Sing Out





Yes, all synonyms for THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but which one?


This one. I had a mixture of high hopes and mild trepidation regarding Keith Gordon’s film of Dennis Potter’s adaptation of his own BBC series. The movie sort of fulfilled both.

Gordon is somebody who should really be in demand. He’s bright, gifted, and his films do things that other people’s don’t. Instead, he’s working in TV. Of his films, MOTHER NIGHT is a terrific piece, I’d say the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel — and a relatively dull Vonnegut novel at that. Personally, I’d like to make THE SIRENS OF TITAN.

Somewhere in the flat is a copy of his highly-rated war movie, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, which I must watch. Just added his 1999 noir WAKING THE DEAD to my rental list. So I guess I must have been impressed.

Why was I anxious? In part, because Potter’s series didn’t really follow a clear narrative path, not because it mingled fantasy, reality, memory and fiction, but because the reality part didn’t really round itself off in a satisfactory fashion. What made the series special was the quality of the protagonist’s dialogue, the authenticity of his plight, and the performances of everybody but especially Michael Gambon.

Bob Down

The plot — a crime writer crippled by severe psoriasis (a disease attacking the skin and joints) tries to work through his tormented feelings about life, love and sex. Though he is largely confined to his hospital bed, his mind roves freely through his memories, his pulp fiction, and his fantasies, until all these separate worlds cathartically collide.

Apart from the sheer difficulty of the job of adaptation, there was the fact that Dennis Potter is no longer with us. This gives the adapters a relatively free hand to mess about with his creation, safe from attack from the irascible author. It’s a bit like how, after decades in development hell, A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY was suddenly in production, a relatively short time after Douglas Adams had passed away. While that film isn’t a complete disgrace, there are clearly things in there that Adams wouldn’t have tolerated, and for all everybody’s burbling on about how this was the film Adams had dreamed of, it notably has another writer’s name on it, and some of Adams’ time-honoured gags have been messed about with until they no longer work.

In absolute fairness, I think some of the filmmaking is very good, some of the off-the-wall casting really works, and some of the new gags and story elements are decent enough. But only SOME.

The Dark Corner

Gordon’S THE SINGING DETECTIVE is largely successful. It has Robert Downey Jnr instead of Michael Gambon, which is quite a big change, but obviously Downey is a superb actor so it totally works. One odd thing: since Downey is younger than Gambon, and the movie is being made decades after the TV show, they can no longer flashback to a ’40s world of childhood for the hero (and connect it to a ’40s world of noir fiction and cinema). So the movie is set in the ’80s, with flashbacks to the ’50s, leading to a completely different soundtrack. Some of these new songs are undoubtedly great, but I prefer the original. But I don’t actually mind. It actually took us about 45 minutes to realise this WAS the ’80s, since the music is all ’50s and the film takes place in a hospital environment with few obvious signifiers of period.

Gordon’s direction, along with Tom Richmond’s super-saturated cinematography, is stylish and stimulating, without intruding on the talk, which is the point of the thing. We get cartoony turns from Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as gangster/FBI men, adrift from Downey’s pulp potboiler and wandering through his memories and his reality like Vladimir and Estragon in snap-brim fedoras, with side-arms. The idea is funnier than the writing, maybe, but the “spirited playing” boosts it back up again. We particularly enjoyed the noir characters’ instinctive fear of sunlight and open space:

Bright Light!

Bright Light!

And there’s Robin Wright Penn, whose performance is, in its way, as detailed and compelling as Downey’s.

AND there’s an almost unrecognisable appearance by tiny racist Mel Gibson, who’s shaved his head and donned coke-bottle glasses to play Downey’s shrink. I guess he thinks he’s way too handsome normally to play a humdrum psychiatrist, so he has to disfigure himself. But the result is quite funny, and the performance is genuinely amusing. It might be the best bit of acting Mad Mel’s ever done.

(My friend and fellow director Morag McKinnon served him a burger at the BRAVEHEART launch party. “He’s a wee wrinkly man,” she reported.)

The Passion of the Dick

AND and AND there’s Jeremy Northam, one of the most versatile and unusual players working today. Here, Jeremy performs some intricate and filthy SEX ACTING, for our delectation.

Fiona: “That’s some of the best sex acting I’ve ever seen!”

Me: “I taught him everything he knows.”

Jeremy cher ami

We cut from the shag-shot to Downey’s face, strained in angst-ridden concentration as he imagines his enthusiastic cuckolding by the thrusting dirty Northam and then, doubtless because they’re playing Downey the tape on-set in order to show him what he’s supposed to be thinking about, Downey laughs uproariously. It’s great.

The Laughing Policeman

The original series featured a prominent supporting role for Patrick Malahide’s heaving buttocks, which are pale, wobbly things like unhappy jellyfish. I felt Northam was an improvement in purely aesthetic terms.

The biggest change from Potter’s original is the bit that was probably essential to get the film made, and which I’m still uncertain about. As I intimated, the TV series doesn’t really wrap up into a neat ball. The character’s contradictions and agonies don’t resolve, he recovers from his physical illness and appears to make peace with his wife and, perhaps, himself, but it’s not absolutely clear how he’s solved his psychological problems.

The movie has everything wrap up neatly — a new detail in Downey’s past dovetails with the plot of his book, and he’s able to achieve a Freudian breakthrough with his shrink which is absent, as I recall, from the series. It makes things neater and clearer, but it also turns the story into an ad for Freudian psychoanalysis, which the original was not. It’s the kind of story turn that would have been at home in a ’40s psychological drama like POSSESSED or THE SEVENTH VEIL. This new development arguably works better than the TV show, but I couldn’t altogether love it — it smacks of propaganda.

But this is a quibble, as is the fact that some of the new dialogue is not QUITE a sharp as some of the old dialogue. As memory serves, Gambon’s internal monologue of boring things, frantically called up to stave off sexual excitement as nurse Joanne Whalley applies cold cream to his aching body, was funnier and more un-PC than the version in the feature: for one thing, Gambon named names: John and Yoko were in there, as I recall. Downey doesn’t, and while his nurse, Katy Holmes, is pulchritudinous enough, she lacks Whalley’s down-to-earth reality: you don’t really believe Holmes should be entrusted with anything as challenging as smearing cream around a patient’s penis.

Asides from these nagging little insect-points, I think the film is actually DAMN GOOD.

Am I right?

“Am I not wrong, or am I not wrong?”

16 Responses to “Sing Out”

  1. Having escaped the Roman Catholic church as a child, Dennis Potter has never been someone I could take seriously.

    Keith Gordon’s best film, IMO is The Chocolate War

  2. And yet you like Scorsese!
    Potter has more to him than the religious angle, but it certainly can be a barrier. i have to discount most of it when considering his work because I don’t really respond to it. Despite the best efforts of some very intelligent people, I generally fail to see religion as anything other than desperate craziness. I’m trying to get beyond that because it’s too easy a dismissal. But it still seems to me that spiritual revelation is a very bad reason for any course of action whatsoever.

    I’d love to see The Chocolate War sometime.

  3. And Graham Greene too. Marty wanted to be a priestr but realized that he loved women.

    Greene’s praises I’ve sung here previously re Shirley Temple.

    Potter believed ALL of it — lock stock and barrel. REALLY believed it. He just thought the church could use a few good pop songs to liven things up a bit. Interestingly enough it was a devotion to popular music that led the mighty Terence Davies
    (see recent reports from Cannes where he “reads” the commercial cinema like the tepehone directory) away from the church. That plus the realization that they were “just men in frocks.”

  4. But DOES Scorsese love women? Or is he just heterosexual? I felt the casting of Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner kind of betrayed a lack of real interest.

    With Potter you get the complexity of his relationship with sexuality — I get the impression he LIKED it dirty and shameful, and yet felt it shouldn’t be like that, it should be joyous and liberated, and that conflict is all over his work. I find that illuminating in the same way as Peckinpah’s internal conflicts are much more interesting to me than his elegiac approach to the western.

    Am looking forward to seeing the Davies film in Edinburgh — it’s just about the only new film by a major auteur showing, although I have hopes for some of the lesser-known stuff.

  5. “Hallelujah Now!”, the title of Terence Davies’ novel, is pretty much what I exclaimed when I learned there was a new Davies showing at Cannes, AT LAST!

    As David E. knows, I got into a conversation a while back involving “I’d really like to see” modern film remakes of canonical musicals. Somebody mentioned “Show Boat,” and my response was ” — if it’s directed by Terence Davies.” Now *that* would be something to see.

  6. With the musical making a faint-hearted comeback, something like that would make a really smart project that could actually make a lot of money. Or lose it. But whatever, a gamble worth taking, unlike 80% of mainstream cinema.

  7. Terence autographed my copy of “Hallelujah Now!” with “This is a VERY naughty book, that nice boys don’t read — but what the hell!”

  8. No Marty reallly does love women. His sequence of New York Stories is a love letter to Rosanna Arquette. Particularly her ankle.

  9. OK, that one’s pretty strong on love and obsession, directed at a real character and not a fantasy object.

  10. Keith Gordon’s film of William Wharton’s Midnight Clear is really quite good. It almost reads like a winter ghost story and is beautifully shot.

    Uninterestingly, he was a regular contributor to the alt.movies.kubrick newsgroup years and years ago and always caused a bit of a stir of excitement when he posted. Although not as much as when Katarina Kubrick-Hobbes made an appearance.

  11. Wow! Fiona found some comments he’d posted on the IMDb message boards about Singing Dick. “Jeremy Northam is impossible to embarrass” and the like.

    A Midnight Clear is lined up to watch sometime soon!

  12. Brandon Says:

    Been away on vacation, skimming posts to catch up. This film was as good as it possibly could’ve been, given it’s a condensed Hollywood remake of a great original to which the studio knew they didn’t have to be faithful because nobody in the U.S. had seen it. I had only just gotten into D. Potter and was already feeling defensive, but I crossed my fingers, gave my Mother Night DVD a kiss for luck, and ran to the theater where I was just delighted at the quality of this thing. Need to watch it again sometime, but also need to catch up with the lesser-known Potter works – any recommendations?

    On the same day you posted this, I was on a plane to Boston attempting to read Potter’s “Ticket To Ride”, the smallest book I could find to bring on the short flight. The motion-sickness-pills won, though, and I dozed off after chapter six.

  13. Potter goes into a decline after The Singing Detective — avoid the very last works unless they’re all that’s left. Lipstick on my Collar is about bearable, just vastly overlong.

    Anything from the 70s is worth a look though, and if you can find his last TV interview with Melvyn Bragg, it’s one of the most powerful pieces of TV ever.

    Brimstone and Treacle is the one feature film that’s pure Potter (although I have a soft spot for the Pennies From Heaven movie, which Potter disliked) and should be top priority. After that, anything else with Denholm Elliott.

  14. I realize that the last comment was made (scaringly) almost exactly one year ago but I just watched tSD on DVD, found it in the rental store, neever heard of it in my life (which freaked me out since I knew all the actors listed on the cover by name and am extremely fond of some of them) so I grabbed it not knowing to expect (a very different approach than you other posters).
    I loved it and am now googling everyone related to it – which is how I found this old blog post. Just some things I felt like pointing out after reading this: if you pick up the DVD and watch the Director’s Commentary you’ll see most of the changes were made by Potter actually, all the time the director is mentioning the changes people felt he had made (wrongly in their eyes since it changes the much-loved original) and were actually a sort of rewrite by the author.

  15. Do we trust the director, though? Similar comments were made about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… In any case, the key thing is whether the changes are improvements, and if so, I don’t mind who made them. I think the softening isn’t always successful and the film’s apparent faith in psychoanalysis is a bit more simplistic than the series’ more abrasive attitude. But I like both. I’d recommend getting hold of the show if you can — at any rate the songs are better (the 30s and 40s being treasure troves of popular music that’s been less exploited lately).

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