The Singing Detective: Dennis Potter’s Metaphorical Musical About Misogyny

Given the current national conversation about misogyny, and my belief that in order to abolish an evil you should try to understand it on its own terms, I’m surprised that Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (Amazon) — the original TV show from 1986, not the truncated movie remake — hasn’t been brought up as a powerful dramatic examination of the issue. Though I’ve seen some critiques refer to it as misogynistic, I’d say those viewers are mixing up portrayal with endorsement — that the writer puts words in a character’s mouth is not necessarily reflective of the full force of beliefs a writer might have and, even if they were, the art here transcends them.

The Singing Detective mirrors themes in popular culture regarding women’s roles in fiction by focusing on detective stories as its model. In this genre traditionally — especially in the hard boiled American model that The Singing Detective looks to — there were two kinds of women, angels and devils. And you never know when an angel would turn out to be a devil. In real life, this dissemination of is not far from too many men’s outlook — women are either with them or against them, there is no in-between. They either worship the man or attack him. In The Singing Detective, the female lot in noir is reflected in the main character’s world view — the world is one of betrayals, most often by women unless they are over a woman, even though you might have held them in high esteem before the transgression.

On the surface — that is, the immediate allure that captured people’s attention but is, ultimately, not the point of it at all — The Singing Detective follows a bitter, angry man, named Philip Marlow (played with the fury of a force to be reckoned with by the amazing Michael Gambon), bed-ridden with a debilitating skin condition in a hospital ward — a physical manifestation of the bile that chokes him on the inside. Between fevers and rages, he passes his time in his head, going over the circumstances of his childhood and reworking his out-of-print detective novel, also called The Singing Detective, to reflect his past more directly. Or maybe he’s just remembering the novel and how it reflected his past. It’s hard to tell, and it is not the point to know for sure anyhow.

At times, Marlow’s fevers get the best of him, and the day-by-day dramas of the hospital ward become song-and-dance numbers involving the participants, directed at Marlow and utilizing songs of old that seem innocent enough, but take on a sinister side when juxtaposed with his memories and his fictions. This is both a side point to the story and the manifestation of the central theme, how pop culture is also a personal relationship with the person experiencing it, and how works in that realm can mirror and help define moments in life they were never expected to. Pop culture, probably despite its intention and definitely regardless of what intellectuals say, means so much to us.

The Singing Detective is a raw experience, so much so that I can see how some viewers could find it upsetting. It focuses not just on a monster, but a clever, intelligent one. He can be very witty, though he can also be pathetic. He might be a victim, but only in that same way that we are all victims of our past.

And his experience, while personal, is also wrapped up in all sorts of socio-political realities. The wider picture is so complicated that it’s difficult to view it with strict clarity. The gist here is that men’s fractured psyches and their anger toward betrayal become a reflection of their wounds and pathetically childish emotions and are wrapped in examinations of post-war England and the dominance of American culture, as well as racist England clinging on well into the 1980s. Potter rolls everything together in a monstrous mush, where the march of history is linked to the same debilitating traumas and wounded egos in the personal lives of the men who help move it along. It’s most certainly an indictment of a male-dominated culture, but not one without sympathy toward the oppressor.

In fact, while it’s tempting to call so much of the show a “dream,” I think that doesn’t capture it correctly, because it assumes two distinct places — real life and dream life. But this is level upon level of perception crashing into each other — fiction, memory, emotion, subconscious, and several iterations of each of them, often tainted by each other. It is a violent action, these aspects of reality meeting up with each other, and The Singing Detective reflects that violence.

It’s interesting that Gambon followed this up with another tale of wounded misogyny, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, though that one offered no hope of redemption for the monster. The Singing Detective does, however. The point is that there is beauty in Gambon’s character — that there is beauty in us all, but there is also so much available to beat it out of us and let the monsters take over.

Misogyny is too easy for a man to give himself to — a whole genre of detective novels and more are there to back up that embrace, the idea that it’s a man’s world and problems must be solved the manly way, with women mostly around to enact betrayals or take shorthand. While reality dictates survival and less sympathy for the most awful among us, drama is the place we can push back the layers that are not possible or even suggested in real life. To show hate, Potter portrays hate, but he never endorses it. It’s an ugly business, this being a man thing, and Potter well knows that. I’m sure we all hurt on some level, but it’s what we do with that hurt that matters.

And our lives, much like Philip Marlow’s, has no tidy ending, but sometimes we try to give them to ourselves to feel better. The whodunnit is a lie, because at a certain age, we are a swirl of everyone and everything dunnit — even we dunnit at a certain point. Potter reflects this reality when all levels intersperse and the mystery we have been initially presented with — the mystery of the nude Russian girl dead in the Thames — has long since been passed on. There is no resolution. Our psyches are continuous, multi-faceted mysteries that never get solved, but constantly reveal the ugly details, the wicked clues, of the crimes that happen inside.

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