The late Dennis Potter was a master at mining the popular songs of the 1930s and '40s for dramatic effect, but he never did it better than in The Singing Detective. The inestimable Michael Gambon plays a mystery writer named Philip E Marlow, who is suffering a torturous bout of psoriatic arthritis in hospital, where he is a victim of both his disease and the National Health Service. Unable to move without pain, he escapes into his imagination, plotting out a murder tale in which he is both a big-band singer and a private eye. But Potter and director Jon Amiel also mix in flashbacks of Marlow's youth and his unhappy marriage to explain how the real Marlow reached this sorry pass. Flawlessly, intricately, kaleidoscopically assembled, the six one-hour episodes fly by like some fantastic fever dream
Every aspect of the production is of surprisingly good quality, from the writing to the acting, costumes and direction. Dennis Potter’s script reminded me of a play in some scenes, with its subtle plays on words, shifts in style and layers of hidden meaning. The various strands of the story are edited and weaved together seamlessly, with no jolting effect, and the use of period songs perfectly complements the themes of mystery, memory and imagination. Eternally interesting issues such as identity, attitudes towards sexuality, the process of writing, and the links between a man’s inner, imaginative life and the real world, are explored with real insight in this drama. This is all managed without completely detracting from the entertainment value and dramatic tension in the various strands of story. This good quality surprises me because I’m just not used to it. Turn on your TV and you’ll see why.