In 1986, Patrick Malahide played three roles in Dennis Potter’s classic series, The Singing Detective. For a look at each episode, click here. Malahide’s performances are absolute perfection. He portrays three characters who somehow manage to be completely different from one another, yet they are very similar at the same time. Some of these characters are “imaginary” and serve a meta-textual element within the series. Yet, real or imagined, Malahide gives each man a very solid and real performance. Sometimes one man blends into another, but he still remains unique and holds his own position and purpose in the story.
Mark Binney is an important character in Marlow’s pulp fiction novel, The Singing Detective. We aren’t really certain what his motivations (aside from greed) are because there simply isn’t enough information given. That was likely deliberate, from Wikipedia:
The noir mystery, however, is never actually solved; all that is ultimately revealed is an intentionally vague plot involving smuggled Nazi war criminals being protected by the Allies and Soviet agents attempting to stop them. This perhaps reflects Marlow’s view that fiction should be “all clues and no solutions”.
What is certain, though, is that Binney is a very scary man and a misogynistic creep. He has some very disturbing scenes with high-end prostitutes who work at a club called Skinskapes. Some of the women who work there are clearly spies of some sort. However, who they are and what their agenda is (or if it is even a shared agenda) is not made perfectly clear either. They do appear to be on the side of the Russians and are most likely working in direct opposition to Binney.
Binney is something of a stand-in for Marlow’s own misogynistic feelings. Marlow seems to realize that those feelings are not healthy or logical so he chooses to pin them on Binney. This is shown in a couple of scenes which juxtapose Binney with the writer Marlow.
In episode 2, Binney has been having sex with the Russian Sonya from Skinskapes (Kate McKenzie). “Doesn’t it disgust you what you do, being paid to stretch out and let a stranger into you? “ Later in the scene he goes off on a tangent about the city, “Well, this is a dead time, isn’t it? Dead time in a dead city. You feel the nothingness pressing down, pressing down on the whole dirty place. Looks cold out there. The river looks as though it is made of tar, sludging along, full of filth.”
In episode 5, Marlow has a similar scene with a British prostitute, also played by Kate McKenzie. The timeframe looks to be the early 1980s. Marlow’s prostitute is obviously not as high class or mysterious as Sonya, and she treats Marlow very matter of fact like. Marlow initially apologizes to her for calling her names while they were having sex, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t really me calling you names. I don’t mean them. I don’t want to do it; it’s just that, afterwards I always feel…well, I almost always feel…it’s nothing personal.” She doesn’t mind and simply points out that it takes all sorts.
He bleats on, “The river looks as if…the river…” “What about it? “, asks Not-Sonya. “The river looks as if it’s full of tar, sludging along, full of filth.” She isn’t impressed with his commentary. Then he asks, “Does it disgust you what you do? I mean being paid to stretch yourself out and let a stranger into you?” She just says that she isn’t going to do it for free and tells him it’s what he wanted.
The contrast is remarkable; Marlow’s real life encounter with a prostitute was cringey and sad. But, when the fictional Binney was given similar lines, he says them with oily panache. He isn’t nicer, but he is smoother and very at ease with himself. Bullying women is something that comes naturally to him while Marlow struggles with it. Marlow safely uses Binney as a cipher to help deal with his hang-ups.
Marlow eventually reaches a psychological breakthrough and comes to terms with his past. Mark Binney is no longer needed and is unceremoniously dispatched of with a knife in the throat. We do not learn who killed him but that, as far as Marlow is concerned, isn’t important.
Mark’s appearance is very elegant. He has pale ivory skin with unusually pink lips. He looks ethereal. He is very posh and speaks with a cultured voice. He is usually smooth, but loses his elegance when he is angered. A couple of times he gets really angry and frets about being made “to feel small.” Feeling small or out-of-control are big issues for him. He has a penchant for expensive ornaments and artwork but it tends to be ostentatious and a bit tacky. In short, he is a very good villain.
The noir scenes were absolutely enjoyable. At times, I wished that there was an entire film with the fictional detective Marlow and Mark Binney. Watching Patrick Malahide and Michael Gambon butt heads was wonderful.
Mark Finney is my favorite of the three. He, also, is an imaginary character. Marlow, while in hospital, receives a visit from his estranged wife, Nicola. She tells him that a production company has made an offer on his book, The Singing Detective. She is being genuine, but Marlow does not trust her. He daydreams about her having an affair with the owner of the company. He imagines a man, who looks rather a lot like Mark Binney, named Mark Finney.
Finney is very snake like. He has short cropped hair, intense eyes, and twists his neck in weird ways. He dresses in (then) trendy 80s fashions. He looks a cross between a New Wave rocker and a good looking Voldemort! He isn’t as nasty as Binney, but he is ruthless. He is planning on taking writing credit for The Singing Detective and has promised Nicola a big part in the movie. He later goes back on his promise because the producers want a popular starlet for the part.
There are several big clues that he is imaginary. He occasionally lapses into speaking out the punctuation, a clear sign that he is saying Marlow’s imagined dialogue. There are also some moments when he is distracted by noises that Marlow is hearing in the hospital ward. It is a bit unsettling, really, since it makes him appear sentient.
Like Binney, Finney gets to serve as a stand in. He is a target for Marlow’s distrust of his wife and his frustration with the failing marriage. Finney allows Marlow to put blame on his wife, even though she has done nothing particularly wrong. It is interesting that Marlow imagines him as a very fun paramour. Unfortunately, when things start to get frisky between Finney and Nicola, Marlow finds a way to interrupt their good times and, effectively, “end the scene”.
The part where Finney reneges on his promise to give Nicola the film role is a key one. When Nicola lashes out at him, he asks her if she isn’t just a “teensy bit too old for the part.” Marlow is actually standing in the room watching them, unnoticed. Nicola starts out yelling at Finney but then her attention switches smoothly to Marlow and it is clear she is attacking him for his “bile” and the way he uses his illness as an excuse. Finney fades into the background.
Marlow eventually comes to terms with his role in the the failed marriage and ultimately agrees to reconcile with Nicola. He dispatches of Finney with a fantasy that Nicola has killed him with a knife to the neck.
Raymond Binney is different from the others. He actually existed. We do not really learn much about him, though, because he exists as a distant and horrible memory of Marlow’s. We do know he was having an affair with Marlow’s mother. Philip Marlow, as a boy, actually saw them having sex in the woods. When his parents’ marriage fails, Mrs. Marlow takes Philip to London with her. He knows it has something to do with what she did with Ray, but he doesn’t fully understand.
Also, unlike the other two, Ray is not a villain. He isn’t a particularly good person; he is having an affair with his best friend’s wife, after all. But, he doesn’t mean any harm. He actually sees the affair as a bit of fun. That must be very upsetting for Mrs. Marlow because she knows she isn’t the first woman he has taken to the woods.
While in London, Mrs. Marlow reaches a point of no return. She commits suicide by throwing herself into the Thames. Philip goes back to his father. It isn’t really made clear exactly why she killed herself, though. I suspect she was pregnant with Ray’s child. She knew she could not go back to Mr. Marlow because of her awful relationship with her in-laws. Philip was miserable in London and only talked about his father and the trees he missed. She must have felt completely hopeless.
More attention is paid to Ray’s son, Mark. Little Mark is absolutely nothing like the fictional Binney or Finney. He is a chunky, slow-witted child. Philip takes revenge on Mark (for his father’s crimes) by falsely accusing him of defecating on their cruel teacher’s desk. Years later, Philip learns that Mark wound up in an asylum. When Philip admits that he did Mark wrong, he has a major break-through and is on way to being cured of his psoriasis.
Raymond is not sophisticated like the others. He is provincial looking and has a country accent peppered with “thee” and “thou”. He has a ruddier complexion, dirty fingernails, and sports the preferred haircut of the community which is shorn on the sides and long on top. He is obviously one of the more appealing men in the village and probably takes advantage of that status. He doesn’t do anything out of cruelty; he’s just sort of thoughtless and (wrongly) thinks it is all a harmless bit of fun.