1.19.2007

Skinscapes: 20 years of the "The Singing Detective"


You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

I (the usual beginning of blog posts, I have noticed, this is quite the self-absorbed document) first saw the the British television miniseries The Singing Detective in 1987 - 88 as I was graduating college and starting to try and find a first post-college job. Typically, I hadn't really given the subject of 'what to do for work' much thought and my life was quite unsettled at the time. Even with all the chaos did I manage to catch the series almost in its entirety.

At the time of its release the series created a sensation and was widely written about even though it is very gloomy in parts and very British. It is the story of a writer afflicted with extreme psoriasis confined in a grim ward in a hospital, but is extremely non-linear as the protagonist feverishly lapses into noirish interludes from one of his pulpy detective novels further intercut with vivid and punishingly scarifying memories from his childhood (adultery, suicide, classroom humiliations). And, strangely, it is a musical, full of dance hall songs from the 40's that move the story forward through the use of hallucinatory lipsynched song-and-dance numbers.

In some ways the story is a twisted retelling of Job -- a connection actually made explicit in the opening episode. The main character has powerfully conflicted relationships with women and the portrayal of sex is both frank, unpleasant and emphatically not arousing. The series is a dark and very full explication of how a character's past influences his present state, which is a theme that does interest me as it has some applicability to my own personal situation.

"I can sing the songs. I can think the thoughts. But I'm not going to feel the feelings..." -- the protagonist's detective alter ego

Surprisingly the Stowe Library has a copy of The Singing Detective on DVD, so I watched it again recently. It still holds up well and delves into themes that most dramas won't address so directly (and, it is also largely plotless, the action is internalized). The ending is, if anything, discordant with the very gloomy opening -- things get resolved in a surprisingly neat, happy package that seems at odds with most of what has gone on before -- but all in all I think it does deserve its reputation.

There is a wikpedia entry on the series, that is somewhat edifying, and does have a list of songs used in the production. There are also various essays and critical responses floating around online.

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