(UK 1986 415m) DVD1/2
Ten cents a dance, fella
p John Harris, Kenith Trodd d Jon Amiel w Dennis Potter ph Ken Westbury ed Bill Wright, Sue Wyatt m Stanley Myers art Jim Clay
Michael Gambon (Philip Marlow), Patrick Malahide (Mark Binney), Alison Steadman (Lili), Joanne Whalley (Nurse Mills), David Ryall (Mr Hall), Ron Cook (1st mysterious man), George Rossi (2nd mysterious man), Janet Suzman (Nicola), Leslie French (“Noddy” Tomkey), Bill Paterson (Dr Gibbon), Ken Stott (Uncle John), Jim Carter (Mr Marlow), Gerald Horan (Reginald Gibbs), Sharon Clarke (night nurse), Imelda Staunton (Nurse White), Badi Uzzaman (Ali), Janet Henfrey (schoolteacher), Lyndon Davies (Philip, aged 10), David Thewlis (soldier),
Following the transmission of the first episodes of Dennis Potter’s magnum opus on BBC1, their viewer response show Points of View was bombarded with complaints from the Mary Whitehouse brigade, including a mirthfully Pythonesque response from Colonel R.S.Vine, BSc, MRCS, LRCP, FRC Path, who called it “this extraordinarily obscene production.” It still amazes me how truly shatteringly narrow-minded the average person is – and was – in the so-called modern age, and I’m sure it left Potter equally aghast. It was as if sex was the only thing that The Singing Detective was about, when in actual fact it was but one layer of many. Rather than showcase Potter as having a filthy mind, they were actually uncovering their own shortcomings.
I could waste time discussing the plot of the piece – which is basically the story of a writer, Philip Marlow (sic), suffering from the debilitating skin disease psoriatic arthropathy, conjuring up images of his childhood, one of his old detective stories (the eponymous ‘The Singing Detective’), all merging into his present, painkiller-addicted hallucinogenic condition as the ward becomes a hotbed for musical interludes. There is unquestionably a great deal of semi-autobiographical analysis in the piece, as there always is (Potter himself suffered from the same disease on and off), yet there is so much besides. It’s a meditation on childhood, how the events of childhood subconsciously shape us, and that’s just one level. It’s not easy viewing, indeed Marlow’s condition is often painful to behold, so much so that it turned off many delicate viewers. Yet it holds up a candle to life in a way that so few writers could dream of. When Whalley’s nurse murmurs “life is a cabaret, old chum…in here it is”, she hits the nail on the head, for Potter’s world is an escapist fantasy world. Even the idea of the detective alter ego is fanciful, a detective who sings songs in a band when he isn’t pacing the dark alleys. Each of the characters is quite superbly realised, right down the various characters on the ward, who almost seem to have come out of one of the hospital Carry On films, but who are much more real for being seen through Potter and Marlow’s sardonic eyes. The musical interludes, when they come, are delightfully appropriate, from the examining surgeons dancing to ‘Dem Bones’ to an evangelistic doctor leading the chorus in ‘Accentuate the Positive’ to those sung by the eponymous crooning gumshoe himself. And, best of all, a final use of Vera Lynn which arguably even tops that in Doctor Strangelove, a nostalgic summation of not just the series but Potter himself. Whole sequences stay burned in the memory, particularly those repeated thematically through the series – Carter standing waving sorrowfully on a railway platform, living scarecrows, the young Marlow up in a tree recalling the earlier Blue Remembered Hills, and the fishing out of a corpse under Hammersmith Bridge which metamorphosises into different women. All the performers are on the money, with Paterson wonderfully idiosyncratic as the psychiatrist, Carter as Marlow’s father, Malahide as a villain for all seasons and French as a doddering, nodding old patient all indelible. At the centre, however, Gambon, in not just his greatest performance but one of the greatest screen performances of the modern era, full of self-loathing and self-pity, yet quick-witted and charming. Not only will there never be another Dennis Potter, but we didn’t deserve the one we had. Am I right, or am I right?