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Singing Detective

The Singing Detective

3.4 5
Director: Jon Amiel

Cast: Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Janet Suzman


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With the notable exception of Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective was the best-known TV miniseries project of the iconoclastic, darkly humored Dennis Potter. A reworking of Potter's first novel Hide and Seek, the six-part series starred Michael Gambon as crime novelist Philip E. Marlow. Suffering from a hellish skin-and-nerve disease called


With the notable exception of Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective was the best-known TV miniseries project of the iconoclastic, darkly humored Dennis Potter. A reworking of Potter's first novel Hide and Seek, the six-part series starred Michael Gambon as crime novelist Philip E. Marlow. Suffering from a hellish skin-and-nerve disease called psoriatic arthroparthy (a painful infliction which ultimately killed the real-life Potter), Marlow was confined to a hospital bed, where under the influence of numerous prescription drugs he began to imagine himself as the hard-boiled hero of his latest detective novel. While trying to solve a difficult case, Marlow continually drifted backward in time to his childhood in the Forest of Dean, occasionally bursting into song to express his emotions. As fantasy and reality merged into one, Marlow was forced into a tortuous session of self-analysis and personal discovery. Virtually everyone in the cast was seen in double and triple roles, including nominal leading ladies Alison Steadman and Joanne Whalley (aka Joanne Whalley-Kilmer). The series earned two BAFTA awards (the British equivalent of the Emmys), one for Best Actor to Michael Gambon. After its initial BBC1 run from November 16, to December 21, 1986, The Singing Detective was shown in the United States via public and cable television, where it picked up another award, the prestigious Peabody, in 1989.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble - Karen Backstein
To call the late Dennis Potter a brilliant scriptwriter understates his amazing accomplishments: He completely redefined television, opening up imaginative possibilities beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Potter's sometimes hallucinatory and always multileveled stories fluidly meshed fantasy and reality, and The Singing Detective is the richest and most profound of them all. This visually stylish six-part series focuses on the memories, writings, and feverish deliriums of noir novelist Philip Marlowe, played by the astonishing Michael Gambon. Suffering from the debilitating skin disease psoriasis (which plagued Potter himself) and stuck in a joyless hospital ward with a cast of strange characters, he loses himself in remembrances of his troubled boyhood and caustic marriage, as well as in an elaborate, highly cinematic detective tale starring himself as a singing P.I. As usual in Potter's work, characters lip-synch to popular songs from the '30s and '40s that comment ironically on the action. In addition to Gambon, Alison Steadman, Janet Suzman, Patrick Malahide, Bill Patterson, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, and Imelda Staunton deliver fine performances in this absorbing, disturbing, and beautiful television drama.
All Movie Guide - Karl Williams
Sometimes impenetrable, often heartbreaking, The Singing Detective (1986) was one of the finest programs ever produced for television (the six-hour BBC miniseries was released theatrically in the United States). It and another British television miniseres, Pennies From Heaven (1978), are considered the masterworks of writer Dennis Potter, who brought his obsessions with the era of the 1930s and '40s to life in Brechtian style, creating characters tortured by their painful pasts and grim presents who often broke, paradoxically, into joyous singing and dancing to the catchy, sunny popular songs of the time. Michael Gambon, delivering a nuanced, acerbic performance, stars as the crime novel writer Philip E. Marlow, suffering from psoriasis so acute that he cannot lift a pen and is confined to a hospital where he nevertheless attempts to mentally work on a screenplay version of his most successful book, "The Singing Detective." Marlow is in such enormous pain, however, that his ruminations become hallucinogenic daydreams, blurring the line between his fictional story, his real-life childhood, his predilection for pop music of the Great Depression and World War II periods, and his hospital stay. The blending of these preoccupations leads to characters from his book wandering into his ward, and events from his novel ending up as memories from his past (or is the other way around?). Like most of Potter's work, The Singing Detective is semi-autobiographical (it is also a loose reworking of his first novel, 1973's Hide and Seek). Like Marlow, Potter suffered from acute psoriasis that left him occasionally isolated and unable to work, or to even lift a pen. It seems little coincidence, then, that Potter's fictional counterparts were often miserably confined in some way or secluded from society. Potter is never quite that easy to understand, though: his isolated heroes are also manifestations of the writer's recurring, larger theme of man bound by the decaying physical, but soaring in his mind and spirit, through song and dance, verbal badinage, or the imagination. Though the complexity of the story's elliptical structure and its alternately cynical and sentimental tone would have perplexed many directors, Jon Amiel mastered Potter's material, rendering a work of real depth and lack of pandering, something rarely found on any screen, large or small.

Product Details

Release Date:
Original Release:
Bbc Warner

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Michael Gambon Philip Marlow
Patrick Malahide Mark Binney / Finney / Raymond
Janet Suzman Nicola
Alison Steadman Lili,Mrs. Marlow
Jim Carter Mr. Marlow
Bill Paterson Dr. Gibbon
Joanne Whalley Nurse Mills
Imelda Staunton Nurse White
David Ryall Mr. Hall
Gerard Horan Reginald
Leslie French Mr. Tomkey
Ron Cook First Mysterious Man
George Rossi Second Mysterious Man
Kate McKenzie Sonia
David Thewlis Second Soldier
Niven Boyd Soldier

Technical Credits
Jon Amiel Director
John Harris Producer
Rick McCallum Executive Producer
Dennis Potter Screenwriter
Kenith Trodd Producer
Ken Westbury Cinematographer

Customer Reviews

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The Singing Detective 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
StevenJay More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely brilliant work of drama -- it works on so many levels and is so engrossing and unique.  I agree with the reviewers who call it a masterpiece.  With all due respect, the reviewer who this give 1-star and complained that the music was a  "non sequiter" and such is being downright foolish.  This is a sophisticated piece of work, and the point  of view constantly shifts between the present reality, flashbacks which may or may not be real, and a fantasy world inside the protagonist's head (but acted out on screen).  
Guest More than 1 year ago
Imaginative, moving, funny, profound, multi-layered and endlessly fascinating - the greatest drama ever created for the television medium. And not only for Dennis Potter's script, but also because of the wonderful realisation of it by director Jon Amiel and producer Kenith Trodd. Seeing this when first broadcast in 1986 was a privilege akin to being present at the premiere of a Shakespeare play. Its release on DVD is long overdue - now let's have the rest of Potter's work on DVD, please.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A groundbreaking series that transcends genre. At once a psychological thriller that questions the boundaries between the unconscious and reality, a hilarious critique of medicine, a spoof of film noir, and a one-of-a-kind musical. There has been nothing like it before or since. Outstanding performances from Michael Gambon, as well as the "who's who" of British acting in other roles. Bravi!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Yes there is singing in this show but it is a non sequiter. I managed to get half way through only one of three disks in this DVD set before abandoning all hope. You will like this show if you enjoy a pointless story with endless scatological language, blasphemy, and all manner of voyeurism. There is seemingly no plot, just the vehicle of a cranky bedridden mystery writer and his pornographic imagination. This is the worst value I have ever received for my entertainment dollar.