One Season Wonders: The Singing Detective Has Been All but Lost to Time

TV Features Bbc
One Season Wonders: The Singing Detective Has Been All but Lost to Time

In the years before streaming, extremely niche TV shows faced uphill battles against cancellation. As a result, TV history is littered with the corpses of shows struck down before their time. In One Season Wonders, Ken Lowe revisits one of the unique, promising scripted shows struck down before they had a chance to shine. 

Every now and then I will remember something I saw on TV, some strange show at a random time, usually involving monkeys in off-beat cartoons. Fortunately, I live in an age when you can figure out whether almost every fever dream you had on a Saturday morning or at 3 a.m. on cable while on a cross-country family road trip was a hallucination of yours or an actual thing that was actually broadcast. The Internet, and streaming video in particular, has made even the most obscure works of broadcast art discoverable once again. Those of us pushing or past 40 years old can be assured that no, Twin Peaks really did exist (I am assured that it can’t hurt you).

If you want to watch The Singing Detective, though, prepare to either pay through the nose to buy the DVD from individual resellers or just watch the thing on YouTube courtesy of some random person (for now!! Who knows if it’ll get copyright claimed??). Besides being one of the most well-regarded television dramas ever, it’s also a showcase for the acting chops of Michael Gambon, now known to generations as the guy who stepped up to play Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films after the death of Richard Harris. (Imelda Staunton, Dolores Umbridge herself, also appears, because the U.K. is a peculiar little island with a limited casting pool.)

Incorporating autobiographical elements from writer Dennis Potter, the six-part season of 70-minute episodes is not what you expect, no matter what you go in expecting. Airing in 1986, it was a television event that probably confused and terrified a generation of British children. It is several layers of surreal all at once, to the point where you can’t be certain what is “real” in the fictional world of the story—even characters who are clearly grounded in the narrative as being part of the miserable real world occasionally interact with the imaginary phantoms in the mind of the wretched, bed-bound writer Philip Marlow (Gambon, whose character dryly remarks on his mother’s cluelessness in naming him after one of literature’s most famous private eyes).

One Season Wonders is usually about shows that were cruelly canceled. In this case, The Singing Detective strains my definition: it was a limited series. But it deserves mention because it isn’t even that old, and it is obnoxiously difficult to find on this side of the pond. It left such an impression that Robert Downey Jr. starred in a 2003 film adaptation which I somehow never heard of when it was released. I have barely heard it spoken of today from people referencing landmark TV. It may not have been canceled, but it’s a poster child for the complete lack of preservation performed by media companies who seem fixated on absorbing monthly streaming fees while providing as little service to the art form itself as possible.

The Show

Marlow is a washed-up mystery writer whose works are mostly out of print. We’re introduced to him as he lies, miserable, in a hospital with an autoimmune condition that has rendered the skin all over his body hideous, and immobilized his joints with painful swelling. He’s an invalid, and making it everyone else’s problem. The show spares us no humiliating detail: he’s not able to grease up his body with medicating salve, and the nurse obliged to do it for him keeps giving him a boner. There are multiple scenes about this, just as there are multiple scenes dealing with Marlow’s boyhood memories about taking a shit on his teacher’s desk and pinning the crime on a classmate, and about his mom banging a stranger in the woods while unaware her son is watching them.

Interspersed with these often surreal memories are stretches where Marlow seems to be fantasizing about a book he wrote, his most famous work: The Singing Detective. The detective in the book, also named Marlow, is the vocalist for a 1940s nightclub band, a private eye who wears out his shoe-leather when he’s off the clock. Gambon relishes the role, laying on all the hardboiled noir narration as thick as possible. In the fiction within Marlow’s head, there’s been a chilling murder. A woman’s body has been pulled out of the Thames, and the last man to see her alive hired her services at an underground club where call girls are paired off with their Johns. Marlow suspects the joint is actually a place where Soviet and Western spies are vying for the services of ex-Nazi rocket scientists.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the conclusion, though! It’s not about that! It is about the aforementioned weird memories, and about Marlow’s paranoia as his estranged wife visits him with news that his old book is being optioned for a film adaptation.

The Singing Detective lingers (and lingers, and lingers) on Marlow’s tortured past for longer than is strictly necessary. You get the impression the six-episode run could’ve been shortened or that the individual episodes didn’t need to be as lengthy. At the same time, though, it is the source of some absolutely unhinged surrealism. With his childhood falling during the closing days of the second World War, the victorious attitude of the U.K. forms the dissonant backdrop of young Philip’s familial troubles. His mother is leaving his father and moving him out to some place in the country where he doesn’t fit in, all while he fails to understand what is going on. The present-day Marlow reflects on the fact his mother drowned (it is implied to have been a suicide) and genuinely seems not to have made the connection to the victim in his novel.

This is normally where I would drop other video embeds to show off some sick clips from the show, but good luck finding them!! You’re missing out, too. Soldiers gun down a scarecrow that reveals itself to be Hitler; the shady hired muscle from Marlow’s story starts spying on him in the hospital in the real world; the committee of callous and uncaring doctors, or the obnoxious evangelicals who come to torment everybody with spirituals every Sunday, start dancing to the old war-time standards in Marlow’s head. (If I had a nickel for every time a British TV show uses a rendition of “Dry Bones” to unsettle the viewer, I would have two nickels. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice.)

Of course, Marlow’s eponymous detective character also does his fair share of singing—it’s a living. These parts pull my favorite trick, which is when characters just start singing in the voice of the recording artist. Michael Gambon is up there at the mic in a white suit, lip synching to The Inkspots or Bing Crosby—something we learn his father, also a lounge singer accompanied by his mother on the piano, used to do.

The show ends with a completely unexpected shootout—one that intrudes on Marlow’s real world and might symbolize any number of revelations for the character or the writer. It’s stubbornly anticlimactic, resolutely inconclusive. You kind of have to admire it.

So Why Isn’t There Anything Else Like It?

Every now and then a show comes along that is so bizarrely specific and difficult to explain to people that it is destined to remain a curio rather than set any standards or inspire any successful imitators. (John Turturro received mixed reviews for his third feature as a director, Romance & Cigarettes, which he pitched as “The Honeymooners meets The Singing Detective,” and the 2003 Downey film flopped, as just two examples.)

My theory for why the love for this one is so specific and why it’s now sustained seemingly only by fading memories is that even Potter himself didn’t really understand the thing. Based on his own horrific experiences grappling with severe psoriatic complications that the TV show reportedly downplayed, Potter actually wanted to dispense with the film noir subplot after the first episode, believing it wouldn’t hold the audience’s attention. The show had a number of other working titles, but finally leaned into its singing detective—you know, the interesting part. This is similar to Ray Bradbury angrily insisting that Fahrenheit 451 is about the evils of television, or Jack Dorsey despairing that the journalists and creators and public figures on Twitter and then Bluesky were enforcing literally any standard of behavior. You just want to sit Potter down, put a hand on his shoulder, and gently explain to him that, in this case, the sizzle is part and parcel with the steak, old boy.

Best Episodes

Every episode will inspire in you either deep frustration or reverential awe. There are no standouts. We’re all out here under the flickering street lamp, and the wind and the rain pierce down to the bones of the paupers and the princes alike.

Shows to soothe the pain

There is no soothing the pain of life, no dulling that particular agony that is the mortifying experience of being known. (Twin Peaks is tonally completely different, but for its capital-E Event status and its firm and earnest handle on its film noir trappings, as well as the fact it aired not that long after The Singing Detective, it makes for great companion viewing.)

Tune in next month as One Season Wonders returns to a superhero classic that parodied the genre before it even really took off with The Tick.

Kenneth Lowe says “praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.” You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin