The Singing Detective is a visual array of thoughtfully constructed images and a jazzy mix of mid 20th century songs; sombre, seductive or bone-shaking boogie! Macabre musical, a signature touch for author Dennis Potter (Pennies from Heaven, Blackeyes).
Trapped in a hospital bed, author Phillip Marlow (Michael Gambon) retreats from his decay and humiliation with a rewrite of a past work, a cheap paperback steeped in plumes of cigarette smoke and dark corners, trench-coats and dames; the enigmatic crooner and gumshoe.
Through the early episodes we are drawn into the seedy underworld of the nervous, calculating Binney (Patrick Malahide) and the dark Russian escort found floating in the Thames by Hammersmith Bridge, punctuated with the reality check of Marlow’s existence. A hospital ward full of disinterested characters, except for the kind and beautiful nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) and the excruciating daily greasing of his hideous wounds. The narrative of the book becomes increasingly distant from a plot that is evolving into “a detective story about how you find out about yourself.” It is a long road too, taking six episodes of gripping television with a duration of 60-80 minutes each. I recommend one episode a night at most, to digest and to rest. Wait for it on a weekly rental.
The author Marlow is a tortured man, physically peeling away with a debilitating psoriasis. Emotionally, the skin peels away through a dialogue of layered intrigue and a visual style deeply rooted in film noir angles of shade and smoke. How I imagine a classic Bogart gumshoe if brought to life in faithful colour. Director John Amiel (Copycat, Entrapment) has been faithful to the imaginings of Dennis Potter.
Though scenes are beautifully structured, they do not always blend in with one another - but this is by design. The intrigue of the plot switches from the detective’s international mystery, to the author’s own intrigue, delivered as the ambitious Nicola (Janet Suzman), Marlow’s sometimes wife. Expect movement back and forth; revisit the menacing features of the young Marlow’s pious school mistress, a swaying nightclub or a vibrant bedside singalong. Or the peeling, bedridden body of the hero, paranoid and exposed.
Michael Gambon (Sleepy Hollow, The Insider, Harry Potter 3 and 4) is superb in the two divergent roles of the author Phillip Marlow (yes, that’s his name) and his crooning creation, Marlow the Singing Detective. Strong performances give continuity to the fast mix of scenes and sense. A cast of well credentialed stage actors transposes this play into a compelling mini-series, where occasional moments of dry humour are gratefully received.
Visually stunning and exceptionally well written, The Singing Detective is an eccentric blend of stylish mystery, and a psychological study of the mind that created it.
The detective was originally shot in 4:3, so there's no widescreen option available. The show would benefit from 16:9 but the quality is very good for a television production. Sound is very good stereo with no dropouts or synch issues at all. 5.1 is not available nor particularly necessary.
There are some nice extras available in this three disc set. They are appropriate and very interesting in context with the show itself. Scenes from the series are shown to illustrate the themes and motivations being discussed. It is almost worth watching the two biography pieces first as a way to comprehend the action.
If you want to get an intimate idea of what The Singing Detective is really about, watch the special features on disc three. Two short biographical pieces on the author Dennis Potter offer a strong notion of who he is and what themes drive his work. A strong case is made to suggest The Singing Detective is autobiographical, along with most of the rest of his critically acclaimed mini-series'. Potter denies it is anything other than laziness in setting a situation for the plot to exist within, but I’ll let you decide.
Be sure to watch the quick Points of view. However you accept the strange and stylish world of author Marlow and his namesake, The Singing Detective, you are not going to be alone.