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Series / The Singing Detective

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A British miniseries of the 1980s written by Dennis Potter. The plot concerned Philip Marlow, a writer of pulp detective novels, who is hospitalised with a severe case of psoriasis (a debilitating skin disease). In order to escape from his misery, he fantasises that he is the hero of one of his novels, The Singing Detective, who is a nightclub singer and private detective. However, a combination of drugs and a fever causes him to lose the ability to tell fantasy from reality, and his dreams of his novel, his day-to-day life in hospital and his memories of his childhood all begin to merge. The series attracted controversy at the time of broadcast due to a graphic sex scene, but it is now recognised as one of the best TV dramas ever.

It was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 2003 (starring a pre-career-resurrection Robert Downey Jr.) that was poorly received and is now pretty much forgotten.

Philip Marlow is played by Michael Gambon, who would go on to play a similarly debilitated and miserable hero in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Due to Dennis Potter's love of genre drama, numerous tropes are lampshaded, subverted, justified, played with and/or played straight.

Tropes featured include:

  • Accent Slip-Up: Marlowe normally talks with a slightly more middle-class version of the Estuary accent, but when he's at his most vulnerable—in a scene where he feels sorry for his dad—he reverts to his native Forest of Dean accent.
  • And You Were There: Pretty much every character in the series has at least one counterpart; for example, Mark Binney appears both in the 'Private Eye' story and as a character in Philip Marlow's childhood.
  • Anvilicious: In universe example when Philip Marlow drops his guard to write a paragraph expressing his extreme disgust with sex. His psychologist wonders what this is doing in a pulp detective novel.
  • Arc Words: The Singing Detective's "Am I right? Or am I right?", which at first seems to be just his Jive Turkey Catchphrase. In fact it refers to the struggle between Marlow's different selves: the Singing Detective, who's the cool, dapper, problem-solving part, and the sick Marlow, who as a child told a lie that ruined another kid's life, and whose resulting guilt and self-loathing have manifested themselves as his chronic illness. Played with in the finale, when he turns it into "I am not wrong. Neither am I wrong."
  • Author Avatar: Often debated as to how close Philip Marlow (a writer who suffers from crippling psoriasis) is to his creator, Dennis Potter (a writer who suffered from crippling psoriasis). Dennis Potter denied any resemblance, saying he just used psoriasis because he didn't have to research the condition.
  • Bit Part Bad Guys: Lampshaded with two unnamed hitmen who hang around the edges of the scenes, before realising that they haven't been named and going in search of their writer to punish him for not naming them.
  • Bond One-Liner: Subverted in that the killer is also the victim. It Makes Sense in Context:
    Singing Detective: I suppose you could say we'd been partners, him and me. Like Laurel and Hardy or Fortnum and Mason. But, hell, this was one sick fellow, from way back when. And I reckon I'm man enough to tie my own shoelaces now.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Only after metaphorically shooting his sick self in the head does Marlow come to terms with his past. Up until then, it's all murder, guilty sex, jealousy and dead bodies being pulled out of the river.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Subverted with both the detective-story version of Mark Binney and Marlow's old teacher. She's excited about the war coming to an end while he seems like a nice guy in over his head at a club. It turns out that Binney represents all of Marlow's misogyny and she's a Sadist Teacher.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Marlow has plenty of misogyny, but he's Tranquil Fury when George is laughing about coercing scared German girls after the war.
  • The Exotic Detective: In universe example - the titular character is both a private detective and a night club singer.
  • Fever Dream Episode: Pretty much the whole of the series.
  • Freudian Excuse: Every single childhood incident we see.
  • Gaslighting: Marlow didn't just frame his classmate Mark Binney for defecating on their teacher's desk. His insistence on Binney being the culprit was so vehement that Binney himself actually came to believe that he was the one who did it. Marlow darkly adds to the story that Binney later ended up in a mental institution, believing that his entire stunt might have played a large part of the reasons why.
  • Genre-Busting / Genre Roulette: It's a hospital sitcom/kitchen sink drama/detective drama/musical. This was Dennis Potter's reaction to his time in Hollywood where he got annoyed that everything had to be pigeon holed into one single genre.
  • Her Code Name Was "Mary Sue": The title character.
  • Howl of Sorrow: Mr Marlow lets out a heart-breaking one when he can't find young Philip in the forest walking home, compounded by grief at the death of his estranged wife, Philip's mother
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Both the titular character and his enemies engage in a gunfight at the end, managing to spray huge amounts of ammo, but hitting only random patients. Including Marlow himself.
  • Likable Villain: Raymond, the guy that Marlow's mother has sex with. He's not really a bad guy, he genuinely likes and appreciates her, he’s just out of his depth and loose in his morals. He's nowhere near as evil as the characters that Marlow subsequently bases on him, Mark Finney/Binney.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Nurse White simply gives an appalled "Really?" at being shot.
  • Mind Screw: Most of the time, we can't be sure what is real and what is just a hallucination of Marlow's. Not even Marlow is particularly sure.
    • It does become clear by the end. All the scenes between Nicola and “Mark Finney” take place inside Marlow’s head. He accepts by the end that she’s been faithful to him all along.
  • Muse Abuse: Both played straight (Marlow's characters are often thinly veiled portraits of significant others, usually with a sizeable side of Take That!), played with, once the life/art, real/imaginary lines really get blurring, and semi-subverted in the way Marlow's imaginative abilities are both a trap and a way out of it.
  • Musical Episode: Justified as part of the main character's hallucination.
  • Musical World Hypothesis: This gets complicated. Most of the time it is clearly "All in their heads", especially when a group of doctors and nurses suddenly burst into a rendition of "Dem Bones": it's clearly in Marlow's fevered imagination. The actual "singing detective" sequences could be said to be 'The Diegetic Hypothesis' (after all, the lead character is a nightclub singer with a fully rehearsed big band) until you realise that Philip Marlow is not singing in his own voice (or even the voice of Michael Gambon) but miming to the actual 1940s recordings which means even the in-universe songs are still 'All in their heads'.
  • Never My Fault: Marlow starts out with a bad case of this, hating everything and nearly everyone (he makes an exception for Nurse Mills, the Hospital Hottie, and Ali, the heart patient in the next bed, but that's all). It's all because of lingering guilt over a Bad Thing he did as a child.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "Murder, he says. I call it pruning."
  • Primal Scene: Marlow is implied to suffer permanent psychological damage after, as a young boy, catching his mother having adulterous sex in the forest.
    • It's partly that, and also his parents' deep unhappiness and the breakup of their marriage (and his mother's subsequent suicide), all of which he blames himself for, because he feels guilty for unjustly accusing another boy at school of something he'd done himself. But, yes, seeing his mother shag a local guy in the forest didn't help.
  • Sadist Teacher: The genesis of a very large part of Marlow's self-loathing.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Young Philip Marlow is haunted by a vision of a scarecrow he once saw in a field (at one point in his nightmares it turns into Adolf Hitler before visiting him in hospital). It turns out, this is because the scarecrow reminds him of his old teacher who viciously beat his fellow pupil.
  • The Shrink: Dr. Gibbon. Marlowe thinks that he's the Well Meaning but Dopey and Ineffectual type. He's not.
  • The Snark Knight: Marlow in the hospital. Nobody is safe.
    Staff Nurse White: You shouldn't smoke. Especially in bed. I don't know why they allow it.
    Marlow: [who is covered all over in raging psoriasis, in constant pain, and can barely move] Yes, nurse. Quite right. Quite so. They might make me ill.
  • Stepford Snarker: Hospitalised Marlow. Contrast the Singing Detective, who is Tall, Dark, and Snarky because while he shares Marlow's intelligence and sense of humour he has none of Marlow's demons, or at any rate he's tamed them.
  • Stylistic Suck: Dr. Finlay’s evangelical Christian hymn group, who are terrible. Subverted in Marlow’s imagination when they lip-sync an exuberant version of “Acc-cen-chu-ate the Positive”.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: When we see Staff Nurse White interacting with Nurse Mills, she seems perfectly pleasant and ordinary and not the censorious pain in the ass that Marlow thinks of her as being.
  • Tears of Remorse: Marlow has these when Ali dies of a heart attack, partly because Marlow kept asking him to fetch him a cigarette when Ali, a heart patient, shouldn't have been getting out of bed.
  • Think Unsexy Thoughts: As the Hospital Hottie slathers his thighs with emollient grease, Marlow tries to think of the most boring things he possibly can, including the speeches of Edward Heath and the Bible (which unfortunately leads him to the Song of Solomon...)
  • Video Inside, Film Outside: Averted. Dennis Potter wanted to use this for the hospital scenes (to highlight their sitcom nature) but was talked out of this by the director.
  • Wham Line: “Mark Binney, Miss. It was Mark Binney.”
  • Word Association Test: Dr. Gibbon gives Marlowe one, and it ends up with Marlowe giving an Armor-Piercing Response to himself.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: In the case of Marlow, more like You Are Not as Bad as You Think You and Everything Else Is.
  • Zeerust: Both in-universe and out. In a scene in the 40s, Philip’s uncle shows him a brand-new gramophone because it’s a cool new thing. In one of Marlow’s fantasies sequences set in the present, there’s a loving tracking shot of a top-of-the-range...CD player.