Philip E. Marlow (The Singing Detective)

Also Dan Dark
Created by Dennis Potter

“All solutions and no clues. That’s what the dumbheads want…I’d rather it was the other way around. All clues. No solutions. That’s the way things are. Plenty of clues. No solutions.”
— Marlow waxes philosophic on what the public wants in a detective novel.

The Singing Detective, which aired as six episodes on the BBC in 1986, was not your average TV private eye. Or your average private eye television show.

Not by a very long shot.

Dennis Potter’s complex, sprawling, masterful, emotionally-charged multi-layered miniseries remains one of the most intelligent explorations of creativity, memory and the human condition I’ve ever seen in the mystery — or any —  genre. PHILIP E. MARLOW (notice there’s no “E” in Marlowe) was once a moderately successful British detective story writer, but now he’s a long-term patient in a hospital bed, covered in the scales and sores of the psoriasis that has crippled him, racked with pain and guilt and paranoia, and prone to hallucinations, as he tries to sort out his life, past and present, and mentally rework his best known novel, The Singing Detective.

As he weaves in and out of consciousness, Marlow is confronted by demons, both real and fictional. Actor Michael Gambon gives a powerful, wrenching performance as both the feverish, bed-ridden Marlow and the suave, fictional Marlow, known as The Singing Detective, who sings in front of a big band and moonlights as a private eye in war-torn London. Characters wander from hallucination to hallucination, occasionally bursting into song and dance, as the feverish, cynical, suspicious Marlow tries to come to terms with his past (stretching back to his childhood), his fiction, his present, and maybe, just maybe, some sort of future.

The show won all sorts of awards in the U.K. for both Potter and Gambon, from the BAFTAs to the Royal Television Society, and over in the States, where the show aired on PBS, a Peacock.

Not your average P.I. show, not by a long shot, and definitely not everyone’s cuppa, but not one that anyone who has ever sat through is ever likely to forget. This is a show that doesn’t prettify much of anything — this is, for all its flights of fancy — the real deal; a vision of life as messy and bloody and shitty and cheeky and vulgar and sometimes, somehow, even triumphant.

Am I right or am I right?

* * * * *

But of course, anything as wonderfully imaginative and subversive (not to mention potentially profitable) as The Singing Detective couldn’t be left alone for too long. In 2003, Hollywood took a whack at “adapting” it.

The reaction from audiences, even with the knowledge that Potter himself was an accomplice, was decidedly mixed. Condensing close to six hours of already tightly scripted television into a less-than-two-hour film couldn’t have been easy, and a lot of the subtlety of the original seems to have been tossed on the scrap heap. The lead is no longer the enigmatically named Philip E. Marlow, but DAN DARK (played by a pre-Iron Man, post-Chaplin Robert Downey, Jr.), who makes grumpy ol’ Phil look like a rather pleasant chap after all, all things considered. The original slowly revealed its plot through detail and the revelation of character; the film apparently gives up the Dark’s big secret in the first few minutes. Oh, and the swirling big band numbers are replaced by 1950’s rock’n’roll. Still, there were mostly raves for Downey’s performance, and the supporting cast (including Robin Wright Penn, a barely recognizable Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Saul Rubinek and Alfre Woodard) wasn’t too shabby either.


  • ” I had on my best pajamas, the ones with red stripes and blue forget-me-nots. I was all dressed up and talcumed under the armpits; a million dollars was about to call. I was ready for it.”
    — Philip Marlow (echoing  the opening to Chandler’s The Big Sleep)
  • “You just don’t know writers. They’ll use anything, anybody. They’ll eat their own young.”
    — Philip Marlow
  • “I used to think that all I wanted was the good opinion of honorable men and the ungrudging love of beautiful women. Now I know for sure that all I really want is a cigarette.”
    — Philip Marlow
  • “Can I go back to the ward now? I lead an exciting and vibrant life there.”
    — Philip Marlow


  • The Singing Detective is strong stuff. It can be argued, I suppose, that the drama is intentionally ugly in its use of a protagonist covered with sores. Perhaps it is as ugly and as devastating as the Iran-contra scandal, say, or the AIDS epidemic or the phenomenon of the homeless. This is not just another serving of television escapism.”
    — The New York Times
  • “… a stylistic jumble, wrong-headed in everyway. Stick with the original.”
    — Glenn Whipp, The Los Angeles Daily News, on the Robert Downey version


  • THE SINGING DETECTIVE | Buy this video | Buy this DVD
    (1986, BBC)
    6 50-minute episodes
    Written by Dennis Potter
    Directed by John Amiel
    Produced by John Harris
    Executive Producers: Kenith Trodd and Rick McCallum
    Starring Michael Gambon as PHILIP E. MARLOW
    Also starring Lyndon Davies, Janet Suzman, Patrick Malahide, Joanne Whalley, Bill Paterson, Alison Steadman
    • “Skin” (November 16, 1986)
    • “Heat” (November 23, 1986)
    • “Lovely Days” (November 30, 1986)
    • “Clues” (December 7, 1986)
    • “Pitter Patter” (December 14, 1986)
    • “Who Done It” (December 21, 1986)


  • The Singing Detective (1986; by Dennis Potter)Buy this book


  • THE SINGING DETECTIVE | Buy on video Buy on DVD Watch it now!
    (2003, Haft Entertainment/Icon Entertainment)
    109 minutes
    Screenplay by Dennis Potter
    Directed by Keith Gordon
    Producers: Bruce Davey, Mel Gibson, Steven Haft
    Associate producer: Kevin Lake
    Co-producers: Jane Potter, Robert Potter
    Executive producer: Stan Wlodkowski
    Starring Robert Downey Jr. as DAN DARK
    Also starring Robin Wright Penn, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Carla Gugino, Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard, Amy Aquino, David Dorfman


  • The Singing Detective: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack | Buy this CD
    This soundtrack to the ambitious but flawed big-screen remake of the TV cult fave about an author feverishly rewriting his life even as he faces his own personal Big Sleep swaps the original’s big band-era tunes for classic 1950s-era doo wop and rock’n’roll. Robert Downey Jr. offers the only new recording, a soulful cover of “In My Dreams”. Goodies include Gene Vincent’s original of the same song, plus Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walking In The Rain”, The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” and the eerily appropriate “It’s Only Make Believe” by Conway Twitty. A tasty selection, balancing the expected with some genuine sleepers that deserve to be rescued from obscurity. Dreamy.


  • September 28, 2023
    The Bottom Line: Yes, Harry Potter. But to me Michael Gambon will always be The Singing Detective in the 1986 BBC miniseries. A dying writer’s fever dreams, a heart-rending, timeless performance, an amazing script.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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