Paul Casserly 's Opinion

Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

Paul Casserly: Is this the best TV show of all time?

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Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective.  Photo / Supplied
Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective. Photo / Supplied

Is The Singing Detective really the best TV show of all time?

Apologies for the hyperbolic, clichéd, blog-standard ruse, but I've just watched all six episodes of The Singing Detective again and it was an absolute bloody pleasure. SO much so that I have bestowed upon it the ultimate blessing.

Naturally I consulted the research department for confirmation of its "best show" status. But I was looking for love in the wrong place.

According to IMDB, the best show of all time is Lost. Wikipedia reckons it's Seinfeld.

That's closer, but I reckon I need to add the word drama to the Google search - sadly the first answer I came across was Prison Break.

At least The Guardian can be always be depended upon, rating The Singing Detective at, hang on...holy shit, it's at No. 7 on their 2010 Top 50 list.

That's behind A Very Peculiar Practice and Brideshead Revisited.

Okay, so both are great shows, and yes, it's hard to argue that The Sopranos doesn't deserve its place at the head of this rather subjective table, but No. 7?

I'd actually forgotten about A Very Peculiar Practice, which was, incidentally, voted the "best show of 1988" by the readers of Bifim magazine, a long dead giveaway published by student radio BFM. So I must re-watch that. But I never forgot The Singing Detective, even if it's been 20 odd years since I last saw it.

For the uninitiated, it's a musical/noir masterpiece about a mystery writer called Philip E Marlow, played to perfection by Michael Gambon. He's in hospital dealing with a shocking skin condition. It's also about the novel he's trying to compose in his head, which features a detective who sings and parties like it's 1939. But mostly it's about the aftershocks of an unhappy childhood. This includes seeing his mum rooting a guy who wasn't his father when he was 10. The three strands are intertwined and sometimes it's really hard to separate hallucinations from reality. You find yourself going, 'Hang on, is this bit real?' Which is of course quite intentional, and, as it turns out, generally brilliant.

The writer of the series, the late Dennis Potter, also had an upsetting sexual encounter when he was 10, thanks to an inappropriate uncle, and much of his work has dealt with similar themes. Indeed his output has been described thus: "An elaborate game of psychological hide and seek where he played out his sexual fantasises."

His colleagues - some of whom appear on an excellent documentary included in the BBC Masterpiece edition DVD - claim it's all autobiographical. The author, as is the tradition, denies it. One friend reckons the cause of his repression was the fact that he "found it difficult to conventionally philander".

His final interview, given with the knowledge that he had a few months to live, is legendary. He named his cancer "Rupert" after media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and said, if he had the time, he'd like to "shoot the bugger". His crime? "The pollution of the British press." The year: 1994. If only he'd lived to see the phone-tapping enquiry. He would have enjoyed that. And he would have enjoyed his legacy, the current, so-called golden age of TV.

Watching again it's not hard to see the impact marks left by this televisual asteroid. I'm sure the dream sequences in The Sopranos, the whole of The English Patient and the many surreal moments in Scrubs have all been shaped from rocks broken by Potter. And, as Steve Armstrong in The Guardian points out: "Steve Bochco, Alan Ball and Charlie Kaufman all cite Dennis as a key influence."

Even the trailer for the upcoming Bond movie contains a word association game that seems a carbon copy of one the many brilliant scenes in the series. But maybe I'm just finding patterns, like faces in the clouds. I do have a point to prove after all.

The extras on the BBC DVD are top notch - my favourite is a series of complaints about the show, presented on a genius BBC production called Points of View - where viewer comments and complaints are read out on TV. The negative ones included accusations that it was "mixed up" and contained "racialism and rudey bits". Colonel RS Vine, BSc, MRCS, LRCP, FRC etc referred to it as "this extraordinary obscene production".

Ironically it's a scene involving a crusty old military man that had the most impact on me the first time I saw it a lifetime ago. It was an extraordinary scene that brought home the reality and obscenity of war, as an elderly patient talked with glee about the teenage girls he raped as the Germans retreated. I won't tell you what happened next because you really should watch this again, because as I've decreed above, it is, clearly, the best TV show ever made.

Am I right, or am I right?

And please, do add your suggestions for the best TV show ever in the history of the multi-verse. We'll all need something to watch after the current greatest show of all time, the Olympics.

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Paul Casserly

Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

It began with Dr Who, in black and white, when it was actually scary. The addiction took hold with Chips, in colour. He made his mum knit a Starsky and Hutch cardigan. Later, Twin Peaks would blow what was left of his mind. He’s been working in radio and TV since the 1990s and has an award in his pool room for Eating Media Lunch.

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