What I’m about to say will surprise a lot of people, and maybe disappoint some, but the longer The Singing Detective went on, the less impressed I became about it and the less I liked it. Undoubtedly, the performances are universally excellent, the production crisp and the landmark status is inarguable and deserved. But thirty-six years later, the impact is greatly diminished. It was ground-breaking, but that ground is, in 2021, a ploughed, tilled and levelled field across which the world and his dog wander at will. The Singing Detective suffers from its followers and imitators. It is harder to see it through the trees.
And a surprising number of things in the final episode have now become trite, not least the title. Two moments in particular had me close to wincing at their obviousness. But to put these in context, let’s first establish where we are as the final episode starts. Philip E Marlow, writer of detective stories and all-round objectionable human being, full of poison, hatred and contempt for everyone, is in a hospital ward suffering from a body-crippling attack of psoriatic arthritis. Confined to his bed, his thoughts wander and the boundaries between what is real and what is fantasy are first blurred, then erased.
In Marlow’s head, he mixes recollections of his childhood in the Forest of Dean (that are so different and removed from 1986 as to appear a gross exaggeration of accents, dialect, assumptions and complacencies as to seem much, much further back in time that they can be, which is just over forty years) with a jaundiced and slanted re-working of his most successful and only available movel, ‘The Singing Detective’.
Young Philip is the son of a stolid, inimaginative and limited but thoroughly decent Forest of Dean miner and an attractive, sensitive, more refined, London-born mother, a fish out of water, who briefly cheats on her husband witnessed by Philip in the forest, before leaving him for her family in London. Philip has, for no explored reason, ‘done his Number Twos’ on the desk of his vicious harridan of a schoolteacher and passed the blame off onto Mark Binney, son of the man who shagged his mother.
The book features Marlow as a slow-drawling private eye, all cliches and Chandlerisms that, with respect, come not within a light year of the real Philip Marlowe (note the ‘e’), hired by a Mark Binney to investigate two mysterious men who are following him. Binney appears to be some form of Agent, initially, on the trail of a communist ring, but the further the story goes, the more he becomes an unpleasant man with a twisted attitude to sex that seems characteristic of the entire book, and thus of Marlow the writer itself.
And there’s a third strand, outside of the minutiae of Marlow’s condition and treatments, including counselling, which is his manufacture of another fantasy, this involving his ex-wife Nicola, who he has driven away with his hatefulness. Marlow invents a fantasy in which Nicola is ripping him off, with his boyfriend Mark Finny (note the ‘f’, not the ‘b’) over a very valuable screenplay once written, of ‘The Singing Detective’.
So this is where we are when we start the final episode, when we approach resolution and redemption for our poor, twisted man in the centre of the shot. And the steps fall into place, one after another, to enable him to walk out of there, on his own two feet, in trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat, leaning on Nicola, headed for a future with her.
My problem is that they come too fast, too simply. Marlow completes his account of his lie about young Mark, of how the whole class suddenly claimed they’d seen him shit on the desk until the poor kid came to believe it himself, how he was viciously beaten by the teacher and, later, wound up in a mental institution. It brings him to tears of entirely justifiable self-hatred which promptly prompts Dr Gibbon to get him to stand up, on his own.
Philip’s father waits for him to come home from London, all on his own. His mother is dead, drowning herself in the river from Hammersmith Bridge. They walk home through the forest. Philip holds his Dad’s hand for a bit but, when his Dad confesses to loving Philip the boy shushes him, someone might overhear. He runs off, climbs a tree, refuses to come when his Dad calls and calls. I always loathed that part, but I would, wouldn’t I, given my history? Up his tree, Philip fiercely whispers to himself that (he) mustn’t love anyone mustn’t show it, cos they die, must lock himself up, push them away, deny them…
I mean, my goodness, how horrifically simplistic. A man’s life reduced to one moment like that. It’s not worthy of Dennis Potter, but it’s of a piece with the rest of the fall-out. even as it’s semi-contradicted by the scene where, stock still, bent by everything, Mr Marlow roars his grief in one, deep-throated scream, leading Philip to run up and take his hand.
In the present, Marlow’s bitter fantasy about Nicola and Finney reaches a tragic point. The pajama-ed Marlow eavesdrops on their fatal quarel: he sells the screenplay though you can see how dubious he is at the prospect of having to do a re-write, but worst of all, he sells out Nicola. She wanted the part, that was what it was all about for her, not the money. Being passed over destroys her, exacerbated by finney’s suggestion she might be a teeny bit too old for the role. The outcome is blood, all over Nicola and her black slip, from the hole in Finney’s neck made by the kitchen knife she’s stuck in him.
There’s a parallel in the detective story: Binney dead, assailant unknown, ignored, as has been so much of the story, the logic, the clues absent from a detective story with no story. Death by stabbing, a kitchen knife, in the neck.
But the present requires purging. Marlow is well enough to write, physically write, painfully, a pen taped to his clenched, claw-like right hand. He’s up late, writing, everyone else asleep, when a policeman arrives to complete the story, with faux sumpathy and gleeful expression: Finney dead, Nicola confessed, Nicola dead, broke away from her escort, flung herself from Hammersmith Bridge. Marlow wants awake, he has shocked himself with the end his imaginings have created for his ex-wife who, underneath all the abuse and filth he’s flung at her, he still secretly loves. His improving physical and mental state is clearing out his poison. Again, a bit simple.
That’s two down. The third scenario is the most fantastic in any sense of the world. The two mysterious men arrive to find Binney dead. They have no idea what to do. They don’t know why they’ve done anything, they don’t even know who they are. They’re Chandler’s go-to move, whenever the story seems to sag have a man come through the door, carrying a gun. (They also make me uncomfortably aware that, entirely unconsciously, I lifted them for my novel Even in Peoria) In short, they become aware that they’re minor characters in a story, padding, completely unimportant. And they want more.
So, instead of hunting Marlow the Detective, they hunt Marlow the Writer, arriving in the Ward, pushing Nurse Mills aside, torturing him, as the ward becomes warehouse-like, at night. Enter Marlow the Detective, walking slowly. Its a shoot-out, a pointless shoot-out, without rhyme or reason other than that all detective stories end with a shoot-out, and Potter is still playing affectionately with cliches. Bullets fly back and forth. They create carnage in the ward, going about its normal business unaware. Drips and bottles, windows and glasses, smashed and shattered. Mrhall is shot, Reginald and Staff Nurse white, old Noddy. Marlow the Detective has two bullets left. He kills the little man. The big man hasn’t got a gun, he’s cowering, pleading for his life, Marlow the Writer’s pleading for it too, it’s murder, cold-blooded murder. But the detective sees it as not murder but pruning. Only one of them will walk out. He shoots, a bullet through the head, instant death. But, and this is equally as pat as the other conclusions Potter has drawn, Marlow has shot Marlow. Of course he has.
Thus, with one Marlow dead, the other Marlow walks out, with Nicola. We follow them, for once withut the imaginatively deployed music – did you ever think ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ could sound so sinister? – along a corridor to its end when they open a door and escape,no more to be seen, a happy ending, world without end.
And once more at the top of his tree, among the thick, dark-green leaves blowing, young Philip turns to us and tells us, ‘When i grow up, I be going to be… a detective!’
And there lies my case. Objectively, I recognise The Singing Detective for the masterpiece it is, subjectively I an unthrilled. Dennis Piotter built a complex castle, a veritable Gormenghast of possibility and intrigue, but the answers ended up being too simple, too linear, too obvious to support that weight. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.