Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) writer of pulp detective stories, is unwillingly digging deeper into the psychological reasons for his crippling psoriasis, and finding all sorts of painful memories. Coincidentally, as no doubt his conscious persona would insist, the disease has retreated from the terminal phase he was in at the end of last week’s episode. He’s able to turn his head almost normally, even if he has to be tricked into it by Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson) pacing about behind his back and saying, “You know about bats?” to elicit an angry response. It’s in the context of Gibbon pointing out the scary creatures a man hiding from life inside his illness might be expected to find. Marlow can also now reach over to the bedside table pick up his cigarettes, fumble one into his mouth, and light it.
Marlow is beginning to piece the puzzle together in those three levels of his psyche that are working on finding out whodunnit. Each one is bleeding into the others and creating mental feedback loops, so he jumps from state to state, learning a little more each time.
His memories of childhood, when was 10 and everything changed, have taken on a threatening sexual overcast. When his mum (Alison Steadman) leaves his dad (Jim Carter), and takes Philip with her, it’s in a steam train whistling and pumping smoke, diving through tunnels. The carriage is full of lecherous soldiery, ogling her legs and a fringe of white, exposed slip. His mum hides behind a newspaper that talks of the imminent end of the war, refusing to wave goodbye, as Philip does from the window, until his dad is lost to sight. He can’t understand why they’re leaving or why he can’t come with them. Philip blames himself: “Summat’s wrong. Summat’s bloody wrong, mind…Is it my fault? Have I done it again?”
But there are are deeper memories that make this train journey so hellish. He has seen his mother sloping off into the woods to have sex with Raymond, another villager, and followed them to watch. He has learned cruelty along with the distress, smashing a ladybird to pulp with the words, “Can’t abide things that creep and crawl.” And he’s seen his mother crying with the guilt she feels, wondering whether to get his dad to help.
This Raymond is an utter bastard, singing duets in the working men’s club with his dad, and touching his mum’s shoulder with an easy familiarity as she plays the piano. The audience know what’s going on, turning to laugh mockingly at him as he replays the scene in his mind. Only his dad hasn’t worked it out. Though perhaps he has.
It shouldn’t be like this. The schoolteacher keeps them up to date with the triumphal progress of the war, and promises a future most are too young to remember – lights on everywhere at night, church bells, fireworks and a glorious tomorrow. She gets them to sing, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow,” because now, finally, after 6 years of war and privation, it will be.
But not for Philip, trapped in a railway carriage with his mum being leered at by the soldiers, and lashing out at the one who offers her a handkerchief as she breaks down in tears. So it’s not surprising that in his confusion he threatens to tell his dad and “the man in the woods.” And not surprising that after a visit to his grandparents’ house in London, where his mum sings under her breath to a record of Lili Marleen, that he runs away from her in the Tube.
Mrs Marlow also finds her way into his inner detective story as an NKVD spy masquerading as a blonde prostitute at Skinskapes. She’s watching the outside of Mark Binney’s (Patrick Malahide) flat by the river, where the Singing Detective is reporting a lack of progress – vamping, as in tooling around with an incidental tune until the real song starts. He spots Lili outside and confronts Binney with the accusation that he earns his money by helping influential Nazis evade capture. Binney pays him off and tells him to get out. Incidentally, Raymond and Binney are played by the same actor, a measure of Marlow’s subconscious contempt for the man.
When Lili tries to speak to the Singing Detective outside the flat, he tells her not follow and meet him later, knowing they will be watched. But she does follow, and is shot by the two gansgters who work for Skinskapes, telling him before dying that the club is a front for hiding Nazi rocket engineers. Lili becomes Mrs Marlow for a moment, brushing his face with her hand as if he were the young Philip. The Singing Detective/Marlow is moved to rage and a determination to find out who’s responsible, not just for the murder but for his own mental and physical predicament. “I’ll get you, whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are,” he says, “I’ll get you!”
Back on the ward, Marlow has killed another patient. Not really, but as he says to Nurse Mills, “There’s a curse on that bed.” The old man who has taken Ali’s place wants Marlow to give him a cigarette. He refuses because he can’t throw and can’t get out of bed. The old man starts to reminisce about buying German girls for sex during the war for two cigarettes. He gets over-excited and has a heart attack, while Marlow, disgusted, taunts him. Then he realizes what’s actually happening and calls for help. The noise of the respirator, as the nurses try to revive the old man behind the closed curtains, are conflated in his mind with the sound of his mum and Raymond having sex in the woods.
Then it’s time for another greasing with Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley), and Marlow disgraces himself again when she lifts his penis, despite trying to think of a long list of boring 80s topics to take his mind off it. Strangely enough, there was one that might be making a comeback – “yomping across the Falklands.” We can only hope not. Marlowe’s final recourse is to the detective story, but unfortunately the Singing Detective walks past the portrait of his half-naked wife on Binney’s staircase. All his efforts at self-control are to no avail and Nurse Mills is disappointed in him.
So Marlow is getting there, with the the help of Dr Gibbon, Nurse Mills, and his wife, Nicola (Janet Suzman). Despite Marlow denying the fact of their marriage, she is apparently working behind the scenes to try to get him a side ward and someone to take dictation, so he can continue writing the detective story of his own life. One measure of his improvement is that Dr Gibbon, who he despised to begin with, now reminds him only half-cynically of his old schoolteacher. The one who led the class in singing, “It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow.”