The Singing Detective: Skin (1/6)

The Singing Detective: Heat (2/6)
The Singing Detective: Lovely Days (3/6)
YouTube: Skin (1/6), Heat (2/6), Lovely Days (3/6)
BBC Series

It’s a rare treat to see Dennis Potter’s classic musical drama, The Singing Detective, again. First broadcast by the BBC in 1986, it’s a window into the glory days of British television drama, when producers weren’t afraid to challenge their viewers with new ideas and unconventional genre mash-ups. I haven’t seen it since then, although there was a Hollywood film in 2003, starring Robert Downey Jr.. Perhaps you can’t know a book from its cover, but you’re certainly supposed to judge a film from its trailer. Based on that, I wouldn’t touch the vile thing with a 10 foot barge pole.

Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon), writer of pulp 1940s detective stories, has been suffering from a devastating and excruciatingly painful form of psoriasis. Now, after 25 years, the disease is in its final stages. He’s in a hospital ward, bed-ridden, and scarely able to move for the pain. His only unguilty pleasure is cigarettes, which he can’t reach without the help of Ali in the next bed, the only friend he has. But getting out of bed is problematical for Ali, who is recovering from a heart attack. Everyone else he loathes and some of them deserve it. Apart from Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley), who has the unenviable task of applying grease to the plaques covering his entire body. Nurse Mills is aching beautiful, and a cheerful, sympathetic young woman, who unwittingly elicits his other (guilty and embarrassed) pleasure when she says, “Sorry, but I shall have to lift your penis now, to grease around it.” Evidently this is the only part of his body that seems to be working properly.

Marlow escapes from the painful and humiliating world of the hospital ward by writing a detective story in his mind, complete with punctuation. Sometimes the conscious mental story morphs into vivid hallucinations. His alter ego, the singing detective (Gambon), looks every inch the Chandleresque detective in a trench coat and mustache, as he watches the naked body of a young woman being dragged out of the Thames. A sinister figure in a black overcoat, Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide), walks through the dark alleys of late 1940s London to a clip joint called Skinskapes, really a “rat-hole” whose denizens have something in common with Marlow’s fellow-patients. Mark has an undercover accomplice, masquerading as a busker, to whom he passes on his destination in the form of a note wrapped round a coin. At the club, where all the hostesses are dressed in short sailor suits and hats, he’s joined by HMS Amanda. Nurse Mills is the singer, and Marlow transfers her words about lifting his penis to the singer, at which point everybody rises in spontaneous applause. So we know what happened there. On the pretext of looking for the lavatory, Mark snoops around in the back, and discovers the busker’s body hanging in a cupboard with a knife through its chest. Amanda’s friend, HMS Sonia from Leningrad, joins them in a taxi ride to Amanda’s flat, to be dropped off somewhere in between. But as we see the body pulled into a boat and turned over, it looks very much like Sonia.

All this is episodic, interwoven with Marlow’s life in the hospital. The catalyst that drives him deeper into an understanding of his illness comes with an arrogant, supercilious, patronising consultant leading a gaggle of doctors and nurses on the daily round. Their inability to empathise with the patients, preferring to conduct themselves in impenetrable medicalese, brings Marlow to shameful tears. When he says, “I’d like to get out of it,” and repeats the sentiment in a string of different ways, but always using “it,” then it is clearly bigger than the disease.

A psychiatrist visits Marlowe with the question, “Do you think you have the right attitude towards your illness?” “Do you?” he shoots back irritated beyond measure by the question when there’s no hope of recovery. The psychiatrist suggests a Dr Gibbon who might be able to help, but Marlow sends him off with a flea in his ear.

It’s left to Ali to point out that this represents an escape from the ward, as he would like to do. And escape he does. Reaching out to offer Marlow a sweet, he has a heart attack and dies, the sweets scattering on the floor towards Marlow’s bed. Everyone on the ward is transfixed, listening to the flatline on the cardioscope as the doctors try to save Ali, then relaxing into a sort of terrible resignation.

Marlowe’s ordeal by guilt is not yet over. The doctor who accused him of putting Ali’s life at risk by getting his cigarettes gives him a dirty look. Then the nurses chide him for dropping sweets on the floor, assuming they’re his. Like a sin-eater, Marlowe lets Nurse Mills put one in his mouth and breaks down, saying through his tears, “They’re very nice these sweets, nurse, very nice indeed.”

But Marlow has broken through into a childhood memory of sitting in a treetop in the Forest of Dean, his younger self saying, “I’ll find out who done it.” There’s that it again. It’s going to be huge. And this on top of a brief flashback earlier on, with Marlow sitting there while his father calls out for him below.

This is emotionally powerful, intelligent, tough-minded drama, laced with caustic wit and superbly acted by an ensemble cast. The juxtaposition of cheerful musical numbers with Marlowe’s devastated physical and psychological reality throws it into sharp relief, as well as parodying the “keep your pecker up, old chap” flim-flam peddled by the medical profession.

I don’t know what happens next since I only have a general recollection of the series from 1986, so I’m delighted to be able to see it again. The song and dance number performed by the consultant and staff is so brilliant that I’m posting it here.

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