The Singing Detective Review

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Potter’s original version and is still as compelling as it was when it first graced screens in 1986


One of the few saving graces of the recent movie of The Singing Detective (aside from Robert Downey Jr.’s credible performance in the title role) was that it retained much of Dennis Potter’s dialogue, giving it some much-needed substance. For all the film’s good intentions, however, it still can’t hold a candle to Potter’s original version, which makes a welcome arrival on DVD and is still as compelling as it was when it first graced screens in 1986.

Michael Gambon, who won a BAFTA for his troubles, is simply superb as psoriasis-ridden writer Philip Marlow, who chooses to escape the agony of his illness and the mind-numbing bleakness of his hospital ward by imagining himself as The Singing Detective, the crooning, crime-fighting hero of one of his novels. Interspersed with his fantasies are less than pleasant memories of his wartime childhood, to say nothing of some bizarre but toe-tapping 1940s musical numbers.

Director Jon Amiel does a terrific job of creating three very different worlds, while the acting is brilliant all round (right down to Lyndon Davies as the young Marlow and Imelda Staunton as one of the scariest nurses ever put on camera). The ‘explicit’ content of the show looks pretty tame now — it’s hard to believe that the brief sex scenes or the sight of Joanne Whalley’s Nurse Mills greasing up Gambon had Angry Of Tunbridge Wells fuming so much in 1986. However, Potter’s words and Gambon’s tour de force performance have as much impact now as they had back then. If you’ve not seen this before, it’s not to be missed.