter's objections. Potter wanted the hospital scenes to maintain the sensibility of sitcom conventions. Although this was tempered in the final script, some character interactions retain this concept. For example, Mr. Hall and Reginald, who are also intended to serve as a mock chorus for the main action occurring in the hospital.

Originally, the title of the series was "Smoke Rings", and the Singing Detective noir thriller was to be dropped after the first episode; Potter felt it would not hold the audience's attention. The title may have referred to a particular monologue Marlow has in the first episode, referring to the fact that, despite everything else, the one thing he really wants is a cigarette. Marlow's medical and mental progress is subtley gauged by his ability to reach over to his dresser and get his cigarettes.


Borrowing portions of his first novel, Hide and Seek (1973), Potter added autobiographical aspects (or, as he put it, deeply "personal" aspects), along with 1940s popular music and the aforementioned film noir stylistics. The result is regarded by some as one of the peaks of 20th-century drama. Marlow's hallucinations are not far from the Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, the 1944 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. Powell himself would later portray a "singing detective" on radio's Richard Diamond, Private Detective, serenading his girlfriend, Helen Asher (Virginia Gregg), at the end of each episode.

A reference is made in the last episode to a novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This may be meant to suggest that Marlow is an unreliable narrator.


Hammersmith Bridgemarker appears to be the location used for the exterior of Mark Binney's home. It is used several times in Potter's work as a symbol of both death and rebirth. Eileen contemplates throwing herself from it in Pennies from Heaven (1978) before being reunited with Arthur, while in Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972) Denholm Elliot's character threatens to run over his estranged wife before throwing himself off the bridge. The eponymous fictional heroine in Blackeyes (1989) does throw herself from it and drowns in the Thames, with a list of her former lovers in her vagina. In Karaoke (1996), Potter's last work, Sandra's horribly scarred mother is seen piecing together a jigsaw featuring an image of the landmark.


Although The Singing Detective did not meet with spectacular viewing figures, it proved influential within the television industry. The serial met with considerable critical praise in America. Steven Bochco has credited the serial as the chief inspiration for Cop Rock (1990), although unlike The Singing Detective, Bochco's drama features specially recorded musical numbers rather than pre-existing work.


As well as its dark themes, the series is notable for its use of 1940s-era music, often incorporated into surreal musical numbers. This is a device Potter used in his earlier miniseries Pennies From Heaven. The main theme music is the classic "Peg O' My Heart", of Ziegfeld Follies fame. The upbeat music as the theme for such a dark story is perhaps a reference to Carol Reed's The Third Man, with a harmonica in the place of a zither (The Third Man is indeed referenced in a number of camera shots, according to DVD commentary). Director Jon Amiel compiled and spliced the generic thriller music used throughout the series from 60 library tapes he had brought together.

The following is a chronological soundtrack listing:

Further reading


  1. The Singing Detective (supplementary audio track by Jon Amiel and Kenith Trodd). DVD. Disc 1. Prod. BBC; dist. BBC Video, 2002.
  2. Arena:Dennis Potter,

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