There doesn't seem to exist a truly complete soundtrack album of the original 1986 BBC television serial The Singing Detective, let alone an expanded compendium containing every single piece of music mentioned in the text on which the series was based. That would be truly fascinating, and hopefully someone will eventually go to the trouble of assembling it. At the very least, 24 canonical selections considered to be the genuine playlist as heard in the TV soundtrack would fill a compact disc to perfection, while reflecting the remarkable assortment of vintage recordings specified by author Dennis Potter for inclusion in the series. Why no one has seen fit to present them in that manner is very much a mystery. EMI's 2010 reissue of the 20-track 1987 BBC Enterprises release uses exactly the same album cover art with four tunes swapped out for other melodies and one song added. There also exists a soundtrack album for the U.S. film adaptation starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson which was concocted in 2003 and brandishes pop hits from the 1950s rather than the ‘40s, but that compilation should be considered as far removed from any discussion of the authentic Singing Detective playlist as was the movie from the original TV series and the screenplay from whence it sprang. Maybe the ‘40s seemed too remote for the makers of that film, despite Potter's perpetual invocation of Raymond Chandler's archetypal private eye Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep of 1939 and retrofitted by Chandler to stories written as early as 1934. Perhaps future audiences will be subjected to a ‘60s, a ‘70s, or an ‘80s version of The Singing Detective. After all, nothing is sacred on this earth. Potter's own medical condition -- maximal psoriasis so severe as to be disfiguring and painfully crippling -- is part of the uneasy subtext for everything in the screenplay, the TV show and, vicariously, the albums. In the screenplay the specter of an emotionally disturbed man confined to a hospital bed by an agonizing and debilitating condition is never far from the surface. The patient's struggle with both actual and delusional childhood memories invites comparison with Jaco Van Dormael's 1991 film Toto le Heros, although that is a much rosier and more whimsical tale beside which the original screenplay for The Singing Detective feels like a morbidly deranged blend of Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, and Harlan Ellison.
Potter's use of pop music from the '40s, and from 1945 in particular, is one of the strengths of the work. The Ambrose Orchestra's 1936 take on the old "Limehouse Blues" predates most of the rest, which mainly showcase vocalists like Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, Anne Shelton, Dick Haymes, and Vera Lynn. Al Jolson's handling of "After You've Gone," with backing by Matty Malneck's orchestra and the vocal group billed as Four Hits and a Miss, was described by Potter as "threatening." In the screenplay it is lip-synced by a scarecrow. Inexplicably, EMI omits "Peg O' My Heart," which was clearly designated as the story's theme song. Also excised are Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm," the Mills Brothers' "Paper Moon," and "Dry Bones" sung by Waring's Pennsylvanians, using a rigid arrangement and nutty percussive sound effects. The substitutions include "I'm in Love for the Last Time" by Ken "Snakehips" Johnson & His West Indian Dance Orchestra and "My Baby Just Cares for Me" by Woolf Phillips & His Swing Stars. Both collections, let it be observed, do include the BBC Orchestra's zippy recording of "Teddy Bear's Picnic" with that group's leader, Henry Hall, featured at the xylophone. Neither BBC nor EMI include the BBC Dance Orchestra's recording of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," a gruesomely ironic music bed that is introduced along with the full horrors of dermatological disaster. Nor did either collection present "The Umbrella Man" by Sammy Kaye's orchestra or "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" sung by Al Bowlly backed by Ray Noble's Orchestra. Fortunately, what is included here adds up to a pleasant retrospective tour of English and American pop music from before and during the Second World War, even for those who are not familiar with Dennis Potter or his Singing Detective.