‘Singing Detective’s’ Encore

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Instead of digging deep into the vaults of series from long, long ago, this week Retro is returning to the not-so-distant past. February, 1988, to be exact. That’s when KCET premiered Dennis Potter’s award-winning, six-part British miniseries “The Singing Detective,” which The New York Times’ Vincent Canby named best “movie” of 1988.

Though KCET has repeated the series several times, this Saturday the station will air all six episodes at once.

“The Singing Detective” is is unlike anything you’ve ever seen--part film noir, part musical, part psychological thriller.

Irish actor Michael Gambon, who played Glenda Jackson’s lover in “Turtle Diary,” and was recently in “Mobsters,” stars as P.E. Marlow--not to be confused with Philip Marlowe--a writer of detective fiction confined to a hospital bed suffering from a crippling bout of psoriasis and arthritis. Marlow resembles a human honey bun--his body is swollen and bloated and his skin is red and scaly.


Dennis Potter, who penned “The Singing Detective” and the equally acclaimed miniseries and feature film “Pennies From Heaven,” also has suffered from psoriasis throughout most of his life.

Because he’s immobile, Marlow uses his fertile imagination to keep from going crazy. He spends his time working on a mental rewrite of one of his early works--”The Singing Detective.”

Reality and fiction begin to blur for Marlow. He becomes a 1940s era gumshoe who just happens to sing with a dance band. Soon, characters from Marlow’s real life and the fictional world begin to blur. Characters drop in and out of song--all the actors lip sync such standards from the era as “Paper Doll” and “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”--and incidents from the fictional life begin to encounter memories from his own childhood, circa World War II England, which were horrible for young Marlow.

Besides Gambon’s superb, larger-than-life Marlow, “The Singing Detective” features strong supporting performances from Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as a sympathetic hospital nurse; Janet Suzman as Marlow’s wife and Alison Steadman, currently in “Life is Sweet,” as Marlow’s less-than-saintly mother. Jon Amiel (“Queen of Hearts” and “Tune in Tomorrow ...”) directed. Frances Hannon supplied Gambon’s frightening makeup.

Be forewarned: “The Singing Detective” is often unsettling and disturbing and is not for everyone’s tastes. And it is strictly adult fare.

“The Singing Detective” airs from 9 p.m. Saturday to 3:50 a.m. Sunday on KCET.