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The Singing Detective, losing one’s skin with irony, clues and no solutions, a perfect symbol of the British disease

Ahead of a one day conference in London, Anthony Barnett recalls how he felt about Dennis Potter's 'The Singing Detective' when he wrote about it back in 1987.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
8 December 2011

Twenty five years ago, the BBC ran two astoundingly good TV mini-series. On Saturday one of them, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective a supreme example of television art, will be discussed and celebrated at a one day conference in London. At the time (1st January 1987) I wrote this in the Listener – a weekly of intelligent coverage of broadcasting now long gone. Some of the references will be obscure now but then it was quarter of a century ago…

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Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective was more than one tale of mystery and suspense. At the finish of the six hugely enjoyable programmes, many questions remain. Not the least of these is how a state-funded television station was able to put out both Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective within a year of each other. This was a double feat of investing in 'culture' that is formally innovative, controversial in theme and of really good quality. Both have also been hugely appreciated. The BBC deserves congratulations for keeping its nerve.

But who, or what, was this singing detective? Of course, there must be more than one answer. But that means that there must also be at least one answer which is not that he is an autobiographical projection of Dennis Potter coming to terms with his now famously unpleasant illness, or a childless man struggling with his own guilt.

Who or what else, then, is this singing detective, who was both a crooner and an ace investigator - but a frustrated one - in 1945, and in that same year a young schoolboy, and also today a hospital patient, traumatised with psoriasis? Who is this Philip Marlow, this P.M. whose initials just happen to coincide with the most powerful office in the land, and also stand for the afternoon and the evening of the day? “All clues. No solutions. That's the way things are. Plenty of clues. No solutions.”

Since when must we believe the author? To make sense of clues you need to consider solutions. Here's one: P.M. is Britain. A body painfully uncomfortable in its own skin - skin that since 1945 has peeled off, as the joints have bouts of acute arthritic seizure. A body that keeps itself together through irony as its envelope disintegrates; one which views the world with a mixture of extreme disgust and sentimentality; one that regularly hallucinates; one that cannot decide whether its remembered past was heaven or hell. Isn't this one description of 'the British disease'? There are obvious parallels: the violent, festering limb in Ulster; the outbreaks of thuggery that cause Peregrine Worsthorne such sleeplessness; the American exploitation of our best assets, abetted by smart characters at home (our Binneys and Finneys); the daydreams of national greatness. But these are symptoms of a more profound loss of identity and purpose, one that began precisely at that moment of supreme triumph in 1945.

The young P.M. is leaving home on the train with his mother. His way of life is disintegrating and he is bewildered as to how and why. From the window he watches the crows and the scarecrow. This is no Worzel Gummage. It is a straw Hitler that is attacked and blown to bits by a small force of Tommies. P.M. pretends to join them. He has just been looking at a headline that says the Germans are surrendering and has thought: “That's bloody old Hitler done for, then. So everything ool be all right. That's what um do say, yunnit? It's Be A Lovely Day Tomorrow.”

But Hitler was not blown to bits by the British. He was done in by the Russians. A few months later, P.M. holds the dying body of his mother, now Red agent Lili, killed trying to stop Nazi rocket scientists from being protected by “the British and the Yanks”. P.M. looks up powerless from the paving stones of the capital of victory. They are now the site of international shenanigans over which he has no control. “I'll get you” he swears, “whoever you are. Whatever you are. Wherever you are.” But he won't. He can't, not only because 'they' are too powerful, but also because whatever 'it' is, it is also in himself - he is one of the causes, the downfall, not its solution. In a way this is the British disease, the fact that the agency that seeks the cure is itself the problem. He doesn’t realise that he is talking about himself.

On a lighter note, the coincidence of the two mysterious men going berserk just as the M15 trail in Australia came to its conclusion was, well, it was a delightful coincidence. The first mystery man tells the second “We're supposed to be in Intelligence, aren't we?” Later they complain to P.M.: “Bang! Bang! And why?” “And what for? We're never told.” “Our roles are unclear.”

Two other TV series whose transmissions overlapped with The Singing Detective also covered the story of postwar Britain. There was Paradise Postponed, with its complacent narrative; and much worse (because it blithely refused to register that anything important had changes) First Among Equals. The former took on the fact that things have 'gone wrong' but it did so in Mortimer's traditional language. Jeffrey Archer's vision, or rather lack of it, implies that the old consensus politics still work. The key to his story was that all the political choices Britain faces are little more than personal ones, and that all the personal choices are fundamentally equivalent. Archer's four equal heroes are each replaceable by one another, even as P.M., in a House of Commons Utopia, which ruled 800 million people in 1945.

Potter, like, yet so unlike Archer, also wanted to go into Parliament. For Potter, though, P.M. is someone who, having lost the empire of his body, has failed to find a role. Someone who in the end walks away as a parody of his own make-believe.

Special thanks TKBH

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