The Singing Detective: Skin (1/6)
The Singing Detective: Heat (2/6)
The Singing Detective: Lovely Days (3/6)
The Singing Detective: Clues (4/6)
The Singing Detective: Pitter Patter (5/6)
YouTube: Skin (1/6), Heat (2/6), Lovely Days (3/6), Clues (4/6), Pitter Patter (5/6), Who Done It (6/6)
In last week’s episode, Philip Marlow (Michael Gambon) was closing in on the root causes of his psoriasis, with the help of his alter ago, the Singing Detective, a character from both his published novel of the same name, and a narrative constructed in his own mind. The childhood memories are getting deeper and more detailed.
He signs over the option for a screenplay of the The Singing Detective to Mark Finney’s (Patrick Malahide) production company, as a result of Nicola’s (Janet Suzman) seductive blandishments. But Marlow is deeply suspicious, creating a parallel mental narrative in which Nicola and Finney are lovers, plotting to conceal their ownership of the screenplay he wrote 10 years before, and for which Finney has claimed authorship. His revenge is to replace Sonia’s body, recovered from the Thames, with Nicola’s.
Marlow remembers an incident in Earls Court tube station, when his mum (Alison Steadman) discovers he already has psoriasis on his elbow, a result presumably of the mental anguish of watching her have sex with Raymond Binney (Patrick Malahide) in the woods, and his parent’s separation. So when he keeps talking about his dad (Jim Carter) joining them in London, she snaps and says it’s not going to happen. “Is it because of what that bloke did to you in the woods…Raymond Binney, Mark’s dad…Shagging!” And he runs away from her into the station, and along the ward where the adult Marlow can clearly see him.
That traumatic event could explain why, in his distress, he shits on the schoolteacher’s desk and blames Mark Binney, Raymond’s son. The obvious scapegoat. And that makes Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) the perfect villain in The Singing Detective, a cover-up for Marlow’s own guilt, projected onto a fictional character.
By facing these memories, he becomes more powerful in his own narrative. The two Intelligence thugs fail to kill the Singing Detective at the Laguna, and he chases them off. They show up on the ward, but Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) confronts them, sends them packing, so they end up running through the Forest of Dean, with no clue about what they’re doing there or what their role is in the story. Characters in search of an author. “Are we going to be able to see the forest for the trees?” says the short rat-like one. “Here, I don’t think so,” replies the tall, fat one.
The last episode pulls it all together beautifully, ending with a spectacular finale that’s completely in keeping with a detective novel. It starts with breakthrough. Marlow tells Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson) about returning to the Forest of Dean on the train after his mother commits suicide by jumping into the Thames – another element of The Singing Detective that owes its origin to Marlow’s biography. Although the body in the Thames becomes successively Sonia, Nicola, and finally his mum’s. The scarecrows, as they were on the journey to London, are threatening, and have his schoolteachers’s face. “She beat him, the poor boy. She beat him. Vicious bitch!”
He confesses to framing Mark Binney for the shitting on the schoolteacher’s desk, adding a few more damning details. A girl claimed to see Binney going back into the school and hear him talk about doing it. And most of the class piggyback on this lie until Binney, who is bit slow, believes it himself. Retelling the story in later years, Marlow finds out that Binney is now in an asylum. Marlow breaks down in tearful remorse for what he’s done. Dr Gibbon strikes while patient is penitent. “Stand up!…It’s now or never.” And Marlow stands up.
You can tell it’s a weight off his shoulders, because back in the ward he cheerfully greets everybody and insists on getting onto the bed under his own steam. “Yippee!”
There’s more to come. He imagines himself as an observer at Mark Finney’s flat as he and Nicola celebrate. The screenplay has been taken up by Hollywood, but Nicola is not cast in the film, the reason for her involvement with Finney. He doesn’t care. “Honey, don’t you think you’re just a teeny bit too old now?” Nicola’s fury is first directed at Finney. “You’re a killer!” Then she turns to look at Marlow. “You’re rotten with your own bile. You use your illness as a weapon against other people and as an excuse for not being properly human. You disgust me.”
The two Intelligence thugs are now back on Marlow’s track, as they discover the flat in a shambles, with Finney/Binney on the floor with a bread knife through his throat. They go off in search of Marlow, complaining bitterly that “we’re padding, like a couple of bleeding sofas!”
Marlow is back in the memory of meeting his dad at the station and walking home. His dad says, “I love you, Philip,” but Philip thinks the scarecrows will punish him for such confessions of love. He hides in a tree, until his dad trudges off, head down and emotionally devastated at this double betrayal, finally giving vent to wild cry of grief. Philip runs up to him and they walk off holding hands.
Marlow’s guilt at Nicola’s imagined words is kicked up to 11, when a policeman visits the ward to tell of Finney’s murder, Nicola’s arrest, and her subsequent suicide by jumping into the Thames. He wakes up, realising it’s a dream. “Nicola isn’t in the river!” So perhaps that whole affair between Nicola and Finny has just been another fiction.
By now, Marlow is getting up a pretty good head of steam, remembering more and more, and integrating his fantasies with reality. When he walks unaided down the ward, imagining Nicola there (“Hold onto me”) and telling him it’s not just about the illness. “Isn’t it about time you climbed down out of your tree?” Nurse Mills is furious because he’s doing too much too soon. That’s when our Intelligence thugs turn up to help put him back to bed, and it’s the beginning of the final breakthrough.
They want to know who they are – in other words, for Marlow to locate them in his psyche and do something with them. So they torture him – force his hands open, twist his feet, in a way that mimics cruel-to-be-kind physical therapy. Lurking outside the ward is the Singing Detective, who comes to his rescue, gun blazing. It’s a psychological shootout. At first, the patients and staff are oblivious to what’s going on. Then they start getting realistically shot until the whole ward is a mass crime scene. The Singing Detective has killed the short, mean thug, and the tall, fat one is standing by Marlow’s bed and begging for mercy. The Singing Detective does not kill him. Instead he puts a bullet through Marlow’s forehead. “That was one sick fellow from way back when, and I think I’m man enough to tie my own shoelaces now.” Absolutely brilliant.
Next day, as he promised himself , Marlow walks out with his arm round Nicola. And it closes with young Philip up in his tree in the Forest of Dean, saying, “When I grow up, I be going to be a detective.”
So, happy ever after-ish. Maybe. But Marlow has reintegrated his personality round its strongest element, while lancing his repressed memories, properly expressing his guilt, and finding a new appreciation of other people. A superb psychological drama.