On ‘The Singing Detective’ and the Horrors of Tin Pan Alley

How Dennis Potter's 1986 BBC-TV masterpiece The Singing Detective still resonates in the new Golden Age of TV.

One of the most heartbreaking, beautiful songs of loneliness and despair was “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. Fewer songs were as definitive, as gloomy but true. Lonely children raised by mothers who came of age in the ’50s heard their mothers sing along with the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots versions as they prepared dinner. In the aching beauty there was also sadness and trouble, and that’s what makes it so special. Sure, the sentiments are agreeable. Relationships are tough, and sometimes you don’t mean to hurt but you do. By the time the singer ends, he tells us “If I broke your heart last night / It’s because I love you most of all”.

Any advice columnist worth their title would tell the subject of this lyric to get professional help and find another love, because otherwise, the hurting will never stop. The good thing about pop music, though, is that the heroes don’t have to get help and they give us license to escape our worries through their syncopated minor problems.

Take the premise of Dennis Potter’s 1986 BBC-TV masterpiece: a pulp fiction novelist with the same surname (save for the final “e”) as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (played with great anger and bitterness by Michael Gambon) is suffering from a horrendous case of psoriasis. There in his hospital bed, recuperating from his condition and trying to piece his life together, Marlow looks like an enraged, boiled lobster, red welts on every visible space of skin. It’s hard not to think that Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, co-creators of the brilliant 2016 HBO mini-series The Night Of, weren’t paying homage to Dennis Potter’s TV show. The Singing Detective when they gave their hero John Stone the same affliction. We see Marlow in his present, tortured real life and the world of his fellow sick patients and staff. This alternates with his imaginary existence as the private eye Philip Marlow, on the trail of a case that doesn’t really matter.

Still, what is real and what is imaginary? It’s all about noir, darkness, and an inevitable plunge into doom.The 1986 TV mini-series was over six hours long, with moments of nudity and an almost overwhelming sense of gloom. Will this man recover from his condition?

The gorgeous nurse (Joan Whalley) massages his damaged body with Petroleum Jelly in order to calm the growth of his welts. She gets to his genitals, and Marlow (in voice-over) panics. He starts ruminating about other things, random ideas, anything as long as it’s not sexual. The infirmed Marlow and his doppelganger, the suave trenchcoat-wearing detective, rarely meet until the end, when there’s a shootout in the hospital ward. Have their worlds collided? Is this meeting real or imagined? It doesn’t matter. The results are audacious, exhilarating, more alive than they had a right to be. We follow Marlow through his recovery process, through his rage about his condition, his anger at his wife, everything. When he leaves the hospital the story of both creator and created is over, but his journey of real recovery is just beginning.

The other twist in this story is the music and how director Jon Amiel uses it. Potter’s trademark style was to use great songs from Depression-era America. His 1978 mini-series Pennies From Heaven (starring Bob Hoskins, American film version starring Steve Martin) was a flawless adaptation of his novel about a poor sap sheet music salesman who believes everything he hears in the false promises of the songs he’s selling. Either he’s been so indoctrinated into the myths that they become his reality — or he’s simply a pusher of toxic myths. The 1981 Hollywood film adaptation, starring Steve Martin, was unjustifiably buried upon its release and will perhaps one day get the respect it deserves.

The title track of Pennies from Heaven, and songs like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, proved that the fantasy wish fulfillment world of pop music had roots that reached way back. Everything was blue skies and paradise promised if you washed your hands, obeyed your parents, and said your prayers each night. It was all shockingly sincere, true, and sweet.

If you were born in the ’60s, these were your parent’s songs, especially The Mills Brothers and “Paper Doll” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. The escapism was perfect and there was always something tragic about such unconditional happiness during such hard times. You could give in to hormonal and emotional-induced urges and desires, but only if you accepted that they came with a heavy price. Tin Pan Alley manufactured quick fixes and false promises, blue skies, and gold at the end of the rainbow. Those songs then, and pop songs now, permeated the atmosphere with an addictive artificiality.

In The Singing Detective are the possibilities of fiction and the urgency of pushing a narrative as far as it can. This shows the brilliance of how two parallel stories can seamlessly intersect with one other, and how there were really no rules so long as the writer proved willing to step out on a ledge and take risks. We see the gruesome wonder of a group of doctors in a hospital scene suddenly breaking into a lip-synched version of “Dry Bones” and we don’t know if we’ll ever get out of it. (Again, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum owes everything to such scenes. Jessica Lange singing “The Name Game” stands on the shoulders of everything mentioned here.)

The singers were well known: Bing Crosby with the Andrews Brothers, the gospel pop of The Ink Spots. It’s just that the context was so wonderfully strange. A horrifying scarecrow suddenly breaks into Al Jolson’s “After You’ve Gone”. This was one of the many flashbacks used to bring the story forward in unimaginable ways. A belligerent scarecrow flaps his boneless arms at the terrified child Marlow. After the horrors of surviving the Blitz, we see the characters burst into a rendition of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. This was the brutal certainty of Potter’s writing, the haunting images of a show that paid loving tribute to American noir film styles of the ’40s but was itself original. The music turned this secular text into something holy and untouchable. Like any pilgrimage, the humble supplicant just needed to know when to leave when he’d had his fill.