The Singing Detective is Dennis Potter’s 1986 TV series (on which the Robert Downey Jr film was based), which he made after Pennies from Heaven. Philip Marlow, played by Michael Gambon with triumphant skill, is a long-term patient hospitalized for a painful and unsightly skin condition. Marlow’s exterior is not the only thing that ails him, though. He is prone to slipping away into his imagination where he is mentally writing the next in his series of mystery novels. He can therefore, be spotted talking to himself for hours on end, as well as screaming vapid accusations when triggered by the appearance of his wife Nicola, whose history we are not privy to. This is all set to a bleak tone, as Marlow is aware–while his ward-fellows die one by one–that none of them are expected to leave the hospital alive.
This is just one of many layers of the story–layers that will be set up independently of each other but wind up wrapping around each other in an almost indistinguishable braid. The second layer is, of course, the aforementioned novel playing out in Marlow’s mind. His novels star a “singing detective,” a private investigator who moonlights as a lounge singer, also played by Michael Gambon. The detective is on the tail of two murderous lackies playing the cliche smart-small-one/big-dumb-one routine, as well as trying to understand the murder of a prostitute who was pulled out of the river. As Marlow’s real life progresses, the story changes.
The third layer is flashbacks to his childhood. Episode by episode, we begin to understand each piece of adult Marlow’s psychosis. We understand that the hospital psychiatrist’s diagnoses of Marlow’s disgust with sex traces back to his mother’s behavior after she split from his father. His father was a singer, and Marlow’s singing detective is a coping method for having never gotten to say his appreciation while his father was alive. We find deep-rooted guilt over the death of a classmate, for which he (perhaps unfairly) blames himself. We find traces of all of these things in Marlow’s fictional tale, which makes one wonder how much of writers’ lives end up in their work unintentionally.
Finally, Marlow’s imagination really begins to fracture when his wife tells him one of his novels is optioned for a Hollywood film. In his head, he creates an entire backstory where she is in congress with the baddie of his detective story, and they plan to rip Marlow off and steal all the money. But, this is Marlow’s story and he won’t let his wife get away with it, so the baddie backstabs her and keeps it all for himself.
I have not mentioned a key element to this series, which is, like Pennies From Heaven, the inlaid song-and-dance numbers. Out of nowhere, whether in the hospital, the flashback, or the fictional stories, Marlow’s brain dips into old-time songs and everyone around him, sometimes himself included, gets up and dances, mouthing along to the words of the song, no matter how ridiculous they may look. It doesn’t fit the mood at all, but somehow it breaks the bleakness appropriately while accurately demonstrating Marlow’s over-heated brain and lounge-singer complex.
In this review, I cannot possibly express the complexity of the psychology and depth of the emotions (not to mention plot structure) in this one-of-a-kind show. You may not enjoy it the whole time because of the darkness it may stir in your mind, but in terms of sheer quality, you will not find anything better.