The Loveliest Word in the English Language

illustration by Brianna Ashby
Imagine a typical episode of a television hospital drama. A new patient is admitted at the start, and by its conclusion they are discharged either into the outside world or into the heavens. Their personal history and the various elements of their character will be expressed through their condition and how it is managed by the various appendages of the hospital. If the drama has any ambition, the patient might be permitted to stick around for a few episodes more, but whatever the duration of the character arc, they will always be part of the emotional landscape of the show rather than its centrepiece.

The Singing Detective is different. It’s set in a hospital, but it is not a product of the hospital. Everything we experience in this series is filtered through the consciousness of its protagonist in a way that is unusual for anything on television. In terms of classic noir drama, the lead character is often a disruptive, reactive entity amidst a web of complex interrelating systems; but here the systems of the hospital world, both human and bureaucratic, are modeled only in terms of their relationship to him. These days we have a plethora of dramas which are built around one or two strong characters, but very few of them go as far as this in mediating the whole thing within the mindset of a fictional creation.

This wasn’t always the way for Dennis Potter. By the time The Singing Detective was broadcast in the UK, he was a well-established author of serious television drama. Occasionally controversial for its sexual and political content, his work had always toyed with the conventions of the medium in playful, accessible ways; but prior to this, there had always been a base level of realism against which to judge the more unusual elements. The closest comparison remains Pennies From Heaven, the 1976 serial which established Bob Hoskins as a household name, and which first demonstrated Potter’s unique blend of musical theatrics and drama.

There too, the characters would burst into song in elaborate sequences that were blended seamlessly into otherwise realistic moments of drama. But these musical breakdowns had a very specific purpose: they were intended as a way of expressing to the audience the inner lives of these people. Imagine a thought bubble come to life, but with no discernible boundary between the bubble and immediate reality. They sing to us what they cannot say to one another. But by the time we get to The Singing Detective, it isn’t always clear what’s real and what is dream. The only thing we can safely relate back to is the psychology of its lead character.

The Singing Detective follows in the vein of other great works in depicting convalescence as a realm of mental reflection as well as physical suffering, but this series is less about the actual experience of being ill in hospital than it is about being locked inside oneself. The exact nature of the condition which confines our protagonist to his bed is not the point; it may be shocking, but in narrative terms it is arguably more effective as an effective plot device which forces an otherwise fiercely independent and proud man to be entirely reliant on others for a given period of time.

Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlowe, a writer of pulpy crime fiction who is effectively trapped in a hospital while suffering from a crippling bout of psoriasis that leaves his skin peeling and his body stiffly convulsed with agonising joint pains. Michael Gambon also plays Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of his own novels; his alter-ego is a detective who moonlights as a jazz singer, stalking the shadows beneath a lamplit Hammersmith Bridge while his creator is unable to so much as unclench his fists.

Marlowe’s name ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of noir fiction. But Potter’s drama relies less on the actual work of Raymond Chandler and more on the generic associations that his work (and its many adaptations) so often suggest. Mystery, duplicity, treachery, and profound moral ambiguity are the dominant textures in this detective’s world. The actual mucky business of who-killed-who ends up fading into irrelevance, and while the audience is fed one mystery, the overarching suggestion is always that what we are watching is only another truthful delusion; another rendition of something which is too difficult or painful for our protagonist to express any other way.

Gambon’s performance is consistently stunning in several different ways. As Marlowe (hospital patient, author, dreamer) our first sight of him is a shock, but what’s shocking is not so much the condition of his body as it his tense, overwrought demeanour; in constant pain, he’s barely able to move his lips, and so his voice comes out a bitter, harsh squeal that sounds as if it were being wrung out of him. He is harsh and coarse and rude, almost without exception. For a man as bitter as Marlowe to arouse our sympathies, he’s got to be funny as well as cruel, and when it comes to cracking wise, he is merciless. Asked what he believes in, he snarls:

‘Malthusianism…Malthus, but mandatory. Compulsory depopulation by infanticide, suicide, genocide or whatever other means suggest themselves. AIDS, for example, that’ll do. Why should queers be so special?…I also believe in cigarettes, cholesterol, alcohol, carbon monoxide, masturbation, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the Daily Telegraph, and not properly labeling fatal poisons, but above all else, most of all, I believe in the one thing that can come out of people’s mouths: vomit.’

But in his dreams, the other Marlowe is cool. He’d never fall back on anything so crude – his verbal transactions are briskly economical even as they are poetic. His movements have an easy grace, his voice is a rich mid-Atlantic drawl. We take him for one of the good guys, but this detective’s taste for a Chandleresque observation marks him out, like his creator, as one who prefers to observe and cast judgment from a distance. ‘The doorman of a nightclub can always pretend it’s lipstick and not blood on his hands,’ he purrs over the opening sequence of the very first episode: ‘But how’d it get there?…If he smacked some dame across her shiny mouth, then he’s got both answers in one.’

He shares his author’s own overriding self-interest, his casual contempt for the clumsy, emotive idiocy which surrounds him:

‘There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.’

The link between Gambon’s two characters is in the third Marlowe: a boy we see in flashbacks, living in wartime Britain with his impeccably middle-class mother and his rough, working-class dad. We first glimpse the kid in a stunning crane shot that drifts —quite free from narrative context — very high up in the branches of a very tall tree, all sunshine and light as Duke Ellington swings through the background. Like the man he will become, the boy chooses to isolate himself from the world, from his friends and his parents. ‘When I grow up,’he says, ‘I’m gonna be a detective. I’ll find out things. I’ll find out who done it.’

Who done what? Questions pile upon questions. The connection isn’t clear between these men and this boy with a thick Forest of Dean accent. The temptation is to see the scenes of young Philip as being a core of realism which sustains the fantasies which are to come, but this is misguided: both the boy and the detective have things to teach Marlowe the patient above and beyond the basic answer to the question of why he became what he is.

Marlowe’s recollections of his childhood repeatedly become lost in the narrative dead-ends of a number of peculiarly haunting incidents: here is young Philip sitting in a railway carriage with his mother, anxious under the glare of a pack of demobbed soldiers; there he is back in school, suffering under the glare of a nightmarish schoolmistress; here he is wandering through a forest, surrounded by the mocking chants of other children, moving towards a clearing which might hold the key to everything he doesn’t understand.

There’s a mystery here, but its solution becomes apparent to the audience long before Marlowe begins to remember. And when the revelation comes it turns out to be only one of a number of potential influences on the man in the hospital; it might give a hint to why he came to be such a misanthrope, but it sure as hell won’t make him feel any better about himself.

A further problem is that in the hospital ward he’s surrounded by other men who are just like him in the sense of being essentially disconnected from the world. One old man is a poor gibbering wreck, barely able to talk or move for himself except to twitch uncontrollably. Another, Reginald, unresponsive to his ever-whining neighbour, is quietly wrapped up in a novel which turns out to be titled ‘The Singing Detective’ by none other than Philip Marlowe.

But that whining neighbour is more significant a character than he first appears. Mr Hall is the kind of man frequently satirised in Britain as a ‘Little Englander’. He’s a small-minded, proud, sanctimonious racist, and he has nothing but contempt for the staff and patients around him. Privately, he takes every opportunity to express his resentment for the nurses, but when he’s forced to confront the objects of his ire, he resorts to a shit-eating grin and a ludicrously theatrical politeness. Trapped by his own absurd mannerisms, Hall’s character underlines the fact that there is nothing big or clever about the kind of misogynistic abuse Marlowe the patient regularly expresses against all those who care for him. Hall is like a grotesque right-wing parody of Marlowe without the wit, the imagination or the talent, and he proves that without those points in his favour, our hero would simply be an irritating, deluded fantasist.

Conversely, Marlowe the detective is immensely appealing. Just as everything ugly about Marlowe the patient can be encapsulated in the things that make him British, the American-ness of the detective is central to his appeal. America must have never seemed more wonderful than it did during the war and in its immediate aftermath, and it’s American jazz music which becomes the link between all three versions of Marlowe. Music is the lynchpin, the thing about which revolves every different possible version of our lonely detective.

By modern standards, the unusual thing about Potter’s musical method is that the characters aren’t really singing – they’re miming. And miming obviously, too. There’s no attempt made to convince the audience that these characters could really sing in this way. So on one level, the musical sequences represent a basic exercise in wish fulfillment. Hasn’t anyone who loves music wished they could perform it to the level at which they find it most pleasurable?

But there’s something else going on here too. As we later see, Marlowe the detective is based – at least in part – on the young Philip’s memories of his father singing in pubs, accompanied by his mother on the piano. For Marlowe, his father sang exactly as well as those records which defined his life, and so that music takes on new meanings; it doesn’t matter to him what those songs were really about or who really sang them because what’s important is what they made him feel. And how much finer it is to remember anyone that way; a benefit, if you will, of being trapped in this introspective and intensely subjective experience of reality.

One cannot remain embedded in fantasy forever. The palace of memory may be a pleasant place to visit, but it’s not a place we can stay for long. In the end, Marlowe finds comfort in setting aside his past and (literally) putting down the creations of his deluded imagination. As his illness recedes, his manner becomes more sensitive to those around him, and he starts to find an elemental thrill in words again:

‘What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in your mouth, in the shape it makes on the page? What do you think? Well now, I’ll tell you: E-L-B-O-W. Elbow.’

On one level the conclusion seems almost too tidy, too convenient after what has come before. Certainly it places a remarkable amount of faith in the psychiatric talking therapies that the series otherwise does a great deal to ridicule when, having apparently recovered from his condition, our hero departs the hospital arm in arm with his loving wife. Is that all there is to it? Now that Marlowe has found ‘closure’ in the personal origins of his grief, can we all sleep soundly in the knowledge that pretty much anything in life can be explained by a combination of psychoanalysis and the attention of a loving woman?

Not really. Even after writing all of this I still feel like I’ve barely expressed even the tiniest part of what this series has to offer. The show itself has the same problem: too much is left up in the air, and nothing is really resolved by the end of The Singing Detective. There are whole plot points brought up and then forgotten about: what about the bit with the Russians and the Nazi spies, and the dead man in the cupboard in the first episode? And what about the sub-plot involving a stolen screenplay for a film adaptation of the titular novel?

‘All clues, no solutions,’ thinks Marlowe, but then ‘that’s the way things are.’ Maybe Marlowe’s healing comes through not rejecting his necessary isolation, but in learning to live with his own necessary delusions. If his experience in hospital can be said to mean anything to him, it’s not about coming to understand his condition, but more about learning to accept it with all its messy contradictions and uncertainties.