PRINT May 1990


The thought of all sorts
of people from all sorts of
backgrounds in all sorts of
circumstances seeing the same
thing at the same time
I found thrilling.

—Dennis Potter

OEDIPALIZED SCENARIOS, TRAUMATIC PSYCHOSEXUAL DYNAMICS, and violence are the stuff that Dennis Potter’s television plays films are made of, moving across the taboo terrain of sexuality within the seemingly orderly nuclear family. The vehicle for these “perverse” scenarios is a dazzling montage of familiar dramatic genres, including the detective story, the musical, the psychological autobiography, and the bildungsroman, all intersecting in a series of interpenetrating narratives that deny any linear structure. Much of the language of “post-Modern” Western culture involves just this kind of self-conscious hybridization, a lifting and appropriating of different languages. Often such work reifies and estheticizes history, making it static, but Potter’s complex reconfigurations of the past show it vitally present. They explore how stereotypes function culturally, how our own fantasies and realities are mediated by cultural myths that inhabit us as “natural” identities. Such recent movies as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, both of 1989, also reveal the spasms of difference between shared stereotypes and individual selves, and expose the stereotype as a dangerous, threatening construction. Potter’s vision is no less dark, but also far more ambivalent.

How do the public and the press react to Potter’s psychosexual dramas? During the first broadcast of The Singing Detective, on the British Broadcasting Company’s Lionheart Television in December 1986, the London Times reported a rash of callers outraged by “scenes of a boy watching a couple engaged in explicit lovemaking in a wood.”1 (The boy is not just any young boy watching just any couple, but a son, in his private perch in a tree, watching his adulterous mother with her lover.) Though The Singing Detective also received rave reviews, both in England and on its PBS broadcast in the U.S., in 1988 (it was also given limited release here as a movie), it is important to remember that TV shows literally enter the home, the sacred, private space of the family, and in doing so they reach, at least potentially, a larger, more heterogenous public than the cinema does. Within the framework of current television, and in the broader conservative cultural and political contexts of Britain and America,2 The Singing Detective is stylistically and conceptually radical.

Potter was born and raised in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, in southwest England, in a working-class coal mining town that he feels was “more democratic and powerful in its emotions than English country villages.”3 In 1961, when he was 26, he began to suffer from a chronic inherited disease, psoriatic anthropathy, a devastating illness that continues to plague him for around three months each year. Its symptoms are burning, blistering skin, high fevers, and swollen joints, which cause general physical immobility. Potter has referred to his psoriasis as the “shadowy ally” of his writing, because, he says, “it makes me introspective.”4 In fact his career as author began not long after the disease’s onset, and so far comprises numerous television dramas and miniseries, three novels, and the screenplays for the movies Pennies from Heaven, 1981, a version of his own miniseries; Brimstone and Treacle, 1982; and the less successful Track 29, 1988. His most recent venture was to adapt his novel Blackeyes for television. For the first time, Potter directed.

Picture this. The night air is filled with moist memories of a recent rain. The camera apprehensively pans the slippery, secret-ridden streets to take in a lone busker playing the plaintive notes of “Peg o’ My Heart” on the harmonica. A man drops a coin wrapped in paper inscribed with the word “Skinskapes” into the busker’s hat.

Cut to a nearby club. Above the entrance, a blue-and-pink neon sign flashes the word “Skinskapes” and the outline of a cocktail glass. The man hurries inside down the steep stairs. The song “I’ve Got You under My Skin” permeates the tense air. A voice-over says, “And so the man went down the hole, like Alice. But there were no bunny rabbits down there. It wasn’t that sort of hole. It was a rat hole.” We have just entered the 7 1/2-hour miniseries The Singing Detective.

The scene switches to a hospital where a patient is wheeled into a ward full of sick and bedridden men. His face (and body, we soon discover) is covered with red and white patches of blistering, flaking skin. He can barely move without pain, yet his cantankerous personality is glaringly alive as he directs bitter and ironic comments, with piercing precision, toward almost everyone around him. When a hospital staffer asks “What do you believe in?” he replies with a long list: “cholesterol, cigarettes, alcohol, masturbation, carbon monoxide, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the Daily Telegraph, and not properly labeling fatal poisons. But most of all, above all else, I believe in the one thing which can come out of people’s mouths. Vomit.” What an endearing fellow! Who is this man? He calls himself the singing detective, though at the moment it is doubtful that this pathetic-looking creature could either sing or sleuth.

One moment we see a ward full of invalids and a moment later a scene of seduction and intrigue at the Skinskapes club. Next we are back in the hospital, with a close-up of the singing detective’s face, but this soon dissolves into a shot of a naked woman being fished out of a river on a murky, misty night. A healthy-looking version of the singing detective observes her from a nearby bridge. What is happening? Multiple clues flash in front of us, but information is constantly withheld.

Who is the singing detective? He is the protagonist of the story, Philip Marlow, or I should say he is two Philip Marlows—the man in the hospital, a middle-aged writer of detective fiction, and that writer’s alter ego, the hero of his eponymous book The Singing Detective. Both Marlows are played by the same actor, Michael Gambon. In this fantasized masquerade of identity, Marlow the detective is everything that Philip the writer is not. The detective is cool and suavely macho. Like Philip’s father, he sings in his own band. (The name “Philip Marlow,” of course, deprived of its final e, is lifted from Raymond Chandler’s detective hero of the 1930s and ’40s.) The writer, on the other hand, is full of self-pity, caught in a psychic crisis that both produces and is produced by a profound loss of belief and commitment. To his neighbor in the next bed, Philip laments, “One thing about this place, Ali—it strips away all the unimportant stuff—like skin—like work—love—loyalty—like passion and belief.”

A brief, conventional synopsis of Potter’s unconventional narrative might run like this: Philip is confined to a London hospital by a chronic illness, psoriatic anthropathy (the same condition that afflicts Potter). He is emotionally as well as physically beset: preoccupied with his wife, Nicola (Janet Suzman), who visits him only twice during his three-month stay in the ward, he imagines her having an affair with the hack writer Mark Finney (Patrick Malahide), and suspects they are plotting to steal Philip’s old screenplay, an earlier version of The Singing Detective. Still, he slowly recovers, gradually becoming able to light a cigarette, turn his head, and, eventually, walk. His body is greased periodically by the beautiful Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley), and he attends psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), with whom he eventually develops a positive transference.

The narrative complexifies as we follow Philip through his fantasies, his hallucinatory visions, and his mental revisions of his Singing Detective novel (which another of the patients is reading throughout). All of these scenes appear on screen, undifferentiated from the “real” action in the ward. In a second, intertwining level of fiction, for example, we see Philip’s childhood memories. He is a lonely and unhappy boy. We watch him at school in Gloucestershire in the ’40s, playing a scatological prank on his authoritarian schoolmistress. We see him escaping into the branches of his special tree in the Forest of Dean; the tree gives him a refuge from impinging familial and social strictures, a place where he thinks, dreams—and witnesses his mother’s adultery. He is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and responsibility for his parents’ difficulties. “It’s all my doing” is a constant refrain. The young Philip often soliloquizes about how he will become a detective when he grows up and everything will be all right—he will find out “who done it.”

Philip’s mental reenactment of his novel about Marlow the detective is another interlacing narrative strand. Taking place in 1945, it recreates the film noir tradition, replete with spies, betrayals, murder, prostitution, moody music, chiaroscuro light and shadow, and period dialogue right out of Chandler. Marlow is hired by Mark Binney to protect him from a murder rap. Later, Marlow discovers that Binney is a Russian spy who trades with the Nazis. Actually, Binney has multiple roles in the different layers of the work. A classmate of the young Philip’s is named Mark Binney, and the actor who plays the Binney in the detective story also appears as the writer Mark Finney. This actor also plays Raymond, the lover of Philip’s mother. Thus all the different narratives mesh, making it difficult to distinguish between fiction, reality, and fantasy.5

The viewer probably identifies less with Philip’s difficult character than with the kinds of emotional and intellectual processes he goes through. The way Philip combines memories, fictions, fantasies, and actual perceptions is closer to our own thought patterns than is the conventional linear narrative. The viewer is placed in the role of detective, the quintessential voyeur, putting together shards of evidence, clues that slowly start making sense. It is as though Freud had met Columbo in a psychological thriller, their purpose to reveal the monad of Philip’s identity. Potter carefully manipulates us into this position of detective and keeps us guessing. And like good detectives, or like psychotherapists, we maintain a certain distance. Every clue emanates from within Philip’s mind; the detective story, then, becomes an allegory for the therapeutic experience, and the film work becomes equivalent to the dream work—a working through, a rite of passage, a journey toward an integrated self. Potter explains that The Singing Detective “is a detective story about how you find out about yourself, how an event has lodged inside you and affects how you see things. . . . Out of this morass of evidence and clues we can start to put up this structure of self.”6

The images and stories in the kaleidoscope of Philip’s memory reveal a dialectic of censorship or repression and recognition or insight. Simultaneously imprisoning and liberating, memory is experienced as an interplay of remembering and forgetting, all set in motion by the impossible search for one’s origins. Erupting into Philip’s consciousness like the fragmentary aftereffects of dreams, psychic formations left from his childhood trauma are censored, edited, and embellished as dreams are, becoming staccato, briefly glimpsed gasps of images—the return of the repressed. These images are repeated like musical variations, always slightly different, added to, altered. But Potter also uses Marlow’s interior state to attack external conditions—establishment values, organized religion, and the indecencies of the social relationships called into being by such bureaucratic institutions as the hospital. From the outset, the hospital is targeted as a callous, inhumane place that reinforces a power hierarchy of patronizing, condescending doctors and nurses. The patients are the bottom of the pyramid. During the first episode, “Skin,” a vulnerable Philip is humiliated by the diagnostic “experts” gathered around his bed. The camera views the scene from overhead, pinning the nearly naked “speciman” to his sheets. When Marlow cries out, in utter despair, “I’m a prisoner of my own skin and bones,” the doctors shout for Librium, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and antidepressants, in a devastating parodic chorus of clinical insensitivity.

Philip momentarily escapes from this abuse by hallucinating some comic relief: suddenly the light takes on a vaudevillian cast, and the ward is transformed into a musical stage where the staff performs a song-and-dance routine to Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians’ song “Dry Bones,” of 1949. The women nurses become a seductive, short-skirted, high-heeled chorus line, and another staffer plays a xylophone of human skulls. “Sometimes—sometimes these—hallucinations,” Philip claims, “they’re better than the real thing.” Feverish musical numbers like this one have an uncanny quality, not only because they rupture an already fragmentary narrative (and one much darker in tone than the conventional musical, in which such interruptions are expected) but because of their peculiar combination of the familiar and the strange.7 The characters do not sing in these scenes; they lip-synch to songs from the ’30s and ’40s, making themselves into dummies, mechanical but lifelike. They lose their own voices. This device of Potter’s, which he also used in Pennies from Heaven, reveals his characters’ internal division, their masquerading doubleness, their lack of a stable and coherent identity. Or, rather, since these scenes are all phantasms of Philip’s thoughts, they reveal his own divided self. But the songs, sung by Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, Vera Lynn, and others, also make a broader social point. (Their ironic, ambiguous presence here is not nostalgic; Potter describes nostalgia as a “second-rate emotion.”) These artifacts of popular culture reveal the fantasies of their collective audience, or the building blocks with which the public constructs its desires. Relieving its listeners’ pain and expressing their feelings, the music also suggests how the past lives and assumes meaning in the present, how it speaks through individuals, provides the vocabulary for even the most intimate of their emotions. It is as though their culture were speaking through them at the expense of their identities, as though they were empty shells or vehicles for their culture, as though they had no autonomy.

The loss of control, both physical and in terms of one’s ability to direct one’s own life, is a major concern for Potter. Philip hallucinates and fantasizes not only to block out the harsh reality of the ward but to gain imaginary control over his body. During periods of physical illness one sometimes feels inhabited by a hostile, foreign other, producing a state of alienation—a division between body and mind. In one of the more comically grotesque scenes in The Singing Detective, the beautiful Nurse Mills greases Philip’s hot, feeble, blistered flesh. As she slips on her tight plastic gloves and dips into the jar of grease, she says politely, “All right. I’ll start down below first.” To keep himself from sexual arousal, Philip tries to “think of something boring—For Christ’s sake think of something very very boring—Speech a speech by Ted Heath . . . Australian barmen ecologists semiologists. . . .” But the nurse soon says, “Sorry. But I shall have to lift your penis now to grease around it.” We are immediately transported to Skinskapes, where Mills becomes a glamorous singer performing (in lip sync) “The Blues in the Night.” The song is followed by loud applause from the mostly male audience and by the humiliated Philip apologizing, “I’m very sorry. It—that’s the one part of me that still sort of functions.” His orgasm here is a symbol not so much of male potency as of potency made passive, out of control. Like the other patients in the ward, Philip speaks out of a marginalized position—out of an unhealthy, even grotesque male body, a site of oppression. Presenting male subjectivity as divided and crisis-stricken—the way women are so often portrayed on television—Potter disrupts the familiar, idealized images of masculinity that populate the mass media.

Women, however, do not escape any more lightly. The young Philip’s disillusionment with his mother, her transformation, for him, from pure and “virginal” to adulterous “whore,” develops into a tendency to class women into these two-dimensional categories. Philip’s mother, in fact, has doubly disappointed him: he experiences her adultery as betrayal and her eventual suicide as an abandonment. But he also feels responsible for her acts, and internalizes them, besieging himself with self-loathing and guilt so that he can exonerate her and restore her as the good mother. This psychic displacement, of course, is no substitute for her love, protection, and nurturing. As a result, his attitudes toward women combine adoration and hate, alienated identification and misidentification, and an uncomfortable symbiotic dependency.

Philip’s mistrust of women becomes clear in the connection his imagination makes between sex and death. At one point, Dr. Gibbon plays a word-association game with Philip, who matches “woman” with “fuck,” “fuck” with “dirt,” “dirt” with “death.” Later Philip sees George, an older patient, suffer a heart attack as he tells a story about a sexual encounter he had with a blonde during the war. The sounds of the machine with which the doctors try to revive George combine in Philip’s mind with the sounds and images of his mother’s adultery. Her lover’s orgasm and George’s death occur simultaneously. Such associations between sex and death are familiar in Western cultural history: in France, orgasm is called “la petite mort,” and the verb “to die” appears often in English Jacobean drama as a synonym for coitus. For Philip, sexual climax represents a deathlike loss of power, and an intolerable melting of the boundaries between men and the frightening figures of women. He tries to resurrect these boundaries by his compulsive voyeurism—by participating in sex vicariously, through others, without risk to himself. Voyeuristic scenes often occur in his fantasies, compulsively repeating the primal scene on which he has actually, and accidentally, spied. His physical illness becomes a metaphor for his psychic paralysis and his repression, an outward sign of his inner loss of power. Yet the “impotent” position of voyeur also provides a desperate sense of power and control.

Small wonder that in The Singing Detective, sex is never represented as mutually pleasurable for men and women. It is passionless, guilty, often paid for in one way or another, and often related to death and violence. This, at least, is Philip’s view, and his viewpoint structures the values of the entire drama. But the work probes his attitudes toward women, and reflects the pain they cause, rather than simply passing them on. Dr. Gibbon asks Philip, “You don’t like women, do you?” Philip defensively retorts, “Which sort do you mean? Young ones. Old ones. Fat ones. Thin ones. Faithful ones? Slags? Sluts? Try to be more specific.” And Dr. Gibbon replies: “All right. Let me rephrase that. I’m reasonably sure that you think you do like them. That you even think they are—well—capable of being idolized, or—You don’t like sex. You probably think you do. I mean, we spend a great deal of time thinking about it, don’t we?” Philip’s attitudes toward women, both tender and cruel, are emblematic of attitudes in society at large. And Potter doesn’t so much justify them as suggest their causes, and the way they victimize those who possess them as well as those who suffer them. Finally, by the end of the series, Philip’s identity is better integrated, and he is better able to trust his wife, Nicola—able to overcome his feelings that since she is not a virgin she must be a whore.

This ending, however, sounds a curious and paradoxical note: Marlow the detective enters Philip the writer’s hospital room and shoots him, saying in a voice-over, “I suppose you could say we’d been partners, him and me . . . .But, hell, this was one sick fellow, from way back when. And I reckon I’m man enough to tie my own shoelaces now.” Fiction has burst into the filmic “reality.” Now we see the ward again, transformed into an orderly place after the shooting, and Philip, completely recovered from his illness, dressed in a suit instead of hospital cloth, and looking exactly like Marlow the detective. He is leaning on Nicola’s arm—they have been reconciled. From “a starting point of extreme crisis and an utter lack of belief,” the protagonist has rebuilt and regained his autonomy.8 On the soundtrack, however, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again.” The song is ironic, referring not only to Philip’s reunion with Nicola but to the inevitable return of his illness. And since the work has dealt so consistently with interpenetrating, inseparable layers of “fiction” and “reality,” we may also see here an allusion to Potter himself, and an allegory for the writer’s return to a theme. (Potter has said, “I think any writer has a small field to keep plowing . . . and eventually you turn up the coins you want. I know I always return to the same motifs.”9) There is also another ambivalence in this ending: if The Singing Detective moves toward Philip’s moral and physical regeneration, the temporary return of his sovereignty, it does so by resurrecting the conventional terms of masculinity that have been subverted throughout. The killing of sick Philip by strong Marlow—a type, the stereotypical gumshoe, an artifice from a book—is a contradictory return to health: as if we could not sustain ourselves on our own without standing on the forms of the past, which both limits our future and makes it possible.

Therese Lichtenstein is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.

All quotations from The Singing Detective are from the screenplay, published by Random House, Vintage Books, New York, 1988.



1. “Explicit Sex Scene Vetted by Grade,” the London Times, 1 December 1986, p. 2C.

2. For a discussion of censorship in Britain, see James Atlas, “Thatcher Puts a Lid on Censorship in Britain,” The New York Times Magazine, 5 March 1989, pp. 36-38 and 97.

3. Dennis Potter, quoted in a 1987 BBC Television interview with Alan Yentob.

4. Potter, quoted in Alex Ward, “TV’s Tormented Master,” The New York Times Magazine, 13 November 1988, p. 38.

5. It might be useful to examine Potter’s work in relation to Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Discourse in the Novel,” which calls for a relativized, deprivileged, antiauthoritarian language allowing for multiple voices. See Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Potter’s film also epitomizes the transformative model of the detective genre mapped out by Tzvetan Todorov in “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” 1966, The Poetics of Prose, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977: “The new genre [of detective fiction] is not necessarily constituted by the negation of the main feature of the old, but from a different complex of properties, not by necessity logically harmonious with the first form” (p. 52).

6. Potter, quoted in John J. O’Connor, “Creator of ‘Detective’ Interviewed,” The New York Times, 14 January 1988, p. C30. Potter has said that The Singing Detective “was not autobiographical in the emotional sense, but it was accurate in the observed, exterior, physical sense. And, of course, since writing it and looking at it and receiving other people’s impressions of it, what has happened has been very dangerous for me because it has come up very close and I see how much more of me is in it than I assumed was the case. Now it’s snapping at my heels, my ankles. It’s biting me, and until I can exorcise it, I’m in danger as a writer.” Quoted in Ward, p. 37.

7. See Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” On Creativity and the Unconscious, New York: Harper & Row, 1958, p. 157: “An uncanny experience occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.”

8. Potter, quoted in O’Connor, p. C30.

9. Potter, quoted in Graham Fuller, “Dennis Potter,” American Film, March 1989, p. 31.