Summer Of Reruns: The Musically Lurid Dreams of Dennis Potter

Welcome to Summer Of Reruns. For the next few weeks in my column for l’étoile, I’m going to devote this column to looking at several shows and looking at why they’re important; not only in the history of the medium, but also why they’ve stuck around.

If you read my last installment of this series, I talked about the birth of the show runner as a relatively new concept in American Television. However, in the case of British Television, this is far from news, as the creators of the show are pushed straight to the front of the show in the minds of the viewers. In fact show runners have dominated British Television for decades; running the gambit from Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (Are You Being Served), Matthew Graham (Life On Mars). Allan Bennet (Talking Heads), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), Russell T. Davies (the original Queer As Folk and the relaunch of Doctor Who), Stephen Moffatt (Sherlock and Doctor Who), Terry Nation (Survivors), Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley) Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), Toby Whithouse (Being Human), Armando Iannucci (The Thick Of It and Veep), and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (Extras and the original version of The Office). But even amongst this esteemed list, few British television creators were as innovative, as daring, as gloriously fucked up as Dennis Potter.



It’s tricky to write about Potter’s work for many reasons. While his work was – and still is! – considered groundbreaking (pushing the boundaries of what you could get away with on television in terms of content, language, nudity, storytelling techniques, and so much more), there was always a fine line between what was made up and what was real. As much as he would protest, incidents from Potter’s own life would often find their way into his work; everything from his sexual abuse he suffered as a child, to his admiration and distrust of the women in his life, to his numerous infidelities, to his critical political views regardless of who was in power, to his numerous medical conditions (most notably a lifelong battle with psoriatic arthropathy), and much more. But it was this cauldron of neurosis and talent that allowed him to create some of the most audaciously inventive work ever seen in the medium. Two works in particular have stood the test of time; both were mini-series made for the BBC with his longtime producer Kenneth Trodd, both works involve heaps of period music and style that would comment on the action, both would be anchored by fantastic lead performances, and both would eventually be made into movies with varying results. For now, let’s focus on what is generally considered to be his greatest work: his Peabody Award-winning mini-series The Singing Detective, which debuted in England on BBC1 in 1986 and in the U.S. the following year on PBS. (Don’t worry: I’ll come back to that other work I referred to at the end. It’s important.)


Set in a public hospital in England, it tells the story of the writer Phillip Marlow, who is suffering from psoratic arthritis. Because of his distrust in his doctors, and because he refuses to take his medicine, he is in the grips of a fever dream which sees him rewrite his novel “The Singing Detective;” a Raymond Chandler-esque mid-1940s noir thriller where Marlow is trying to free a framed man for the murder of a showgirl. Interspersed through all of this are flashbacks to Marlow’s childhood in the Forest of Dean during WWII. And as the present day Marlow stars to work with a psychiatrist, the walls between all three storylines start to blur with actors doubling up in roles between the various timelines (ie. a present day nurse becomes a showgirl in the story timeline) and characters from one era crossing over into another (at the murder scene at the end of Episode 1 the entirety of Hammersmith Bridge in London is lined with the hospital staff from the present day).

If this sounds like a mind fuck, it is – but that’s the point! One of Potter’s biggest innovations was using non-linear storytelling techniques such as repeated uses of flashbacks and actors playing multiple roles; all of which in this case serves to underline the fragile state of Marlow’s psyche. Adding further fuel to the fire was the use of period songs lip-synched by the cast to underline the various states of Marlow’s mind; a technique he lifted from his other famous work (more on that in a bit). For example, in one of the most celebrated sequences of the piece and in all of British Television, Marlow is visited by his doctors, which degenerates into a dazzling production of… well, I’m just going to put the full scene up here and leave the surprise for you to see…

As you can see, Potter’s work in general and The Singing Detective in particular follow a dream logic that forces the viewer to put the pieces together. Take for example the amazing sequence set to the tune of “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” where Marlow in the hospital is imagining Marlow the detective singing while flashing back to Marlow as a child making a shocking discovery in the forest (and I’m not going to tell you who and what he sees exactly, because that explains a major plot point)…

As good as Potter’s writing is, it is his collaborators that push his work to excellence; an august company assembled with care by his longtime producer Kenneth Trodd. Jon Amiel’s direction handles all of the tonal shifts of Potter’s fever dream with a surprising deftness. It also is clearly apparent that Amiel and Potter (along with choreographer Quinny Sacks) used the musical staging as a strike back against a certain movie musical from 1981 (and yes, I will be talking about that too in just a moment). As much as Potter may have disliked that particular movie, it’s clearly an influence as the musical numbers are used to a more dramatically dazzling effect. For example, the breathtaking “”Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” sequence sees the Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters standard starting in the book timeline, with Marlow and his band singing, and then the song jumps to the present day as present-day Marlow imagines a church choir visiting the hospital singing it to him.

It also helps that Potter, Trodd, and Amiel assembled a great cast, with fantastic performances from Jim Carter, Patrick Malahide, Bill Paterson, Alison Steadman, Janet Suzman, Joanne Whalley, and Imelda Staunton – all playing multiple roles. But like its sister works in Potter’s musical trilogy, it’s anchored by a revelatory leading performance. As 1993’s Lipstick On Your Collar introduced the world to Ewan McGregor, so to did The Singing Detective solidify the career of the great Michael Gambon; playing both Marlows with equal aplomb. As the story version, Gambon embodies the noir tone perfectly. As the modern day version, he is breathtakingly fearless as he fights with everyone as his body is giving out. (The legend goes that on the first day he entered the hospital set in his full psoriasis make up, the cast and crew were stunned into silence. He then quipped, “I just returned from a lovely vacation in Chernobyl.”) Gambon’s go-for-broke portrayal is the viscera that anchors The Singing Detective and elevates it from a good piece of television to a masterpiece. (And credit must also be given to the uncanny Lyndon Davies, who is genuinely fantastic as the younger Phillip.)


At the end of the day, The Singing Detective and Dennis Potter’s other television works would break the mold of television for all time. In his use of borderline absurdism, dream logic, and non-linear and non-traditional storytelling techniques – all in service of dealing with very adult subjects – he would pave the way for television’s more experimental auteurs. The Singing Detective is out on DVD and I encourage you to set aside the time to watch it in all its fucked up glory! (And skip the movie version – it’s not worth your time).


Speaking Of Movie Versions: If you’re a fan of Dennis Potter and his work, you’re probably asking yourself why the hell I haven’t mentioned the first installment of his musical trilogy. Well, for two reasons: 1) As much as I genuinely like it, the 1981 movie version of Pennies From Heaven is better than Potter’s original 1978 mini-series, and 2) more importantly, in terms of tone, temperament, and production values and certainly in its musical staging, The Singing Detective was heavily influenced by Herbert Ross’s film version of Pennies.

Now, before the Potter fans attack, hear me out. Yes, the original story of Arthur (a Depression-era married sheet music salesman in London) and Eileen (the school teacher he falls in love with) is daring and fun, and yes Cheryl Campbell is lovely as Eileen, and yes, I know that this the role that launched the career of the late, great Bob Hoskins (and deservedly so – his performance as Arthur is glorious). But there’s a reason why the critical wags nicknamed the author of this piece Dennis Plodder. Unlike The Singing Detective, which uses its deliberate pace to give air to all of the hypnotic images Potter and Amiel created, Pennies From Heaven benefitted from the trimming Potter was forced to do for the film’s screenplay. It also benefits from having a proper budget for the production numbers, which like the original are lip-synched but are much more energetically staged. It also cleaned up the supporting characters such as the accordion man getting a proper motivation, and Tom (Eileen’s rich lover and eventual pimp) is made that much more menacing (thanks to a dazzling show-stopping turn by Christopher Walken).

And it must be said that as good as Hoskins and Campbell are, they are not musical theatre actors, whereas Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters most definitely are. This comes through not only in the staging but in the delivery of the songs. Consider the “Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You” sequence where Eileen imagines her unruly class accompanying her (and is one of the few sequences that appears identically in both versions). Production vales to one side, it’s painfully clear which of the two ladies knows their way around a song.

Its this tightness in the storytelling that lifts Pennies From Heaven up from its good television mini-series to a great movie. And it’s that same sharpness that played back into The Singing Detective and helped to make it a television landmark. Don’t get me wrong, the original Pennies From Heaven is a good, but The Singing Detective is great.

Originally Published on 18 August 2014 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile.


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