The Singing Detective – Murdering Songs, Reviving Television
By Alex Neilson
– This is a part of Favorite People, an open club for passive/aggressive guest bloggers, who transmit inspiration, knowledge and passion for music. Alex Neilson’s band Trembling Bells (support/like) just released “The Marble Downs” with Bonnie Prince Billy. Neilson has been playing with Current 93, Jandek, Baby Dee, Bonnie Prince Billy, Six Organs Of Admittance on a regular basis.
The Singing Detective – Murdering Songs, Reviving Television (1986)
“I feel that people are not dealing with the essential loneliness, alienation, sexual imperiousness, the maleness of manipulation, the commercial manipulation of our sexual feelings….. I’d like to think of something that did show that you can be complex and you can involve the entire range of your emotions in a TV drama”. (Dennis Potter, Desert Island Discs, 1988)
BBC 4 has continued its one-station crusade to counteract the increasing cultural vacuity that has beset television standards for the past decade or so. Like a lone ream of bog roll in a cesspit of Miltonic proportions, BBC 4 routinely shows programs on such aneurysm-inducing subjects as the nature of infinity or a detailed appraisal of Britain’s canal systems (and that’s just on a Saturday night). But the series that has really caught my imagination is its rerun of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (an English tv-series in six episodes aired in 1986, ed.).
A grinding psychological examination
The Singing Detective is the pinnacle of Potter’s dramatic achievements and combines many of his key themes- interconnected narrative strands, a merging of the parochial and the worldly, repressed sexuality festering like a boil at bursting point, the author using the actors as ventriloquist’s dummies to announce and obfuscate his own biographical desires in games of psychological hide and seek. Props to BBC1 for first airing it in 1986, but it is a measure of how far terrestrial television has slumped into shrieking, populist candy floss that it’s inconceivable it would ever broadcast anything quite so cutting edge again (one imagines that E4 is the food additive the presenters have gorged on that makes them so strainingly cretinous).
The Singing Detective is intelligent, violent, funny, sentimental and splenetic in equal measure. In my mind it’s an English equivalent to the first season of Twin Peaks in terms of a grinding psychological examination, black humor, an aficionados ear for vintage music and graphic sexual violence all offset by genuinely surreal interludes. By its second series Twin Peaks had dulled its edges by gaining a greater understanding of its innovations and glossing them, while contriving story lines that made El Dorado seem plausible. The Singing Detective feels all the more potent for compacting it’s lifespan into six episodes.
You’re left to forage for clues from the three narrative threads, all revolving around the lead protagonist, Philip Marlow. These involve him consigned to a hospital bed with a debilitating skin condition, flashbacks to his boyhood in rural Gloucestershire and the faux-noir thriller of The Singing Detective spilling out of his head. From here, the narratives lurch between reminiscence and hallucination until they collapse into the present during the final couple of episodes where Marlow is revealed as the omnipotent puppet master, manipulating each character with psychic strings. To get even more meta-textual on our asses, a fellow hospital patient called Reginald is reading a book called The Singing Detective and commenting on how compelling but baffling the story is. It’s like a cross between Twin Peaks and Curb Your Enthusiasm, directed by Harold Pinter.
Of course, behind Marlow’s own diviners hand is Dennis Potter, who grew up in the Forest of Dean and suffered from the same illness. Potter sheds some light on the connectedness of his psoriasis and his sensibilities in an interview;
“There are characteristics in this condition of mine which match up with my deeper impulses and therefore it’s dangerous….I prefer to live in the point of tension. These things together make the illness seem an ally of certain things in me”.
So his psoriasis is experienced as a physical manifestation of certain sordid aesthetic/ psychological predilections and his work becomes a form of self analysis, to which end The Singing Detective is the most thrillingly demonstrative. This makes the filtering of voices in an attempt to identify the real author’s real voice more and more problematic. Is the misogyny from a deeply felt place or an examination of an idea? Does it matter if the results are this rewardingly inscrutable?
The hallucinating croon of The Singing Detective
One thing that is clear is Potter’s profound appreciation for old time crooner music. The impregnable innocence of the music of that era is set in stark contrast to the unquenchable menace that writhes beneath the surface of the drama. This is another Lynchian device but it draws on a music that is peculiarly English and, in another context, too easy to dismiss as schmoltz. Here the songs offer contour to the intensity of the action without being deployed merely for the sake of irony. They are used as sensory triggers to bridge the narrative strands, allowing Marlow to spool back to his childhood by placing a song in his father’s mouth or having his detective alter ego croon one in a nightclub.
They are sometimes used in the most amazing set pieces, as Marlow attempts to short circuit the monotonous indignity of his hospital stay by hallucinating elaborately choreographed dance routines involving the doctors miming to songs like Dem Bones and Accentuate the Positives. These are both light relief and knuckle gnawingly uncomfortable as it’s the kind of unashamedly exuberant performance you would only enact in your front room with the curtains closed. Potter re-emphasizes, not only the non-ironic, but the transcendental potential of this music in an interview;
“The songs were of a direct line of decent from Psalms and they were saying, no matter how cheap, banal, syrupy or syncopated, that the world is other than it is. The world is better than it is.”
But Potter also unpicks the innocence of the songs by having Marlow repeat certain lyrics until the meaning is recalibrated from the commonplace to the cruel and controlling. From the bondage of his sick bed, language and fantasy become the only currency he has- an impotent despot whose omniscience seems absurd because of the severity of his condition but accrues an unnerving significance as the narrative weaves together and it’s clear he’s authorizing all the action.
The music and multiple plot layers provide opportunity for Potter to flex many different modes of expression- from the innocent vernacular of his West Country-upbringing, to the cockney vulgarities of the other patients, to the hard boiled jive of his singing detective, to some genuinely beautiful poetic passages. The nastiness is genuine. The sentimentality is genuine. This is what makes it so compelling on an intelligent structural basis and on a deeply human level.
From the first episode, Marlow had travelled from a place of naked pain and immobility- sifting through the debris of his memories and fantasies. It’s only when he’s mediated the two is he able to reconcile with the present, shed his Job-like affliction and walk out of the hospital as the Singing Detective, with Reginald reading aloud the final directions.
As Potter says himself;
“I wanted to make the whole thing a detective story, but a detective story about how you find out about yourself. So you’ve got this superfluity of clues and very few solutions, or maybe no solutions. But the very act of garnering the clues and remembering, not merely an event, but how that event has lodged in you and affected the way you see things, begins to assemble a set of values.”