Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) suffers from an extreme and debilitating form of psoriasis. Dennis Potter’s classic musical drama, The Singing Detective, is a psychological detective story, hot on the trail for clues to what’s really under Marlow’s skin. They are, of course, to be found hidden in the detective story he’s obsessively creating within his own mind. And in the hallucinations and memories of his childhood in the Forest of Dean, all these sources feeding on each other to ramp up the revelations he’s confronted with.
Marlow’s alter ego within the detective story is the Singing Detective, a thoroughly Chandleresque character in trench coat and mustache. He really is a singer, fronting a band in a dance hall, as well as being a detective. You can see where he gets it from, too, as the flashbacks of his father singing at a working man’s club show. He is also thoroughly misogynistic, a point raised by the psychiatrist, Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson), who Marlow reluctantly agrees to see. His pretense is that it gets him off the ward. Gibbon looks for and finds the clues in Marlow’s book, The Singing Detective, while Marlow’s own internal novelistic psycho-drama reveals them in plenty.
It turns out that when Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) got into the taxi last week with HMS Amanda and HMS Sonia from Leningrad, it was actually Sonia who completed the journey to Binney’s flat. Not surprisingly, as Marlow’s creation, Binney is equally misogynistic, treating her with contempt, which she returns with interest. Insisting on the money up-front, she rips it up, stuffs it in her mouth, and spits it on the floor at his feet. Only then does she go to bed with him. As soon as he’s finished, Binney gets out of bed to light a Groucho Marx size cigar, suggesting that Marlow doesn’t much like sex, either, as Dr Gibbon also surmises from the novel.
It’s then that he notices two men in trench coats, obvious gangster types, lurking outside and watching his window. They were at Skinscapes, as well, and the same actors play a pair of furtive characters in the flashback scene at the working men’s club. Sonia is immediately alarmed and tries to get away, fueling Binney’s suspicions. He’s been trying to find out what she really wants all evening and suspects her to be an NKVD agent, while he was in the Intelligence Corps during the war. When Binney tries to stop her leaving, she head-buts him, making his nose bleed, and escapes.
Binney then hires the Singing Detective, because when Sonia goes missing, he immediately comes under suspicion. Here’s where the internal novel’s time frame is narrowed down to a few months after the end of the war, 1945 or early 1946. The Singing Detective is suspicious of his client, and so he should, since he/it are another devious part of his personality with secrets of their own. Binney is then visited by the two gangsters, who tell him the police have discovered Sonia’s body and they really need to talk.
Marlow’s memories, and the reality of his life on the ward are interleaved with scenes from the internal novel, making the sometimes explosive connections between more powerful. He returns to the Forest of Dean as an intelligent 10 year old boy, torn between the comfortable traditions of his working class father and the social aspirations of his middle class mother. It doesn’t help that they live with his grandparents – they think she’s a snob, she thinks they’re not good enough. In the scene around table, when he’s late for tea, you could cut the atmosphere with a bread knife. Philip’s grandmother orders his mother out of the house after unforgivable words are spoken. Here’s one well-spring of the guilt that’s under the skin of his psoriasis. He says to himself, “It’s me, me, it’s all my doing.”
So poor Philip is left to cleave desperately to his father’s working class culture and strive to be the cleverest boy in school to please his mother. At the working men’s club, his father sings It Might As Well Be Spring, accompanied on the piano by his mother. Everyone is moved, rapt with the emotion roused by the song. The bond between father and son is strong at that point. Then his mother plays a tinkly classical piece and the spell over the audience is broken. Father and son exchange guilty, rueful glances.
But young Philip isn’t liked by his contemporaries. A couple having sex in the forest see him watching and jeeringly invite him to join in. As he runs away, the other children emerge from the underbrush like avenging spirits and taunt him with “Clever Dick, clever dick, makes me sick.” It looks like a trap, perhaps knowing Philip’s curiosity.
Ali’s replacement in the bed next to Marlow’s is an elderly man sliding into Alzheimer’s, gratefully deposited by his wife, after what sounds like a history of physical abuse. So he has no friend on the ward except Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley).
Marlow is also getting physically worse, his temperature rising dangerously. He has a flashback to the working men’s club, listening to his father trilling a cuckoo’s song. He’s very happy, sitting at a table in the back of the hall with his crisps and a drink. But he’s unable to applaud because suddenly it’s Marlow now, the patient with arthritic fists for hands. Worse still, a bystander is telling him that he never appreciated his father when he was alive. The revelation that his father is dead devastates Marlow in this in between world of memory and dream. The hall becomes an empty, abandoned hut with only his table there at the back. And Marlow realizes his loss and guilt: “I have so much to say to him. I need to speak to him very badly. But it’s too late. He can’t be dead, not my dad.”
He wakes up barely able to speak, with the disease “at its absolute peak now. It’s 100%.” But Potter’s too good a writer to let us go with something that can construed as sentimentality. Marlow’s wife (Janet Suzman) arrives, the very wife that he denied having to Dr Gibbon. During the last scene in the internal novel, the gangsters make leering remarks about a portrait on Binney’s wall. It’s of a woman, naked from the waist up, and they call her a “slut.” Nicola is that woman brought to life. She’s bitter and squeamish, shying away from his ruined body in the bed, only really there to speak to the doctors. Instead she leaves, unwilling to endure his anger. But Marlow knows she’s there, and calls out for her, “Farewell my lovely…come back you bitch.” Then he launches into a torrent of vile abuse at her departing back as the other visitors gape in shock at the outburst.
So this is the crisis. Marlow has nowhere to go but into himself to find a way out.