DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Over in England right now on BBC 4, the British are getting weekly primetime doses of the TV miniseries that's daringly original, loaded with controversy language and nudity, and is more than 25 years old. It's Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective," which is being rebroadcast in the UK as a slightly belated Silver anniversary salute. It was shown in the '80s here in the states too, but not nationally.
"The Singing Detective" is the story of a writer of pulp-fiction novels, hospitalized for a horrible skin condition that has his entire body flaking and raw, and his mind slipping in and out of fever dreams.
Some of those hallucinations have the people around him breaking into song, or shifting into other places and times and characters, or both. He tries to maintain his sanity by rewriting, in his head, one of his old novels into a Hollywood screenplay - and, in his mind, he's the healthy, good-looking protagonist - the singing detective.
Meanwhile, the hospital staff tries to treat both his body and his mind, especially when the staff suspects his psoriatic arthritis may be psychosomatic, and that the key to his cure may be buried in his own past.
I know, it sounds strange and complicated, and maybe even off-putting. But you have to admit: It sounds like nothing else you've ever seen on TV. That was true then, and it's just as true now.
One way to measure just how far ahead of its time Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" was, in 1986, is to read the reviews by British critics today, confronted by the decades-old musical private-eye drama. In The Guardian, they said it meshes the finest bits of "Glee" and "Smash" with the edgy darkness of "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad."
And from the same review, check out this quote: "Dennis Potter's masterpiece is 25 years old but still feels avant-garde. It's got the kind of confidence in the audience and the medium that American writers are only just discovering."
Back in the '80s, Dennis Potter had it in his contract that his dramas had to air unedited. PBS and basic cable, back then, were too spooked by the show's language and nudity, so it ended up being televised by some brave local PBS member stations instead. What viewers saw then, and what the British are seeing again now, is television's most polished, audacious masterpiece.
Potter, the writer, had the same skin condition as his fictional counterpart, so the hospital scenes have the loud ring of specific truth. And in the leading role, as Philip Marlow - spelled almost the same as Raymond Chandler's fictional detective - Michael Gambon became a star.
Here's an early in which Gambon, as Marlow, is laid out on his hospital bed, fully exposed except for a kind of adult diaper. His skin is red, raw and flaky, like translucent fish scales - and he's immobilized by pain and stiffness. When the doctors on rounds ask condescendingly about his condition, Marlow finally cracks.
First he honestly, and tearfully, describes his fragile mental state. And then, when the doctors respond by suggesting a long list of medications, Marlow hallucinates them breaking into song - and watches in horror as the entire ward becomes, in his mind, a low-budget musical.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SINGING DETECTIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) What is it you wish to say?
MICHAEL GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) I just think that listen - just listen to me. I've reached the end.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Of what?
GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) My tether.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh hush now.
GAMBON: I'd like, Christ, I'd like to get out of it. I can't stand. I truly I cannot stand it. I can't get on top of it. I can't see clear of it. I can't find my way through it. And if I don't tell someone, if I don't admit it I'll never, never beat it. I'll never, never...
Oh, tears. Even bloody tears. Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. The shame of this - even tears, oozing bloody tears hurt the skin on my face and...
(Laughing) Laugh, it hurts my jaw.
God. Talk about the Book of Job. I'm a prisoner inside my own skin and bones and I... (sobbing)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Librium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Valium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Antidepressants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And a barbiturate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (finger snap) Barbiturate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (finger snap) Antidepressants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (finger snap) Valium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (finger snap) And Librium.
ACTORS: (Singing) Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones. Ezekiel cried, Dem dry bones. Ezekiel cried, dem dry bones. Oh, hear the word of the Lord.
BIANCULLI: And while the doctors and nurses are tending to him physically, the psychologist, played by Bill Paterson, is treating him mentally. In one episode, the doctor probes the writer's psyche by playing a word-association game - a game that eventually gets so raw, and cuts so deep, that we have to bleep a word or two - just the sort of thing that kept "The Singing Detective" off PBS in the first place. Again, Michael Gambon plays Marlow, the reluctant patient.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SINGING DETECTIVE")
BILL PATERSON: (as psychologist) Fly.
GAMBON: (as Philip Marlow) Crash.
GAMBON: (Bleep) (Bleep) Dirt.
GAMBON: Stop. Good game.
PATERSON: Do you think so?
GAMBON: That's what you called it and we agreed. No diagnostic value.
PATERSON: None at all? None whatsoever?
GAMBON: I mean it's words. Just words.
BIANCULLI: And it's brilliant. Just brilliant.
"The Singing Detective" has never been televised nationally in the United States. Next year, on the 25th anniversary of its arrival on these shores, it ought to be. Meanwhile, there's always the DVD.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) If you go out in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise. If you go out in the woods today you'd better go in disguise. For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain, because today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.