Glen Creeber, The Singing Detective, London: BFI TV Classics, 2007.
My rating: ***
Television doesn’t always age well, but Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective more than twenty years later is still just as riveting and confronting. I saw the series when it originally aired in 1986 and was completely fascinated, even if I didn’t entirely understand it. Watching it at this remove, I have a better insight into what’s going on and the fascination remains.
It reminds me – as it did when I last saw it – of one of my favourite films, Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence. In this film, as in The Singing Detective, a seriously ill writer (played by John Gielgud) imagines a novel to keep himself sane and to distract himself from the pain. As in the later series, The Singing Detective, the narrative is fractured and layered and often interlaced with surrealist elements. The story is also continually interrupted by and affected by the real life plight of the author. Music is likewise centrally important.
The author of this BFI TV Classic book on The Singing Detective, Glen Creeber, notes that Resnais became a huge fan of Dennis Potter’s work and dedicated a film to him after his death: On connaît la chanson. There are many similarities between Renais’ approach and Potter’s, but the former has a lighter touch: a subtle humour and amusement pervades much of his work.
Creeber provides an interesting account of the series and makes the essential point that a television series is always a collaborative effort and it was not only Potter who made the series what it was. The director, Jon Amiel, who had a background as a script editor, insisted that Potter’s first draft of the series needed considerable changes. The actors – in particular Michael Gambon and Patrick Malahide were also crucial to the success of the series as was the incidental music in addition to the songs chosen by Potter.
Another interesting observation is Creeber’s report that Potter summarised the series as the invitation by Christ to the sick man in the gospels to ‘Pick up his bed and walk’.
Creeber’s treatment of The Singing Detective gives it a more recognisably ‘film studies’ treatment than do the authors of the BFI TV classics books on Doctor Who and Star Trek, making the book more skewed towards a purely academic audience. But arguably this is the type of audience The Singing Detective attracts in any case. One minor quibble I did have with his approach however is his reliance on Freudian and psychoanalytic approaches – but this might be just prejudice on my part as one could argue that the source material readily lends itself to this kind of treatment.