Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Glen Creeber, The Singing Detective, London: BFI TV Classics, 2007.
My rating: ***

The Singing Detective (Bfi TV Classics) The Singing Detective by Glen Creeber

Television doesn’t always age well, but Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective more than twenty years later is still just as riveting and confronting. I saw the series when it originally aired in 1986 and was completely fascinated, even if I didn’t entirely understand it. Watching it at this remove, I have a better insight into what’s going on and the fascination remains.

It reminds me – as it did when I last saw it – of one of my favourite films, Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence. In this film, as in The Singing Detective, a seriously ill writer (played by John Gielgud) imagines a novel to keep himself sane and to distract himself from the pain. As in the later series, The Singing Detective, the narrative is fractured and layered and often interlaced with surrealist elements. The story is also continually interrupted by and affected by the real life plight of the author. Music is likewise centrally important.

The author of this BFI TV Classic book on The Singing Detective, Glen Creeber, notes that Resnais became a huge fan of Dennis Potter’s work and dedicated a film to him after his death: On connaît la chanson. There are many similarities between Renais’ approach and Potter’s, but the former has a lighter touch: a subtle humour and amusement pervades much of his work.

Creeber provides an interesting account of the series and makes the essential point that a television series is always a collaborative effort and it was not only Potter who made the series what it was. The director, Jon Amiel, who had a background as a script editor, insisted that Potter’s first draft of the series needed considerable changes. The actors – in particular Michael Gambon and Patrick Malahide were also crucial to the success of the series as was the incidental music in addition to the songs chosen by Potter.

Another interesting observation is Creeber’s report that Potter summarised the series as the invitation by Christ to the sick man in the gospels to ‘Pick up his bed and walk’.

Creeber’s treatment of The Singing Detective gives it a more recognisably ‘film studies’ treatment than do the authors of the BFI TV classics books on Doctor Who and Star Trek, making the book more skewed towards a purely academic audience. But arguably this is the type of audience The Singing Detective attracts in any case. One minor quibble I did have with his approach however is his reliance on Freudian and psychoanalytic approaches – but this might be just prejudice on my part as one could argue that the source material readily lends itself to this kind of treatment.

4 thoughts on “The Singing Detective (2007)

  1. Scu says:

    What are your thoughts about the movie vs the tv series?

    I watched the TV series because of how much I enjoyed the movie. I like both of them, but I could easily imagine not liking the movie if I saw the tv series first.

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  2. Clare says:

    Hi Scu, I have to admit that I haven’t seen the film.

    It is hard to see how it would work and it is difficult (for me at least) to imagine Robert Downey Jnr in the role that Michael Gambon inhabits with such subtlety and ambiguity. A film is also a very different thing from a TV series and I do tend to prefer the TV format for its capacity to build story and character over a long period. In addition, there is the fact that the TV series is British and the film American with the various cultural differences that implies.

    Having said this, Potter wrote the script for the film as well as the TV series. But, as Glen Creeber points out in his book – the TV series was very much a collaborative team effort and much of its impact derives from the acting, direction, lighting, the script editing efforts of the director and so on as well as from the writing.

    Nonetheless, I should take a look at the film so that I can talk from a basis of knowledge rather than uninformed opinion!

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  3. Scu says:

    There is no need to see the movie. I really liked it, but as I said above, I can clearly see why someone who saw the tv series first would not. I didn’t even know the tv series existed when I saw the movie.

    Despite some of the obvious derivative elements of the movie, I think they are mostly different beasts. Which is for all the better. It avoids that feeling of watching the original as if on fast forward that so many adaptations fall prey to.

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  4. Clare says:

    Hi Scu, I note Dennis Potter also did the same thing with Pennies from Heaven, which was first a TV series and then a Hollywood film he wrote the script for.

    This raises the interesting problem of adaptations. The received wisdom is that adaptations are bad – but if they use the chosen medium well, they can sometimes be better than the source.

    I have found that some TV series actually work better than their source material – eg Wire in the Blood and Our Mutual Friend. The film of The Dead Zone is also far more interesting than the source novel – with the combination of Cronenberg’s direction and Christopher Walken’s acting.

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