“I’ll Find Out Things – I’ll Find Out Who Done it”

Ian Jones on The Singing Detective

First published October 2004

From out of an empty black screen, a solo accordion sounds a couple of chords. Then, a harmonica strikes up a wistful tune, a lilting accompaniment falls in behind, and the picture suddenly lights up to reveal the features of a gruff man buried deep in a trench coat, hat pulled down low, furtively leaning against a lamppost.

As title sequences go, it’s up there as one of the most blatant and simple of any TV drama. Yet in the space of a few seconds the viewer has been immersed in a world of shadows, suggestions and deeply evocative music: a world that occupies the heart of The Singing Detective from start to end. The mix of sounds and pictures – a nod to the story’s main setting, the 1940s, but also a nod to everyone’s image of the era, a time of smoky alleyways, dark dangerous nights and bittersweet melodies – welcomes you to a place you’re going to have to spend the best part of seven hours. But even with the intimations of suspense and unease, those reassuring motifs of the paperback thriller plus the strangely familiar tunes make it somewhere you want to stay. For a piece of television one of its cast later chose to describe as “a psychological case history told as a detective story and set to music”, that’s some going.

“Plenty of clues, no solutions”

The Singing Detective conforms to almost every possible permutation of your textbook triumph-out-of-adversity: feuding behind the scenes, last minute wholesale re-writes, stringent budget limits, a non-negotiable transmission time, and most famously a tirade of press and public controversy.

Its origins date back to early 1984 when Jonathan Powell, then head of BBC drama, commissioned Dennis Potter to write a new six-part serial to be aired in a primetime slot on BBC1. It was almost a full two years, however, before anything from what was provisionally titled “Smoke Rings” made it onto film. First Potter fell out with his long-standing producer and collaborator Kenith Trodd, deciding to strike up a new partnership with American executive Rick McCallum. Then he fell out with McCallum, preferring to develop the project single-handedly with noted BBC director Jon Amiel. Next, a reconciliation with Trodd was hastily engineered, but only through the arrival of an intermediary, John Harris. Shooting eventually began with no less than three producers ostensibly running proceedings, and a timetable of precisely 11 months from the first day of location work to the broadcast of episode one on 16 November 1986 at 9.05pm.

Such a strict delivery date had been imposed in order for The Singing Detective to take its place as the climax of what was intended to be a glittering sequence of BBC1 drama running every Sunday night throughout the autumn. This season of largely original work, which opened with Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer, was promoted not just as a highlight in its own right, but also as a means to restore some credibility to the Corporation in the eyes of the media and politicians. As OTT has already documented, 1986 was a dreadful year for the BBC. The organisation was buffeted by a host of crises, not all of its own making, most of which ended up being rebuked by an increasingly predatory board of governors and the Government.

So it was hoped that a run of high profile, much-lauded and self-evidently well-produced plays and serials would, to a degree, steady the ship and temporarily silence the ever-circling critics. The Singing Detective was deliberately scheduled as, in effect, the grand finale, and to be the talk of the nation in the weeks running up to Christmas.

It would certainly do that, but not in the manner its makers intended. Much of what went on to provoke anguished correspondence to Points of View and endless tabloid ire – earning Potter the hand-me-down nickname “Dirty Den” – not to mention plenty of highbrow condemnation and moral grandstanding, is commonplace on TV today. The profanity, the crudity, the blasphemy, the physicality – some people even objected to the make-up used to realise the skin disease suffered by the central character Philip Marlow – has passed, at least in a quantifiable sense, into convention.

Yet the way in which Potter chose to deploy these various ingredients within the fabric of The Singing Detective makes it a disturbing and compulsive creation to encounter even today. This is not so much because of the presence of bare bottoms, casual sex, swearing and prosthetics. What seems most shocking now is the complete rejection of linear storylines, the blurring of fantasy and reality, and the eerie ambience that infects every scene and sentence. “Plenty of clues, no solutions” is how the hospitalised Marlow pithily sums up his situation, a label that, as ultimately becomes clear to the viewer, applies equally to the world he has created for his fantasy alter ego, Philip Marlow Private Eye, AKA the self-styled “Singing Detective”. Two decades on, the serial is still unlike anything else ever made for British television. Quite simply, and with all the reservations such a distinction invites, it’s unique.

“An event of 20 years can follow yesterday”

The curiosity-shop nature of The Singing Detective is tangible in virtually every aspect of its production. Every episode, for instance, is a different length. This alone marks it out as a relic from another age – you’d certainly never get such an indulgence entertained today. But at the same time none of the separate editions feel unduly short or overlong. Events play themselves out as and how they choose.

Huge demands are made of the viewer, however, when it comes to grasping just what the hell is going on. Faces appear without introduction for a few seconds then don’t show up again properly for another couple of episodes. Brief events are glimpsed which similarly remain unexplained for ages. Elsewhere certain exchanges, images or simply sounds turn up again and again, frame for frame, without warning.

Neither Potter nor the director Jon Amiel offer many concessions in this regard during the opening episodes, other than to root everything in the personality of Marlow, played with alarming plausibility by Michael Gambon. The events of The Singing Detective spiral out from Marlow’s 1980s hospitalisation from a severe outbreak of psoriatic athropathy, a disease that flakes and peels his skin while buckling and seizing up all his joints (afflictions Potter suffered from for most of his adult life). The six episodes chart his journey from a gnarled, vindictive individual to a recovered, enlightened figure, happy for his estranged wife Nicola (Janet Suzman) to accompany him out of the ward. Everything that happens in-between, and which is not based in the hospital, is inside Marlow’s head.

Amiel usefully described the way this plays out on screen as similar to “a series of elevator shafts” shuttling our attention between different yet related worlds. First, there’s the real hospital in which Marlow is confined together with numerous patients with whom he engages, insults and irritates. These include the Steptoe and Son-esque Mr Hall (David Ryall) and Reginald (Gerard Horan), a bickering double act commenting on Marlow’s plight while continuing their own idle arguments. Reginald, it turns out, is reading a book called “The Singing Detective”, a novel which Marlow, an author by trade, penned long ago. This connects up with the second world: the book itself, realised in the same 1940s film noir-inspired style of the opening titles, with Marlow imagining himself to be the titular crooner dealing with a nasty case of Nazi spies and a seedy British agent named Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide).

Binney is the link with the third world: the real Marlow’s childhood in the Forest of Dean during the last stages of World War II, where a friend of his father (Jim Carter) called Raymond Binney had an affair with Marlow’s mother (Alison Steadman). Marlow, here aged 10 (played by Lyndon Davies), explores the rambling forest, dreams of growing up, then catches his mother having sex with Binney in a deserted copse. We see the boy confront his mother about this on a trip to visit her relatives in London, which ultimately leads to her committing suicide by throwing herself off Hammersmith Bridge. This event is duplicated in the second world (where the floating body becomes a prostitute) and also the fourth and final world, a bizarre hybrid of the other three, where characters past and present interact and torment Marlow. Here the floating body becomes Nicola.

Making sense of this quartet of intermingling times and places is part-fun, part-frustration, but once you’re used to the shifts and diversions untangling the threads is never a dull business. Both Marlow as writer and Potter as dramatist take it upon themselves to, as a hospital doctor jokes, “scatter clues all over the place.” Hence Patrick Malahide appears as three separate characters, all essentially the same person: Raymond Binney in the real 1945; Mark Binney in the fictional 1945; and Mark Finney in that surreal fourth world of 1985, a place where Marlow erroneously believes Nicola is conspiring to sell a “Singing Detective” script to a producer he names after and imagines to look like the man his mother slept with. As Marlow joins up the dots, everything begins to flow back to that troubled childhood. The young Philip is seen sitting high in the Forest of Dean treetops, and a camera repeatedly glides in as if from the sky to hear him intone “I’ll find out things – I’ll find out who done it.”

“The act of remembering an event, how an event has lodged in you, and how it begins to assemble a system of values” is what Potter, speaking to Alan Yentob during an edition of Arena in January 1987, identified as the chief concern of The Singing Detective. Only when Marlow has come to terms with his memories is he able to begin his recovery and face up to the real world. Potter’s celebration of the mind, and how “an event of 20 years can follow yesterday, rather than precede it,” holds something of a key to understanding just what is going on during the story. And for the viewer, the answer seems to always lie within the one element that opens every episode: a tune.

“Half-remembered songs from long ago”

The Singing Detective boasts a magical symmetry between music and action. To realise Dennis Potter’s carefully scripted instructions, Jon Amiel went through around 60 records held in the BBC library to, in his words, “cobble together” a score, compiling snippets and phrases to assemble a suitably atmospheric background. Even though this was partly out of expediency – there was no budget for an original soundtrack – these recurring pieces of wonderfully creepy mood music probably add more than any new commission would or could have done, not least in the way it helps to smear still further the borders between different times and places.

The incidental score also complements the dozens of actual period tunes that Potter asked to be included in each episode. Veteran screen composer Max Harris collaborated with Amiel on the selection and in some cases meticulous reproduction of all these 1940s standards, and it’s Harris, along with his Novelty Trio, who actually performs the haunting title theme, a song called Peg o’ My Heart. Harris’ role here as the interpreter and organiser of other people’s music is an ironic one, given the man remains probably most known for his own stabs at composition – a mixed bag ranging from the cacophony of noise that opened Doomwatch and the “look, this is comedy!” business that closed Porridge to the wry pastiches which accompanied Mind Your Language and The Strange World of Gurney Slade. Dealing with other people’s work brings Harris far more consistent success. The versions of songs specified in the script are impeccably chosen or, if needs be, faithfully impersonated to render them as close as possible to those likely to have been in fashion at the time.

It’s worth stating how important it was that Harris and Amiel could find suitably emblematic performances of these standards, given how Potter had woven them into the serial’s most memorable moments, either as support or centre stage. Picking up where he left off with Pennies From Heaven, Potter made his characters once again spontaneously break into song – or rather, mime along to an existing record – to both articulate and undercut a particular plot twist or emotion. He would do this yet again in the final part of his period “trilogy” Lipstick on Your Collar, but in a far more gimmicky fashion. There the songs seemed to be bolted onto the action in a somewhat arbitrary manner and done almost for the sake of it. Here they have a strangely natural feel, so that watching them makes for an unexpectedly startling experience.

“Half-remembered songs from long ago can sometimes tinkle and tingle at the edge of our sense like a dimly nagging tangle of nerves,” argued Potter in defence of this technique. “The faint ache which results is usually dismissed as one of the more cheap and useless forms of ‘nostalgia’ – a sort of ghost-pain left over from an amputated and younger limb. But the singing detective knows they can do more than this.” Most of these sequences happen in hospital, prompted by Marlow’s frequent lapses into what could either be delirium or plain boredom. At the one extreme are the huge set piece showbiz numbers, fantastically choreographed and brilliantly entertaining. Two in particular stand out: a rendition of Dem Bones in episode one with GPs, consultants and nurses hoofing their way around the ward, and Accentuate the Positive in episode four, where a poker-faced hospital choir find their hymn-singing suddenly turn into a snappy toe-tapping shuffle.

Both of these occur at or just after critical moments in the action: the former when we see Marlow at his most pain-wracked and insufferable, and the latter when we just begin to sense he could be groping towards recovery. If there’s one quality that shines out from all the facets of The Singing Detective, it’s timing. Here that timing results in songs blending with such peaks and troughs of emotion as to imprint a sensation – a palette of sounds and colours – in your memory. It’s one that lingers far beyond the closing credits.

“A sugar-spoonful of syncopation”

It’s not all high kicks and hubris. On other occasions we get a more muted blending of music and drama. Hospital patients are glimpsed mouthing along to an isolated verse or chorus, something that throws up unsettling combinations. For instance, the toothless patient George croons It Might as Well be Spring just after we’ve been introduced to the claustrophobic, wintry world of Marlow’s childhood home, and Mr Hall lapses into You Always Hurt the One you Love following Marlow’s turbulent game of word association with the hospital psychiatrist. “The trite sentiment too often turns out to be nearly true,” argued Potter with reference to this song. “It is yourself you love, and yourself that your memory injures. How else to explain the sudden dampness at the eye or the swift clutch at the heart just because a few banal lyrics are given a sugar-spoonful of syncopation.”

Later Paper Doll gets twisted into an upsetting predatory come-on when chanted by a group of soldiers at a young Philip and his mother inside a stuffy train compartment. His father is also glimpsed performing a variety of numbers in his local workingmen’s club, mostly of shamelessly unsubtle significance (Do I Worry? at the same time as his wife eyes up Raymond). Only once does Marlow himself take to song, in episode six when psychiatrist Dr Gibbon (Bill Paterson) has finally persuaded him to walk. By now you’ve got used to the cruel, if crude, juxtapositions, but it nevertheless hits home seeing Marlow proudly standing upright, unaided, and all the while reciting Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall (“… but too much is falling in mine …”).

If this wasn’t enough, still more musical ideas are layered onto the action, and of an increasingly isolated, fragmented kind. You get echoes of whispered tunes, tiny extracts of World War II favourites, and characters speaking simple scraps of lyrics sometimes just a couple of words long. The cumulative effect is such that when you reach the end of the final episode and We’ll Meet Again turns up over clips of scenes spooling right back to the start of the first episode, it’s so overwhelming (and not just because, as a viewer, the finishing post is in sight), this mawkish number manages to send a shiver up and down your spine. As Kenith Trodd potently observed, “the elaborate wrought bitter and iron of the singing detective’s twisted shape becomes as straight, clear and whole as Vera Lynn’s early voice.”

There’s one other tiny flourish that justifiably manages to stand out from the din. It’s a short chirpy melody lifted from the Duke Ellington jazz standard Rockin’ in Rhythm, and it always appears as the camera makes that glide over the treetops of the Forest of Dean. It’s another convenient motif, sure, but also a curiously affecting one. Each arrival on the soundtrack comes to resemble an overture to the latest wildly euphoric or desperately hurtful episode from the young Marlow’s life, and you know the story is about to take another sickening lurch forward.

The Singing Detective is something as much to be listened to as watched. With such a rich portfolio of music, largely pitched the right side of sentimentality, Amiel and Potter’s efforts to give sound equal status to vision in their drama are beyond doubt. Whether you think it works or not is left to you – the story’s concern is with “the songs you hear coming up the stair,” as Marlow tries to explain to Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley), “when you’re a child, when you’re supposed to be asleep – those songs.” A celebration of elements experienced at second-hand, caught up in reminiscence, is tantalisingly suggested as both the symptom and the cure for, well, the blues. And if that doesn’t do the trick, stirred up into the brew are rumbles of distant trains, the mournful bellow of a ship’s foghorn, a chorus of countryside birdsong, and even the crackles and scratches from the original 78s and 45s.

“When I grow up, I’m gonna be a detective”

It’s a tangled, mystical ambience to be sure, injecting the episodes with a substance perfectly summed up by Potter as “sweet and sharp and sad and funny.” But it only works thanks to the way it’s thrown into constant relief by the very real, direct performances of the cast. The efforts of all the principle actors have been rightly praised as faultless, and it’s because they put in such rounded contributions that all the frippery and mayhem around them never really gets out of control. One person, however, is often overlooked (not least by Trodd and Amiel in their retrospective musings on the serial), and that’s Lyndon Davies.

Child actors can, of course, be the curse of a drama series. They’re so often the one weak link, responsible for sending your suspension of disbelief crashing to earth. Perhaps their main fault is that, unlike their grown up counterparts, they usually let things down by being too bland. They’re not exceptionally bad, but they’re not terribly good either. Think of everyone from the numerous pre-pubescents in I, Claudius and teen companions in Doctor Who to Tess Thomson as Katie Fitzgerald in Cracker and Barclay Wright as the subject of Jake’s Progress: by no means bad performances, but devoutly unexceptional, and somehow never more than just plain average.

Lyndon Davies, however, delivers quite the reverse. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, more so once you know he’d never acted before, and not least because he has to do most of his important dialogue 200 feet up in the air. What he made of some of his more extreme scenes you can but wonder (having to repeatedly denounce his mum for “shagging” Binney, stand accused of defecating on his teacher’s desk, and run through a hospital ward past a 50-year-old version of himself), but there’s a way Davies manages to capture a child’s utter bewilderment and internalised pain at the world going wrong with just one look that almost breaks your heart. Rarely has the act of gazing out of a rain-flecked window of a steam train carriage looked so sad.

He gets one of the most poignant speeches in the whole piece, which he speaks to camera from his character’s favourite hiding place, the top of a massive tree in Potter’s beloved Forest of Dean:

When I grow up, I’m gonna be the first man to live forever and ever. ‘Cos in my opinion, you don’t have to die. Not unless you want to. When I grow up, I’m gonna leave the light on all night, no matter bloody what. I’m gonna have books – on shelves mind – shelves, just for books. And when I grow up, I’m gonna have an old tin of evaporated milk, and an old tin of peaches. Tell thou what, when I grow up, everything, everything will be all right. Won’t it? Won’t it God, eh? Thou like’s me a bit, doesn’t thou?

He even gets the very last word, interrupting Vera Lynn to remind us: “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a detective.” Without the na├»ve inquisitiveness and mournful stoicism that Davies brings to Potter’s cavalcade of dreamscapes and brutality, the end result would surely have been much the poorer.

When Peg o’ My Heart returns for the last time at the conclusion to episode six, it’s with the same delicate melancholy as ever, but now imbued with the fresh sense of resolution. The Singing Detective‘s final touch of greatness is its happy ending. For once Potter spares the viewer any last minute finger-pointing or moralising, and simply presents Marlow’s triumphant exit down the hospital corridor with Nicola. After so much grief and betrayal it’s an unashamedly moving moment. It’s also Potter’s most optimistic statement, certainly amongst all his well-known TV work, thanks primarily to his decision to spare us any sudden torrent of self-righteousness that blemishes so many of his other endeavours.

What we’ve come to see is, as Potter himself summed up to Melvyn Bragg during his famous farewell interview, “a man pick up his bed and walk.” And fittingly, it’s through music that this simple, inspirational message is echoed one last time: Vera Lynn’s parting salutation, “Let’s say goodbye with a smile.”