Still noirish after all these years: Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective.
Reruns of Dennis Potter’s 80s classic ‘The Singing Detective’ are another good reason to watch UK TV abroad.
The place of Dennis Potter’s ‘The Singing Detective’ in the TV canon is sure. The show has regular appearances on critical ‘best of’ lists. Furthermore, it received the ultimate televisual accolade of an A-list Hollywood remake.
Dennis Potter’s talent
Potter’s legacy as a film-maker is another matter. While everyone recognizes his genius, no-one wants to write like him anymore. The dominant mode of UK TV drama has become humorless realism. It is traceable ultimately to the interminable police procedurals of the 90s and since. Dennis Potter’s insistence on fantasy and the subjective marks him out as a thoroughly twentieth-century figure.
Like that of Stephen Poliakoff, Dennis Potter’s talent was developing over decades. Newcomers to his work should note that, although everything he had a hand in is watchable, the best stuff was produced in the course of the ten years which separate ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ from ‘The Singing Detective’.
The former, a partly-improvised drama based on the simple premise of having adults play the roles of children, is a jaw-dropping TV experience. It’s also shot within the production conventions of the old ‘Wednesday Play’ segment, against which Potter was kicking for years. The latter knows no such boundaries. From the grounding reality of his grim hospital ward, Michael Gambon’s central character makes lengthy (and often musical) excursions into dreamscapes. Some into a film noir fantasy world, and some of the warping recollections of a wartime childhood in the Forest of Dean. He also inclines to mentally cast those around him in Broadway chorus lines or trashy 80s thrillers.
The fact that this extraordinary mess sustains its narrative drive and reaches a satisfying resolution is a tribute to an extraordinary imagination running at full steam. It’s also a reminder of the production quality a self-confident, outward-looking BBC is mustering. In those pre-CGI, pre-HD days, the hallmark of a high-end production in Shepherds Bush was a cast of thousands and a shot onto 35mm film. Auntie Beeb pulled out all the stops for this one. (Potter had wanted the hospital scenes shot on the entry-level video cameras used for budget sitcoms to make them ‘grittier’, but was fortunately overruled by producer Kenith Trodd.)
Epilog of the ‘Singing Detective’
After 1986, the budgets got bigger — ‘Blackeyes’, ‘Lipstick on your Collar’ — but the returns were diminishing. The broad gestures of Potter’s scripts weren’t well-suiting to his growing focus on sexual politics, and unfair (but understandable) accusations of misogyny that were leading to a decline in his fortunes. ‘Detective’ remains a high-water mark, both in Potter’s career and in the fortunes of the BBC. Do not miss.
Series like Dennis Potter’s ‘Singing Detective’ and ‘Pennies from Heaven’ are featuring regularly. TV Mucho is the best way for expats to enjoy prime UK TV abroad.