In 2005, Patrick Malahide took part in “Drama Connections“, a program that looks at highly regarded and ground-breaking television dramas, to discuss his work in “The Singing Detective“. This was the second “Drama Connections” episode Mr. Malahide participated in as he also made an appearance for the well-loved comedy-drama “Minder“, recapped here.
A Multi-Layered Drama
“The Singing Detective” combines several techniques both layering and mixing up elements as they collide together in order to tell Philip Marlow’s (Michael Gambon) story. It is a sometimes comedic sometimes tragic hospital drama, a 1940’s style pulp noir, and a childhood autobiography all set to music.
As Patrick Malahide describes it: “This was just something astonishing. It combined style, pain, storytelling, and music all together in this extraordinary way.”
Initially, the BBC was interested in some sort of WWII drama, possibly involving an English woman falling in love with an American serviceman. The BBC had been stung by Granada’s early ’80s hits such as “Brideshead Revisited” and was keen to reclaim its stronghold on great drama.
When Dennis Potter‘s script came back, it was nothing like what they expected, but it was obvious it was something special. Mr. Potter’s unexpected script seems as though it must have been true to form. The director Jon Amiel and producer Kenith Trodd were both frequently stressed out, vexed and even abused by Potter.
Patrick Malahide describes Potter’s unique nature: “He helped dig the foundations of television writing and then blew them up. You know, he just decided, ‘well, we can do better than that’ and sort of ignored his own rules in this extraordinary way.”
Patrick Malahide’s Three Roles
Philip Marlow is in hospital for a crippling arthritic form of psoriasis. His pain and misery are so acute that he retreats into an old detective novel he wrote years back, “The Singing Detective”, in order to block the pain.
The novel’s villain is the suave and debonair black marketeer Mark Binney, one of Patrick Malahide’s three roles. The other two are the imagined 1980s would-be film maker Mark Finney who Marlow fantasizes is stealing both his story and wife and the real life villain from Philip Marlow’s childhood, Raymond Binney, who had an affair with Marlow’s vulnerable mother.
“The character of Binney is a very sort of smart, clipped 1940s villain who dabbles in the black market and wouldn’t look out of place in a film by Carol Reed with Trevor Howard. The central character played by Michael Gambon imagines that somebody is trying to steal the rights to this so then in his delirium he recreates this character in a modern guise. The modern character is called Finney who is still a villain but rather smooth, but in a sort of rather 1980s way. So it’s still sort of slightly snakey.”
They then run a clip I really like with the ’80s Finney flirting obnoxiously with Marlow’s estranged wife, played by Janet Suzman. “You look terrific when your angry..bzzzz…like a wasp caught in Tabasco.”
Janet Suzman is very impressed with Patrick Malahide’s portrayal of Finney, “He brings a kind of evil sophistication which is very fetching. There’s a sense of lurking what-else-has-he-got-up-his-sleeve-ishness about him.”
That is a wonderful summation of his character. He is incredibly fetching, but you know he really is up to no good at all. He just happens to look incredibly good while being evil.
Mr. Malahide then gets to the heart of the matter by describing the reason why Marlow invents the handsome but wicked characters of Mark Binney/Finney.
“The writer invents these villains in his fictional work but behind the villains was the real villain. The real malevolent force. The man who shagged his mother in the forest.”
Dun-dun-duuuun!! That would be Raymond Binney. Raymond was best friend to Marlow’s father, played by Jim Carter, but was having a torrid affair with Marlow’s mum behind his friend’s back. As a child, young Marlow saw his mother and Raymond have sex in the forest. This sex scene proved to be very controversial.
The Forest of Dean Accent
The casting of young Philip Marlow was very interesting. According to Jon Amiel, they needed a kid who could act, but also one who could speak in the bizarre, almost obsolete Forest of Dean accent. They certainly chose well with Lyndon Davies whose accent and demeanor come across as completely genuine. He is a vulnerable child caught up in the chaos of WWII as well as the chaos of his own fractured family.
Raymond Binney also speaks in the Forest of Dean way, and it is very attractive indeed. The archaic element comes through with “thees” and “thous” spoken with a strong rural country accent, and it is incredibly appealing. It lends itself to a certain romance and Raymond plays it to its fullest extent.
It didn’t take long before the media picked up on the sex scene. Kenith Trodd says he thinks Dennis Potter himself leaked it to press in the first place. Mary Whitehouse “whose views were as inflexible as her hairstyle” and her National Viewers and Listeners Association quickly took umbrage. BTW, no pun was intended there, but now I wonder if Whitehouse inspired J. K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge. 🙂
Patrick Malahide: “It invited a reaction from all the kind of usual suspects…Mary Whitehouse….and I have to say there is nothing more hypocritical than the British tabloid press when they’re in their sanctimonious, censorious mood. Nevermind that they’ve got tits and bums on Page 3, if they want to say something is shocking and filthy they will.”
It is very upsetting to learn the press did that to Mr. Malahide and Alison Steadman. It is especially horrible if Dennis Potter basically put them up to it in order to stir controversy.
Of course, “The Singing Detective” went on to be a critical and popular hit, securing over 8 million viewers and becoming an acclaimed masterpiece. The BBC took a risk in airing it, and the risk paid off.
Michael Gambon while understandably proud of his achievement says that television doesn’t have the same importance today. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment. True, very few modern productions garner the kind of overnight ratings “The Singing Detective” did, but there are several highly produced, risky, challenging programs being made today.
Patrick Malahide himself has recently taken part in two massively popular and
singular programs with his appearances as Balon Greyjoy in “The Game of Thrones” which has completely redefined what the fantasy genre can be about and as George Cornelius in “Luther” which is easily as gritty and edgy today as “The Sweeney” was in its day.
“Drama Connections” mentions other productions the actors and director later worked on, including Patrick Malahide’s role as the “vinegary” Casaubon in “Middlemarch”. I wish they’d done a “Drama Connections” episode of “Middlemarch”, actually. I’d love to hear him and Juliet Aubrey talk about their respective characters.
Patrick Malahide shares a story showing how admired the “The Singing Detective” is: “I went for an interview with an American film director, Philip Kaufman, and I walked into the room, and I sat down, and he just said ‘Patrick Malahide, The Singing Detective, oh my God, what a pleasure.’ And you think, ‘Wow!'”
Mr. Kaufman is the director of “Quills” in which Patrick Malahide played Delbené.
“Drama Connections” is a wonderful series, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Patrick Malahide and the other actors, writers, directors, and producers talk about both “Minder” and “The Singing Detective”. I must also give Meera Syal credit for her wonderful narration. She is engaging, amusing and does a great job talking about these important and well-loved productions. And, of course, it is always nice to hear Mr. Malahide’s thoughts and memories on his various roles, and I hope we can hear a lot more.