Directed by Jon Amiel
Written by Dennis Potter
Starring Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Joanne Whitley
Dennis Potter was one of the most imaginative TV writers in the history of the medium, producing a series of brilliant TV scripts for one-shots and miniseries starting in the 1960s. I could probably write an post on him alone, except that, like most Americans, I am unfamiliar with the best of his work. Only once did one of his scripts make it to the US in the format it was created, and it is astounding: The Singing Detective.
It was a six-episode miniseries from the BBC that made its way onto public TV in the US, but only on late night because of the subject matter and language, a drama for which the adjective "powerful" was coined.
In it, we find Philip Marlowe, a writer of hack detective novels featuring "The Singing Detective." He is in the hospital, suffering from a horrifying case of psoriasis, his skin peeling and rough,* dealing with the pain by making cynical wisecracks, hallucinating, and plotting stories starring himself as the hardboiled detective in his books. As the series progresses, we see why his life is such a wreck, psoriasis or not.
Potter included a clever conceit: he used popular songs of the 1930s and 40s as a counterpoint and comment on Marlowe's condition. Most memorable is the version of "Dry Bones," sung by his doctors in the hospital ward.**
The series slowly reveals Marlowe's secrets and fears and is full of dramatic surprises as elements from Marlowe's books, his past, and his present in the hospital ward begin to merge and slip in and out as Marlowe comes to grips with himself.
You can't talk about this without praising Michael Gambon. He is in nearly every scene and gives a funny, touching, emotionally raw, and overall superb performance, maybe one of the greatest ever on TV. His Marlowe manages to keep you glued to the screen, even when your instinct is to look away.
The film was a smash critical success, but only got modest ratings in the UK.
Potter did only a few more miniseries after that, all considered excellent, but never making it to the US.*** A movie was made of The Singing Detective in 2002, but the less said about that, the better.**** Potter wasn't around to see it; he died in 1994. Michael Gambon has gone on to be one of the UK's top actors, though he's best known as the second Dumbledore in Harry Potter.
While the series is still well-regarded by those who've seen it, that number is dwindling, and for most people, the name means nothing. That is a tremendous loss, for it was one of the greatest miniseries ever.
*Potter himself suffered from the disease. Evidently, no matter how gross it looks like in the miniseries, the real thing is much worse.
*Potter had used this effect a few years earlier in the miniseries Pennies from Heaven, which was made into a movie featuring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. It was also used by Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You.
***At least, I never saw any sign of them.
****I've only seen the trailer, but it looks like a textbook example on How Not to Adapt a Film. Robert Downey, Jr., is a great actor, but they kept his pretty boy looks so that his skin condition is far less shocking. They also updated the songs -- reasonable, I guess, but nothing can top the choices in the original. They even changed Marlowe's name to the far less evocative Dan Dark.