That Old Feeling: Potter's Field

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It's probably just a coincidence that the two great films of the 1980s were both TV series. Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Decalogue" (1988) found modern ethical equivalents for the Commandments in 10 hour-long episodes set in a Warsaw housing block. And Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" (1986) tapped its crippled toe to 40s pop hits as it meditated madly on life, love and death. Both series were lauded, both shown in theaters as well as on the home screen, both seen as their makers' masterpieces. Where else was there for these artists (and devout chain-smokers) to go? Underground. Kieslowski died, at 54, in March 1996; heart attack. Potter, 59, preceded him by 21 months; cancer of the pancreas and liver.

But while he lived, Potter lived on TV. He was a dramatist, not an actor, yet viewers in his native England and abroad knew Potter's life story through his teleplays: the mean childhood in a Gloucestershire mining town; his unsuccessful campaign for Parliament; his battles with an egregious skin disease. For a quarter-century, Potter was England's raw conscience, its collective grudge-keeper, its most remorseless self-revealer and, to many, its pre-eminent playwright.

Playwrights? On TV? Aren't they called writer-producers, or script surgeons, or rich-whores-writing-drivel-to-the-rhythm-of-a-laugh-track? Maybe here. Not in Britain. Not when Alan Bennett, Frederic Raphael, Alan Bleasdale and, above all, Potter were creating penetrating original works for BBC, ITV and Channel Four. American television began with a Golden Age of drama; the infant medium knew no better than to present sophisticated dramas with top actors — Broadway on the 12-inch screen. That was the 50s. British TV drama flourished in the 70s and 80s. And Potter was its leader.

He didn't confine himself to TV. He wrote several original movie scripts. He spun out novels and plays too, all suitably lionized — though the author was unawed: "I think novels are rather easier to write than plays," he told ace correspondent Carrie Ross Welch for a TIME story she and I did on Potter in 1988. "Years ago I loved the theater — until television came along, until I really saw it, saw what you could do with it. I love what television could be if they left it alone."

Except for the infamous banning of his 1976 Devil drama "Brimstone and Treacle," British TV mostly did leave Potter alone to create his atonal rhapsodies. And in "The Singing Detective," with the creative collaboration and wizard script-editing of director Jon Amiel, Potter hatched a vision of life, love, art and family that dwarfs, in scope and ferocity, anything on TV or movies in recent decades. The serial goes farther, has a more capacious reach, wants to astound, exhaust, exalt. It almost never looks to endear, American-style. In his last interview, Potter decried the pressure on TV writers "to maximize your audience at any given point, which is the antithesis of discovering something you don't know." "The Singing Detective" is a journey of discovery, a revelation for its besieged hero. Philip Marlow, and for the grateful viewer.


A sheet-music salesman reels through the Depression with murder on his mind, adultery on his conscience and a song in his heart... A young man walks into an English home to burgle a loveless couple and rape their brain-damaged daughter... An aging British novelist pilfers the life of his beautiful niece for the plot of his new book... Another novelist, strapped to a hospital bed with a grotesquely disfiguring skin disease, plots revenge on all those who have loved him not quite enough. ... And to make life bearable, these characters often break into song — rather, they lip-synch pop tunes from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Potter's Field is a nightmare landscape of domestic violence, scored to the haunting lilt of pop standards rendered with searing compassion. Potter's haunted characters dwell in the surreal land we all inhabit, as we float vagrantly from suffocating reality to liberating fantasy, from pessimism to possibility, from fear to hope — and then back, always back again, when we realize that the conditional tense holds even more horror than the present. Ultimately a Potter protagonist is likely to realize, like Dorothy back from Oz, that life is best endured at home. Just plant a bitter smile on your face, and whistle something sweet in the dark.

The mood suffused "Pennies from Heaven" (in which Bob Hoskins played the music music salesman) and the 1982 film version of "Brimstone and Treacle" (with Sting as the satanic young man). It all but overwhelmed the novel and miniseries "Blackeyes" (about the plagiarizing novelist), which won Potter the contumely of feminists and the epithet Dirty Dan from tabloid writers shocked at his objectifying of the female title character.

Even "The Singing Detective," recognized as a unique achievement from the moment of its broadcast in November-December 1986, was condemned by people who never had trouble with Benny Hill's infantile tits-and-ass gags. (The Brits don't mind smut, so long as it doesn't have a perturbing moral.) The tabs noted that virtually an entire hour-long episode is dedicated to the consequences of a bowel movement that young Philip spitefully, desperately deposited on the desk of his village schoolteacher. Some papers excoriated the series as pornography. As Potter recalls, "one Member of Parliament got up on his hind legs and said that he'd counted the number of swear words and bare bums. But that's partly because television is taken more seriously in England, which means more seriously by the fools as well."

One scene — a flashback of a desperate encounter between Marlow's mother and her husband's best friend — was sexually explicit, even by the liberal standards of British TV. A flash of actor Patrick Malahide's genitalia was glimpsed. "There was a debate about it at BBC," Potter says, "but they decided to let it go uncut. And in fact the consequences of that particular adultery were illness and death and great misery. So it could hardly be held up as an invitation to promiscuity." In the end, "Detective" earned robust ratings and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts best actor award for Michael Gambon, who in a career-making performance as Marlow carries the project with strength and subtlety.

The six-part, 6hr.42min. show, or series, play, or film turned American TV executives' spines to jelly when it came time to show it here. "Masterpiece Theatre" said no, so the piece was aired in early 1988 on "Channel Crossings," an obscure program devoted to European TV. There it acquired a rabid cult, which at first, as I recall, comprised Vincent Canby of the New York Times and me. He called it "one of the wittiest, wordiest, singingest-dancingest, most ambitious, freshest, most serious, least solemn movies of the year." I wrote about it in TIME and Film Comment. I also bought the published script and the sound track album (vinyl, of course, and no longer available). The "Detective" cult grew and sustained. It will surely bulge this fall, with the release of an American film of the series, directed by Keith Gordon and starring Robert Downey, Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes and Mel Gibson.

Now, nearly 15 years after the first BBC airing, "The Singing Detective" comes to DVD (Warner Bros.-BBC). The film, which was shot on 16mm, looks big-screen fabulous, doing full justice to Amiel's carefully varied tonal schemes. The three-disc set contains nifty extras: most of a 1998 documentary on Potter ("Under the Skin") and an interview with the author — but not, alas, his last televised conversation, a brilliant, touching performance that amounted to Potter's testament. Stick around and you'll get a hint of it.

So what is this bloody masterpiece? You can read all about it here. A warning: I reveal most of the plot, so if you want to avoid the spoilers, skip any paragraph preceded by an asterisk (*). Taking a cue from Potter, who ransacked his past for the makings of his teleplays, I have included bits from two 1988 pieces on "The Singing Detective" — one in Film Comment, the other with Carrie Welch in TIME — and my 1994 TIME obituary on the writer.


In the "Sherpa Tenzing Ward" of a London hospital, a man lies on his bed, his life as much an ugly mess as his face and body. Philip Marlow (Gambon), who relishes the cheap irony that his name echoes that of Raymond Chandler's famed sleuth, is a failed novelist hitting 50 with a terrifying splat. His career has been sidetracked by illness and bile. His marriage to Nicola (Janet Suzman), an actress, is mainly an awful memory. The pain and the pain-killers force Marlow's mind down strange old country lanes and into treacherous culs-de-sac. Figures from the past make cameo appearances in his nightmares, and traumas from his Gloucestershire childhood mingle with the plot of his first novel, "The Singing Detective." This time, he is the hero — and, maybe, the murderer. Doesn't each man kill the thing he loves most? Himself?

Marlow is a victim of acute psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling condition of the skin and bones. He's a blistering, festering eye- and soul-sore. For most of his three-months' hospital stay he is unable to stand, bend, swivel his neck. The apogee of the fever gives his scaly orange face the look of a third-degree sunburn. Tears scald his scabrous cheeks, and he can hardly laugh — even the sardonic bark he reserves for all humanity — without torturing his jaw. Only the dead eyes can flare, in dry wild irony, through this ravaged skinscape. Pain and bitterness have stripped away Marlow's civility and left just a few basic human needs: drugs, self-pity, cigarettes. And his imagination. At once battling and wooing madness, it releases the poison of his eloquence.

Trapped inside his delirium, Marlow revises his first novel — a worst-seller called "The Singing Detective" — into a noirish hallucination pocked with events and characters from his own life. The original novel, set in 1945, was a hard-boiled thriller whose hero is a gumshoe-bandleader called Phil Marlow. He is one tough customer, making mean streets meaner, providing aid to clients who often wake up dead, narrating his tale in a spume of "unhelpful, paperback-soiled, mid-Atlantic, little side-of-the-mouth quips."

In the fantasy rewrite of the novel, Marlow is hired by the lizardly Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide), who may be an international flesh trader, to solve the murder of a luscious Soviet agent found floating naked under Hammersmith Bridge. Corpses multiply — a busker who knew too much, a German call girl named Lili Marlene, and finally Binney himself — until there are few surviving suspects and a dangling clue: a note from the culprit reading "Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"

Readers of Agatha Christie will already have guessed who done it, but TV viewers can figure from the start that this Marlow is a killer. So is his bedridden creator. Through the series, flashbacks paint Philip as a George Bailey in reverse: in his not-so-wonderful life, he taints those he touches.

* His mother (Alison Steadman) committed suicide (drowned, Hammersmith Bridge) after young Philip (Lyndon Davies) had denounced and deserted her in a London tube station. A boy in school, whom Philip had falsely blamed for leaving that turd on the teacher's desk, took the ensuing humiliation to heart and ended his days in a loony bin. Ali (Badi Uzzaman), the cheerful Asian in the hospital bed next to Marlow's, dies of cardiac arrest reaching for a sweet. George (Charles Simon), the Cockney geezer who takes Ali's place, cackles lewdly about the German girls he conquered in 1945, then sputters into his last heart attack; and Marlow, thinking of all the men who have despoiled all the women he loved or coveted, lets the old sod die.

Illness keeps Marlow supine in his bed, yet, as his monitors the ugliness he has helped create, he dispenses stern judgment from on high, like Yahweh with a toothache. Or like a secretive 10-year-old boy perched in the lofty branches of a tree in the Forest of Dean.

* It was from that perch that young Philip witnessed the incident that helped warp his life. He was already aware of the tension between his London-born mother Betty, cynical and caged in this quaint mining town, and his dear, weak dad (Jim Carter), whose only relief from work in the pits was singing popular tunes in the local pub with his pal Ray Binney (also Malahide). Now Philip watched in horrid perplexity as Ray led Betty into the woods for a convulsive screw. To a 10-year-old mind, sex was, then and forever, a bad man hurting a boy's mother. Her moans of pleasure and guilt sounded like the last cries of death rape. Physical love was a crime committed by all men on all women, and punishable, then and forever, by Marlow's corrosive scorn.

* All else followed from this. To revenge himself on Ray, Philip pinned an execrable lie on Ray's son Mark Binney. Philip's parents separated, with Mum taking the boy to London. His psoriasis started flaring. His mother killed herself. And the lad resolved to become a detective, to find out "who done it." Later these obsessions give birth to Marlow's nightmares, to his novels (starring a detective who sings like good old dad, and featuring a corrupter and pawn named Mark Binney), to his fear of women and loathing of men.


Like a schoolboy denying a teacher's accusation, Potter repeatedly insisted that Marlow was not based on himself. Yet he knew his antihero well: the author's life crossed his character's at crucial points. "It is not autobiographical," he told Carrie Welch, "except for the illness, with which I'm overly, sickeningly familiar. And yet there's something about it that comes closer to the bone than I ever wanted or intended. I realized this when I first watched the rushes. I started to get clammy-handed!"

Potter was born in 1935, the same year as Marlow, into a poor family in the Forest of Dean. He moved to London, as his character does, where he suffered an episode more traumatic than Philip's: he was often sexually abused by his Uncle Ernie (and never told his parents). Potter was graduated with honors from Oxford, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1964, then began writing teleplays. From his 20s he suffered from the same disease as Marlow, and was obliged to stay occasionally in the sort of hospital he lanced so vigorously in the series. His hands became permanently buckled into gnarled fists, the fingers flattened against his palm, so that he was unable to button his shirt, caress his wife or children. Simply holding and using a pen was for him, an act of acrobatics and steel will.

It took bravery, and a saving streak of literary exhibitionism, for a writer who described himself as "shy" and "a physical coward" to use agonizing aspects of his own life to trace Marlow's life and fantasies like a truth-seeking gumshoe. "I wanted to make an odyssey," Potter said, "in which a man in extreme pain and anguish tries to assemble the bits of his life. That's the way you have to deal with physical pain, you know. You have to stand outside it and say, O.K., destroy me if you must, but I'm going somewhere else.' Those acute, extreme forms of illness almost force you to divide yourself between the suffering animal and the human being who has to moderate the suffering with intelligence and stoicism. And, if not kill it off, at least control it, put the dog on the leash."


In "The Singing Detective," characters commute from real life to Marlow's fiction and fantasy. At times, when they are just emerging in rough drafts from his brain, they speak the punctuation in their dialogue ("Oh comma aren't you the clever one dash exclamation mark"). And when pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) must grease down the naked, suppurating Marlow, he invents a litany of boring thoughts ("a speech by Ted Heath, a long sentence from Bernard Levin, a Welsh male-voice choir, Ethiopian aid for pop stars, an evening's viewing from the National Film School") to fend off orgasm ("O cock, do not crow! Poor cock, do not sing!") before helplessly ejaculating into Nurse Mills' plastic gloves.

He idolizes Nurse Mills, but that's just the flip side of his hatred for all the beautiful cuckolding women. He despises the smooth gents — men so like him, but less worthy and more successful, winners at the dirty games of sex and career. Sex is an expression of self, and the self-loather must hate sex. "I'd like to sleep with you again," he tells his wife, "with a big mirror alongside. So I can turn my head while I'm doing it and leer at myself. And so that when it starts shooting up in me and spurting out I can twist to one side coming off your hot and sticky loins and spit straight at my own face."

For this stinging defective, sex is death, and muck and money — all of Freud's favorite bugbears — but with the depth of Marlow's pain giving majesty to his vitriol. Also, he knows he's good at it. In his denunciations of the medical profession ("Do you know how many O levels you have to fail to be a nurse?"), in his instant responses in a word-association game he plays, and loses, with the hospital psychotherapist ("Passion / Pretense. Woman / Fuck. Fuck / Dirt. Dirt / Death"), we hear what might have happened to the voice of John Osborne's Jimmy Porter if disease had helped turn that angry young man lyrically sour in middle age.

Marlow looks back in rancor on a world hurtling into greed and gracelessness; on a land where Old Blighty has rusted into old blight; on a culture contemptuous or ignorant of the lovely old songs that provide a poignant counterpoint to his agony; on a literary form in which even a disinterested truth-sleuth like detective Phil Marlow is over-eager to revenge himself on those he loved and who, to their mortal peril, insufficiently loved him.

Like the illustration on the two-shilling paperback edition of "The Singing Detective," the emotional life of the real Marlow is dominated by three sinister, archetypal figures. First is the shadowy man: Ray Binney, and the Cockney letch in the next hospital bed, and all the Mark Binneys running through Marlow's paranoia. Then the fallen woman: Marlow's mother, and his ex-wife, and an English whore who appears in the novel as the Soviet spy. And finally the dashing, chain-smoking cynic: Marlow, who stands to one side, sneering at the whole slow spin of the whole rotten world.

Other, matching characters recur. Figures of authority: Marlow's sharp, benign psychotherapist (Bill Paterson) is twinned in memory with Philip's sadistic, evangelical schoolteacher (Janet Henfrey). Figures of fun: a pair of Rosenkrantz-and-Guildenstern hospital patients (David Ryall and Reginald Horan) is matched in the novel with two bumbling intelligence agents (Ron Cook and George Rossi) who realize, too late in the game, that "We're padding! Like a couple of bleed'n sofas!"

A last, possible matching pair. His one angel of mercy — lovely Nurse Mills, who always has a gentle word for Marlow as she feeds him a sweet or salves his skin — could she be Philip's mum before the fall, redeemed in youthful grace? Perhaps. But to Marlow she is "the girl in all those songs": the sunny vision of innocence whom all the singers and songwriters, and singing detectives too, would love to be in love with.

Marlow might want to be a romantic; his love for corny ballads and pretty nurses suggests a soft side. But he has learned from his father's defeat not to be soft, not to seem caring, not to be caught in the pants-down embarrassment of hoping. "There are songs to sing, there are thoughts to think, and there are feelings to feel," says our detective. "I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you're not going to catch me feeling the feeling."


"Banality with a beat," Marlow calls the old standards, but he's being humorously defensive, and kidding no one. He loves the extraordinary potency of cheap music. "No matter how sugary and banal they might be," Potter told Carrie Welch, "old popular songs are in a direct line of descent from the Psalms. They're saying that the world is other than the thing around you — other than age, other than sickness, other than death. These songs are chariots; they take you somewhere. The little bounce of the music can deliver you back, or forward, into some of your finest emotions."

*Some of the numbers are darkly satirical, like Fred Waring's "Dry Bones" performed by a quartet of officious physicians and a line of nurse chorines. Some songs mock Marlow's luxuriant self-pity, like the Al Jolson "After You're Gone," sung by a malefic scarecrow that young Philip spots on the train back home from his mother's funeral. In the Henry Hall Dance Band version of "The Teddy Bears' Picnic," Potter binds and finally releases all of Marlow's traumas. Over images of the hospital, the detective's bandstand and Mrs. Marlow's fatal sylvan escapade comes the spooky warning: "If you go out in the woods today/ You'd better not go alone. / It's lovely out in the woods today / But safer to stay at home." The lyric's power is therapeutic enough to lift the crippled Marlow to his feet in the hospital ward for the first time in three months. He is purged, and perhaps cured. He can finally feel the feeling.

*"All clues, no solutions — that's the way things really are." But "The Singing Detective" dares to offer a solution, at least a resolution, to Marlow's complaint. By the end, all of the novel's characters have been killed off; only the detective remains. And in the climactic shoot-out, fiction revenges itself on imagination: the gumshoe puts a bullet through his creator's forehead. End of fantasy, beginning of a saner reality. The film's structure is that of a long recuperation, inching from disease toward remission, anxiety to acceptance, divorce to reconciliation.

So the music is a psalm and, for Philip, a therapeutic balm. In the final shot of "The Singing Detective," Marlow the writer is able to walk out of the hospital in the guise of Marlow the slick detective. "He's stopped lying there moaning and suffering," Potter observes, "ready to deal with the world as a detective would — tough-minded and able to manipulate it." In the pain-streaked world of Dennis Potter, that counts as a happy ending: hero cured, beautiful woman on his arm, and Vera Lynn warbling "We'll Meet Again" in the tuppenny jukebox of his soul.


For the chronically disabled Potter, life was a death sentence; but he would have the last word. So in March 1994, barely two months before he would succumb to cancer, the 59-year-old writer staged his own funeral oration on Britain's Channel 4 program "Without Walls." (Why is "A Conversation With Dennis Potter" not available on video?) In the 65-min. conversation with host Melvyn Bragg, the dying man displayed a new, calm bravery. At one point he paused, knee-high in the stream of his eloquence, to ask if he might take a sip of liquid morphine to ease his pain. Bragg wondered if they should stop; Potter replied, "It's better to go on." As another poet of profound distress, Samuel Beckett, wrote, "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Potter went on, heroically, from the day he learned his cancer was incurable, Valentine's Day — "a little gift, a little kiss from somebody or something." He continued to care for his wife Margaret, whom he called "my rock, my center," as she battled breast cancer. And he worked tirelessly, testing the limits of his anguish, to complete two teleplays: "Karaoke," another musical drama; and "Cold Lazarus," about a 20th century man whose head has been preserved for 400 years. Potter planned to write 10 pages a day. "I will — and do — meet that schedule every day," he told Bragg. "My only regret is to die four pages too soon." Sticking a cigarette between fingers crippled by arthritis, then puffing on "this lovely tube of delight," he said he was a physical coward in his youth. But now, dying, "you find out that in fact, at the last, thank God, you're not actually a coward."

If nothing became Potter's life so much as his grace in leaving it, then nothing became his death so much as his having written so often about it. Mortality hung on his plays like crape, and not just in the "Singing Detective" hospital ward. "Lipstick on Your Collar" climaxes at a grave site, where one of the three main characters is dead, a second falls into the open grave, and a third woos the widow — all to the 50s tune "Sh-Boom!" "We're the one animal that knows we're going to die," Potter said. "And yet we carry on, behaving as though there's eternity."

Potter did see things under the aspect of eternity. Novelist Julian Barnes described him as "a Christian socialist with a running edge of apocalyptic disgust." Christian, yes, in residue. Though Potter gave ecclesiastics the willies with his God play ("Son of Man") and his Devil play ("Brimstone and Treacle"), he could still recite, as meaningfully as if it were a pop standard, the words to an old hymn that treats death as the door opening on heavenly happiness: "Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown?" Socialist, yes, decrying British mercantilism that turns everyone "from a citizen into a consumer. And politics is a commodity." Apocalyptic disgust? Plenty, even at the end. He told Bragg he had named his pancreatic cancer Rupert, "so I can get close to it. Because that man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time — I've got too much writing to do, and I haven't got the energy — but I would shoot the bugger if I could."

His rage against the media warlord was part of a general anger at the present for not living up to the image in the gilded rearview mirror Potter held to his youth. "Childhood," Potter said, "is full to the brim with fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety." He was welcome to cherish his youth; he never got to savor old age.


"We should always look back on our own past," he said, "with a sort of tender contempt." The past echoed in Potter's inner ear like an accordion rendition of "Peg o' My Heart": trite, tinny, unforgettable. But as his days dwindled, he attended, rapturously, to the present. "I'm almost serene," he said to Bragg. "I can celebrate life. Below my window there's an apple tree in blossom. It's white. And looking at it — instead of saying, 'Oh, that's a nice blossom' — now, looking at it through the window, I see the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous. If you see the present tense — boy, do you see it. And boy, do you celebrate it."

In every life there is so much to celebrate, so much to mourn. In his last days, Potter did both. Triumphantly, he finished his two plays — two final blossoms soaked in acid — both of which, in a unique tribute to the writer, were broadcast on BBC and Channel Four. And he nursed his wife until she died. A week later, drained, disconsolate, Potter followed her.

I imagine a chorus at the gravesite, and a DJ spinning golden oldies. The faithful from his village church would sing a hopeful "We'll Meet Again." His army of physicians could reprise "Dry Bones," with his dermatologist soloing on "I've Got You Under My Skin." The actresses who felt used by the demands of his scripts might try "You Always Hurt the One You Love." Rupert and his minions, having outlived their nemesis, will serenade the corpse with "I Get Along Without You Very Well."

Then track down through the soft earth and inside the casket, where Dennis Potter is not spinning but singing, snapping his newly freed fingers. I see him singing along — lip-synching, anyway — with blood in his eyes and stars in his crown.