The Singing Detective

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The Singing Detective

The Singing Detective was a 1986 BBC television miniseries, written by Dennis Potter, starring Michael Gambon. It was remade into a 2003 film of the same name featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, set in the United States rather than England (see The Singing Detective (movie)).

The story revolves around mystery writer Philip Marlow (not to be confused with the fictional detective by the same name, although the parallel is intentional) and his stay in a nameless British hospital. He suffers from a chronic form of severe psoriasis, a skin disease that forms lesions all over his body and cripples his hands (Potter suffered from this disease himself, and apparently wrote the series with a pen tied to his fist much in the same fashion Marlow does in the last few episodes). As a result of his constant pain, and his refusal to take medication, he falls into a fantasy world involving his novel The Singing Detective, a pulp about a detective who sings at a dance hall as a means of support. He also has flashbacks to his childhood in rural England and his mother's suicide. The death of his mother is one of recurring themes in the series; Marlow even uses it (whether subconsciously or not) in his murder mystery (ironically, this mystery is never actually solved; all that is ultimately revealed is a vague plot involving Nazi war criminals and Soviet spies).

The three worlds of the hospital, the noir thriller, and wartime England often merge in Marlow's mind, resulting in character interactions that would otherwise be impossible (e.g. fictional characters interacting with non-fictional characters). This is evident in that many of Marlow's friends and enemies (perceived or otherwise) are represented by characters in the novel: particularly, one of the boys from his childhood, Mark Binney (occasionally "Finney" in Marlow's contemporary fantasies), who becomes the central antagonist in the real (the "real" Binney is ultimately a fantasy as well, however) and noir worlds. The use of Binney as a villain stems from an event in his early childhood where he framed the young Binney for defecating on the teacher's desk. The innocent Binney is brutally beaten in front of the student body and Marlow is lauded for telling the "truth". These events haunt Marlow, as it is revealed that the real Binney eventually ends up in a mental institution. The villainous Binney character is ultimately killed off in both realities.

As well as its darker themes, the series is notable for its use of 1940s-era music, which is often incorporated into surreal musical numbers (most notably "Dry Bones" and "Accentuate the Positive"). The main theme music for the series is the classic "Peg O' My Heart" (the use of upbeat music as the theme for such a dark story is perhaps a reference to the Orson Welles classic The Third Man, with a harmonica in the place of a zither).

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The Singing Detective was placed 20th.

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