The Singing Detective

ICA Cinema

20 Nov 2012
The Singing Detective is widely acknowledged not only as Dennis Potter's masterpiece.

The Singing Detective is widely acknowledged not only as Dennis Potter's masterpiece but as one of the greatest dramas ever shown on television. The work, set out over six episodes, is a masterly interweaving of four different realities:

  • The daily life of the central character Philip E. Marlow, a patient on a hospital ward suffering an acute crisis of the disease, psoriasis that he has  suffered  for much of his life, now complicated by psoriatic arthropathy
  • The plot of a work of fiction Marlow has written, called The Singing Detective, a noir thriller which he is re-writing in his head, transforming it from pulp fiction into a work of literature
  • The hallucinatory world that Marlow is driven into by his illness
  • Marlow's childhood memories which include the trauma of witnessing his mother's infidelity and her subsequent suicide, events which, in his mind (though not in objective reality), are causally related, and thus the source of unbearable guilt

It is clear that the illness is to be understood as a metaphor for an extreme psychological crisis. The hospital ward is described in the text as a 'place in the mind'. So, Marlow is  engaged in a profound personal journey, helped by what is described in the text as a 'clever  psychotherapist'. As the plot progresses and his condition improves the different realities, at first fragmentary, impact upon each other and start to coalesce. The viewer  here becomes the detective putting together the clues, until the painful narrative takes shape. Marlow confronts very painful truths about himself but as he does so he begins to escape from the bitter and cynical world which has encased him like a diseased skin. For Potter this process is a metaphor for the way we all live, compelled to struggle to understand ourselves, as we put  together and try to sort out memory, fantasy and reality. The narrative thus manifests compelling parallels to the psychoanalytic process and interrogates the process of artistic creativity.

Dr David Bell is the Past President of The Institute of Psychoanalysis and on the panel discussion of The Singing Detective on 25 November.

The ICA and Institute of Psychoanalysis co-present The Singing Detective Weekend. Episodes 1-6 of The Singing Detective will be screened on Saturday 24 November, and a panel discussion with Dr David Bell, series producer Kenith Trodd, psychoanalyst Donald Campbell (Chair) and actors Patrick Malahide and Janet Suzman will take place at 11am Sunday 25 November 2012.

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