Singing Detective Gogglebox

Roger Keen
Jul 23 · 4 min read

Yes, we’ve all indulged when we should have been viewing something better — those families and couples with their feet up on the furniture, munching unhealthy snacks, watching TV and making banal comments, hardly at the Brian Sewell level of critical acumen. But this kind of trashy entertainment is addictive, like monosodium glutamate in food, and no one is immune.

So Gogglebox has endured and gone the way of all reality TV, and like Big Brother, Love Island, Made in Chelsea, whatever, it has become a construct where the producers know what they want and manage the shooting to obtain that result. I can imagine the directors doing cutaway reactions, getting the protagonists to badly fake ‘surprise’, ‘wonder’, ‘outrage’ — or to say ‘Oh my God!’ when Glenn Close comes out of the bath in Fatal Attraction, even though we’ve all seen it at least twenty times before.

I had my own idea for a variation: MetaGogglebox, where people are filmed watching Gogglebox, and then the people watching the people watching Gogglebox are filmed…Yes, I know, I’ve seen Synecdoche, New York one too many times…But then another idea, slightly more sensible, occurred to me when writing my novel-in-progress…Suppose there existed in some other reality an intellectual version the programme, where people drank fine claret and talked about their television viewing in much more exalted terms…? So I created a chapter where the greatest TV drama serial ever comes under scrutiny — Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, no less.

What follows is not an extract from the work, but a bit of fun with ideas suggested by my writing. Imagine an upmarket media couple, sat in the lounge of their six-bedroom house in Hampstead, glasses of Haut-Médoc in hand…

Contains spoilers and sexual references…

DIGBY: It’s really refreshing to watch something with a decent immersive non-linear structure for a change — Coronation Street is boring the tits off me.

HERMIONE: So, true darling! There simply aren’t enough stream-of-consciousness detective shows these days that riff on different ontological narrative levels to expound the mystery.

DIGBY: And not enough lip-synching to 1940s songs! I love those old numbers — ‘Blues in the Night’, ‘Dry Bones’, ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’…

HERMIONE: Eliminate the negative…

DIGBY: Latch on to the affirmative…

HERMIONE: And don’t mess with Mister in between!

DIGBY: And it’s so artful the way they interface with the drama, continuing the story on another level. Like when nurse Joanne Whalley greases around Marlow’s penis, he imagines her as a nightclub singer, performing ‘Blues in the Night’ — and after he shoots his load, everybody in the nightclub claps!

HERMIONE: The pathos of that scene…! And then he tries to explain as she mops it up with a tissue…

DIGBY: And she says, ‘We don’t have to talk about it, do we?’

HERMIONE: Brilliant!

DIGBY: Ha, ha, ha…

HERMIONE: And then comes the existential crisis to ‘Dry Bones’…

DIGBY: Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…

HERMIONE: …where elements of Marlow’s novel assemble into a fully constructed hallucination, with the doctors and nurses dressed up as night club performers, and Imelda Staunton does the xylophone bit on a row of skulls…

DIGBY: I love that bit…And while It’s going on, there’s that Dutch tilt on Marlow’s face and he’s carried back into his childhood trauma in the underground station, with his mother shouting his name…all echoey…

HERMIONE: Philip…! Philip…!

DIGBY: And then later we get to find out what it’s all about, when Philip spies his mother shagging in the Forest of Dean, with Raymond’s arse going up and down…

HERMIONE: Careful, Mary Whitehouse might be listening…

DIGBY: She’s dead…

HERMIONE: Thank God for that!

DIGBY: …and Philip does a turd in the classroom as a protest, and almost gets caught…

HERMIONE: That teacher…!

DIGBY: What a bitch!

HERMIONE: And the whole episode sets up Marlow’s misogynistic attitude in adulthood…towards his wife…

DIGBY: And the whores in his novel…The psychological underpinning of the whole just takes your breath away…

HERMIONE: And that’s ramified when villain Mark Binney flips into the present day as Marlow’s wife’s imagined lover…

DIGBY: I just love that…the way a paranoid idea can blossom into a whole new plot direction — and another layer of metafiction…Dash. Exclamation mark.

HERMIONE: Binney is a mirror held up to all of Marlow’s fears. Full stop. New paragraph.

DIGBY: Ain’t it the truth…Like the noir espionage plot of the novel is a mirror of childhood unfinished business…

HERMIONE: Yes! And it all comes together in a denouement of beauty!

DIGBY: Where he finally breaks down in tears in front of the therapist — and what’s so good is the way it’s set off by a side issue, rather than the central one of his mother’s suicide. That’s so true to life.

HERMIONE: Then all the narrative layers internally collapse and blend into one another…

DIGBY: And the noir detective story enters the hospital ward like a dark fog, accompanied by the Mysterious Men and the Singing Detective in a hail of bullets…

HERMIONE: And all the patients get shot dead, one by one…!

DIGBY: Ha, ha, brilliant! But the final conclusion remains totally in keeping with the principles of psychotherapeutic recovery…

HERMIONE: Absolutely!

DIGBY: Shall we watch Love Island now?

HERMIONE: I don’t know, Digby, it’s a bit over my head…

THAT’S ALL FOLKS!


Stills © BBC Television

Further reading: My Singing Detective DVD review

Roger Keen

Written by

Writer, filmmaker and film critic. Author of Literary Stalker and The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s | www.rogerkeen.com |

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