Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Singing Detective 25 years on

This evening at ten o'clock BBC4 is beginning a rerun of Dennis Potter's greatest television drama The Singing Detective. When it was first shown 25 years ago (the exact anniversary has been missed because of a disagreement over royalties) I had just started buying my own house, so I was watching it on a borrowed set with a not very good indoor aerial (whatever happened to indoor aerials?)

Even under those circumstances I could see that it was a masterpiece. In fact is was so good in its interweaving of several different stories and time frames that it was intimidating: it made you despair of ever doing any worthwhile creative writing yourself.

I watched it again at Christmas (while listening to the director's commentary) and it still looked fantastic. The film noir pastiches were particularly impressive.

How to explain its appeal? Phillip Drummond and Jane Revel make a brave attempt on The Museum of Broadcast Communications, but lapse into academic speak:
The Singing Detective thus refuses any simple reading, even contests the traditional definition of television "reading" altogether. It is witty, comic, and salacious, and yet also savage, bleak and nihilistic. It is blunt and populist, and yet arcane and abstruse. Its key themes are language and communication, memory and representation, sexual and familial betrayal and guilt, the transition from childhood to adulthood, the relationships between religion, knowledge and belief, the processes of illness and of dying. 
Whilst its themes are resonant, its main enduring claim on critical attention lies in its thoroughgoing engagement with the textual politics of modernism. Its swirl of meanings and enigmas render it British prime time television's most sustained experiment with classic post-Brechtian strategies for anti-realism, reflexivity, textual deconstruction, and for the encouragement of new reading practices on the part of the TV spectator.
So instead I suggest you listen to Matthew Sweet's special edition of the BBC Radio 3 arts programme Night Waves. Mark Gatiss, Anne Karpf, Bill Paterson and Kenneth Trodd join him for a discussion of The Singing Detective.

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