The Singing Detective (1986)

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Released 5-Aug-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Introduction
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Menu Audio
Audio Commentary-Jon Amiel (Director) And Kenith Trodd (Producer)
Featurette-Points Of View
Featurette-Close Up: Dennis Potter
Featurette-Arena: Dennis Potter
Filmographies-Cast & Crew
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 1986
Running Time 402:55 (Case: 457)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (31:09)
Multi Disc Set (3)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Jon Amiel

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Michael Gambon
Patrick Malahide
Joanne Whalley
Lyndon Davies
David Ryall
Gerard Horan
Ron Cook
George Rossi
Leslie French
Geff Francis
Sharon D. Clarke
Janet Suzman
Alison Steadman
Case Amaray-Transparent-Dual
RPI $59.95 Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.29:1
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.29:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes, Smoking is an important factor in the plot.
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Fascinating, intriguing, confusing, emotional, deeply personal, amusing, acerbic, disturbing, intelligent, meticulous, weird, different, surreal, dramatic, magnificent and masterpiece. All of these terms can quite readily be used to describe The Singing Detective, a television series written by Dennis Potter and widely considered to be his greatest work. I had not actually seen this series before reviewing this DVD, but had obviously heard of it, which made me very keen to take a look at it. This series was made in 1986 and has recently been remade as a feature film starring Robert Downey Jr.

    The plot is very difficult to describe and the best description I can come up with is the one put forward by the director, Jon Amiel, during the commentary track. He says that one of the actors involved, Patrick Malahide describes it as "A psychological case history, told as a detective story, set to music". It is really three different plot lines joined together by the involvement of the central character, Phillip Marlow (Michael Gambon in a BAFTA winning performance) either as an adult, memories of his childhood or a story he is concocting in his mind. The three plot lines are;

    The explanation I have just given only just scratches the surface of this very intricate series. The three plot lines mix together as the series progresses and many things which seem strange early in the series make sense by the end. There are no wasted scenes - every moment builds toward the end of the story. You have to pay careful attention to what is occurring, but your efforts are rewarded by this wonderful series. Despite the nearly seven hour running time, this series never drags, always keeping you wanting more. I can see this getting quite a few viewings, just to pick up all the detail in the plot.

    The acting is excellent throughout from Michael Gambon (who is magnificent) through all cast members, with even minor characters being interesting and important to the plot. Dennis Potter's writing obviously plays a big part in these characterisations. The other interesting thing about the casting is that many actors appear in more than one story which may seem confusing initially but all makes sense by the end of the series.

    Another factor that deserves mention here is the music, not only the incidental music which is very effective but the fact that characters break into song at many points during the series. Some of these scenes are quite surreal but always make sense in terms of the point that is being made. Some of the musical numbers such as the one involving the doctors are justifiably famous. This adds yet another layer to this marvellous production which adds to its standing as one of the best television series ever made. The incidental music is mostly taken from library recordings and many of the songs are taken from old 78s to make them authentic to the period. Other songs are new recordings of period tunes.

    At the time of its release, there was quite an outcry about the sexuality and perceived mysogynism involved in this series. One of the extras shows some feedback received by the BBC from viewers, many saying it should be banned.

    What a show! If you enjoy intelligent, different and challenging entertainment, and have not seen this, see it as soon as you can.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    The video quality is very good especially considering the age of the source material, however it does have some minor issues.

    The feature is presented in a 1.29:1 aspect ratio non 16x9 enhanced which is the original aspect ratio. It was originally recorded on film rather than video.

    The picture was generally clear and sharp throughout, with no evidence of low level noise. There was some grain throughout. The shadow detail was not great but based upon comments in the commentary I believe that this is by artistic choice especially during the thriller sequences.

    The colour was generally pretty good, however a little washed out, but no more than you would expect. Again the lack of primary colours is an artistic choice, and you will note that red is only used once or twice in the entire production.

    From an artefacts perspective, there was some minor aliasing on uniforms , fairly regular film artefacts including black and white flecks & lines, some occasional tape tracking issues and a little bit of macro-blocking which I mostly noticed on people's cheeks in close-up. None of these artefacts were particularly distracting.

    There are subtitles in English for the hearing impaired. They were clear, easy to read but a little summarised from the spoken word and included some minor spelling issues. I also felt they were a little small.

    The layer change occurs at 31:09 on Disc 2, Episode 5 and is reasonably well done. There is a layer change somewhere near the end of Chapter 3 of Disc 1, Episode 2 but I could not see it.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio quality is good but mono.

    This DVD contains one audio option, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack encoded at 192 Kb/s. The soundtrack is fairly quiet, and I had to set the amplifier at 10dB above my normal reference level for the dialogue to be clearly audible.

    Dialogue was generally clear and easy to understand (once the volume was turned up) and there was no problem with audio sync. Some of the accents make dialogue a bit of a challenge from time to time.

    The music used is excellent, both the incidental music sourced from libraries and the tunes of the 1940s which are used for the musical numbers. Sometimes the music sourced from old 78s will include a crackle or pop but these are quite minor.

    The surround speakers and subwoofer are not used.


Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    The menu includes an excellent introduction and features scenes from the series which really helps you get in the mood of the series. It also allows for access to subtitles, episode selection, a play all function and the ability to turn on the commentary.

Commentary featuring Director Jon Amiel & Producer Kenith Trodd

    This commentary stretches for the ENTIRE 400+ minutes of this series, which is quite amazing in itself. The director does most of the talking with the producer interjecting comments as he sees fit. It is quite interesting and covers their relationship with Dennis Potter, casting, music, shooting approach, make-up, Michael Gambon's performance, some funny anecdotes and quite a bit of technical detail about artistic choices and approaches to filming. They also discuss their reactions to certain scenes. Amusingly, at one point they question why anybody would be listening to this commentary. If you are a major fan of this series or Dennis Potter in general, I am sure you would find this interesting. For others it may be useful to dip in and out of for various scenes which you are looking for an insight into, although they make it clear early on that they don't plan to give their interpretation of The Singing Detective.

Point of View (5:05) - Disc 3

    The first item on the extras disc is a short selection of viewer feedback received by the BBC at the time the show was originally aired. Some of it is quite vitriolic with demands for the show to be banned because of the sex scenes. Others are quite cute and touching. This material is taken from the BBC viewer feedback show of the time, Point of View.

Close Up - Dennis Potter (39:38) - Disc 3

    The packaging notes that this is an edited version due to contractual issues. Accordingly, there does seem to be chunks missing, however, what remains is fascinating. It is a no holds barred look at Dennis Potter the man and author including scenes from a number of his television productions and interviews with friends, various actors and actresses, his biographer, Jon Amiel, Kenith Trodd, Rick MacCallum and others. Topics covered include his sexual proclivities, his illness and insights into his notoriously difficult and reclusive personality.

Photo Gallery - Disc 3

    A selection of 30 stills from the production.

Arena - Dennis Potter (10:06)

    An interview with Dennis Potter from the BBC show, Arena. He talks mostly about The Singing Detective and how he wrote it. Again this is an edited version for contractual reasons, hence the short running time.


    Text filmographies for Michael Gambon, Jim Carter, Jon Amiel, Dennis Potter, Bill Paterson, Patrick Malahide, Imelda Staunton, Alison Steadman, Joanne Whalley, Janet Suzman and Kenith Trodd.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This series has been released in basically the same format in both Region 1 and Region 2 although the reviews I have read of the Region 1 indicate there are some PAL to NTSC conversion issues. Let's call it a draw between Region 2 and Region 4.


    A magnificent, intricate and intelligent television series from the mind of Dennis Potter.

    The video quality is very good considering the age of the source.

    The audio quality is good.

    The disc has a good selection of relevant extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Daniel Bruce (Do you need a bio break?)
Friday, September 03, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 1200, using Component output
DisplaySony FD Trinitron Wega KV-AR34M36 80cm. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 576i (PAL)/480i (NTSC).
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationPioneer VSX-511
SpeakersBose 201 Direct Reflecting (Front), Phillips SB680V (Surround), Phillips MX731 (Center), Yamaha YST SW90 (Sub)

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
TV guide description of episode 5 (spoilers - only read if you've seen the entire series) - REPLY POSTED