In 1986, the BBC aired a six-part miniseries entitled The Singing Detective. Penned by Dennis Potter, it is considered a masterpiece. The Guardian included it in their Six to watch: British Miniseries list. Patrick Malahide plays three characters: Mark Finney, Raymond Binney and Mark Binney. If the names strike you as very similar to one another, all I can say is that it is intentional.
Read on for spoilers, or you can skip to the bottom for short film clip and/or gallery.
Episode One “Skin”
“Skin” opens with a retro, film noir setting. We see trenchcoated figures wandering around at night, one pausing to drop a coin into a harmonica playing tramp’s hat. The coin has a piece of paper with ‘skinskapes’ written on it. It becomes clear we are dealing with mysterious agents or spies of some sort.
The man in the trenchcoat is Mark Binney. He goes down some steps into an establishment called Skinskapes. A narrator describes the action as it occurs, “…and so the man went down the hole like Alice; but there were no bunny rabbits down there. It wasn’t that sort of a hole. It was a rat hole.”
The narrator turns out to be Phillip Marlow (Michael Gambon), a pulp fiction writer who is suffering from crippling psoriasis. He is in a hospital ward and seeks some very limited level of comfort by working out the plots to his novel. As his movement is so limited, he cannot write with pen and paper so instead uses his mind.
It is actually kind of funny watching Marlow try and figure out his dialogue and plot. Binney and Amanda (a woman who works at Skinskapes) call each other “sugar” and “toots”. When we go back to Marlow, he is snickering out loud, saying “sugar” and “toots”. We twist in and out of reality and pulp style fiction with the two occasionally colliding together. When Marlow suffers from high temperature (a symptom of his condition), Mark Binney sweats profusely and wonders why it is so hot.
Meshing of Genres
A curious facet of Skin is that it meshes genres. The hospital scenes are reminiscent of the British hospital comedies of 1970s and early ’80s such as Only When I Laugh. However, it blends the, in this case, darkly comedic with the tragic, showing the horrors that come with illness in a very stark and uncompromising way. Patients suffer pain, humiliation, and even death.
As mentioned earlier, Marlow is apt to hallucinate. While doctors are discussing his illness (as though he isn’t even there) he imagines them suddenly breaking out into a song and dance rendition of Dem Dry Bones. These hallucinations, like his novel, seem to give him some sense of enjoyment. They are certainly entertaining and manage to work fluidly into the narrative despite being decidedly disjointed in concept.
In addition to the hallucinations and novel, we also witness flashbacks of Marlow’s past. These play a very important part in understanding his psyche and how it affects his illness. That Dennis Potter managed to blend all of these themes together into a coherent story is genuinely amazing.
Back to Binney
Back at Skinskapes, Mark Binney meets Amanda. At least, that is the name emblazoned on her sailor’s hat. All the women who work there have sexy sailor costumes. Binney buys her champagne and a meal. Meanwhile, a chanteuse is singing My Mamma Done Told Me. We see that the singer is portrayed by the lovely, young Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) who works on Marlow’s ward.
During the song, Binney excuses himself to the gents. Instead, he is looking for his contact (the harmonica player) who he finds dead. Shaken, he returns back to Amanda and complains profusely of the heat. Amanda’s Russian friend Sonia arrives with some more champagne and they get Binney to give her a monetary tip. Binney wonders aloud if he is going to get something in return. This scene gets played out a couple of times as Marlow does a mental rewrite. Later we see Marlow leaving Skinskapes where he meets the two women outside. Together, all three get in a cab.
While this is all going down, we keep seeing scenes of a woman (who appears to be Sonia) being dragged from the water. A man, who looks very much like a detective is watching. The man is played by Michael Gambon and would appear to be the first-person narrator of the story.
Binney is an intriguing character. He dresses very smartly in a long, cashmere coat and a handsome fedora. He speaks with a posh voice and we see he can speak a bit of Russian when he chats a bit with Sonia. He is very pale and has rather pink lips which gives him an almost ghostly, ethereal look which makes sense, in a way, considering he is fictitious and really only exists in Marlow’s mind.
Below is a clip of Marlow at Skinskapes and a gallery.