This idiosyncratic four part TV thriller starring the young Denis Lawson as a framed small time thief on the run in Thatcher’s Britain, was originally broadcast by the BBC in the late-eighties but has never since been repeated, though it generated plenty of silly tabloid controversy at the time due to some brief scenes of full frontal nudity (both male and female) rather judiciously dotted throughout all four of its 50 minute episodes. Headline-inducing though this proved to be in 1986, twenty-five years later such material no longer leaps out as being anything particularly worthy of outrage, especially in today’s more liberal TV environment; instead “Dead Head” sums up a certain kind of heavily ironic late-eighties genre playfulness in its construction, and could be screened as a textbook example of the decade’s approach to what might in general these days be called post-modern drama. It proves a dated but still striking recipe, mixing references to the literature of Dante and the poetry of Rimbaud freely with ‘40s film noir tropes, the result forming a chaotic jamboree of high and low art that makes a potent and frequently off the wall cocktail of stylised drama and offbeat comedy … or what it’s writer Howard Brenton describes on the commentary track for one of the episodes as ‘poetic tosh’.
This was Brenton’s first stab at dramatizing in thriller form the paranoid world of political conspiracy and espionage percolating among the great and the not-so-good of the British state, themes he would later popularise more conventionally in his capacity as one of the head writers for the successful BBC spy drama series “Spooks”, for which he wrote thirteen episodes before it became the rather glossier and more expensive BBC prestige vehicle it developed into later in the Noughties. Brenton’s approach here owes more to his pedigree as a left-leaning playwright for London-based radical theatre groups in the 1970s than it does to the high tech world of M15 that’s depicted in “Spooks”. He first came to critical attention as a member of David Hare’s Portable Theatre Company, in a period when his work tended to embody excoriating left wing analyses of Britain’s postwar decline in what turned out to be the run-up to the Thatcher revolution. His most well-known work includes “The Romans in Britain”, a play, first staged at the National Theatre in 1980, which attempted to draw an analogy between the Roman invasion of Britain in 54BC and the country’s modern day military presence in Northern Ireland at that time. It’s mainly remembered today for becoming the subject of another one of evangelical crusader for decency Mary Whitehouse’s futile campaigns, due to its on-stage depiction of a homosexual rape carried out by a Roman centurion on a Celtic druid, which prompted her to try (and fail) to launch a private prosecution against its director. The Thatcher years provided plenty of opportunity for biting satire on British theatre stages, and Brenton’s acclaimed 1985 play “Pravda” was interpreted as thinly veiled attack on Australian tycoon and Thatcher champion Rupert Murdoch, with Anthony Hopkins as a ruthless South African press baron monopolising ownership of the British press as he goes about assembling his empire. “Dead Head” came a year later, a rare mainstream venture onto British TV screens for the writer which saw Brenton team with director Rob Walker, who seems to have gravitated at the time towards heavy ‘message’ political dramas during this highly charged era, with min-dramas such as “Blind Justice” and “Rules of Engagement”.
Written in just ten days, “Dead Head” was broadcast in the same year as Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective” and exhibits a similar feel for 1940s mystery genre pastiche, but set side-by-side with a studied depiction of contemporary 1980s Britain. Although shot on a mixture of video and 16mm film, as had been standard in the making of British TV drama for much of the last three decades by 1986, the four episodes do nevertheless appear to have been composed and edited more like a feature film rather than with the multi-camera techniques usually drawn on in standard studio TV recording of the day. Even most of the video material seems to have been shot on location, and Walker takes exemplary care in crafting a noir-ish mis-en-scene, full of dry ice and strobing white light, often recalling the look of early eighties music videos by the likes of Ultravox or The Human League. Denis Lawson plays a small time crook called Eddie Cass: a patriotic, Royal Family-loving South London crook who’s down on his luck after being booted out of his flat by his wife (Lindsay Duncan), and who gets drawn into a bizarre mystery after agreeing to pick up a package wrapped in newspaper from a run-down council estate in order to courier it across London and to deliver it to an exclusive Regent’s Park address. A sharp-suited gangster called Stoker (Larrington Walker) sets him up with the job; £500 with no questions asked. But when the drop-off address turns out apparently to be abandoned, a curious Eddie does the one thing he was told never to do, and looks inside the package. He finds a woman’s severed head, there inside the deluxe hat box ... and so begins a nightmare journey across the length and breadth of the country, pursued by a bevy of sinister figures, betrayed by friends, and always waiting for the ‘bomb’ to drop that might end his world.
This 1980s drama plays up a heightened, unrealistic and highly mannered approach to its traditional man-on-the-run subject matter with Pinter-esque dialogue and a flashback structure, typical of vintage noir, in which Eddie narrates the entire story as a past event through an insistent voice-over monologue device. The ‘40s feel extends to the shadowy spies and undercover cops who start to shadow him everywhere as he desperately tries to understand the nature of the conspiracy he’s been implicated in, and the reason why he had to be the one to take this fall. His undercover persecutors usually dress in homburg hats and trench coats like typical film noir villains, except that they’re prone to wearing scent and quoting TS Eliot; and the gangster who first offers Eddie the money in a South London pub, for performing a simple courier service which thereafter traps him in a labyrinth of Kafka-esque surrealism, looks like a gangster from a ‘Blaxploitation’ flick and sports an eye-patch as a fashion accessory! The first episode takes in and moves between South London backstreet dives and opulent Regent’s Park town houses, and sets up the general structure which defines all four episodes, namely one in which Eddie goes on a picaresque jaunt that takes him on an unpredictable winding route of discovery, first across the capital and then across the country as a whole, experiencing the high-life among Britain’s elite classes one week and then sleeping rough or squatting with a group of West Indian immigrants on the streets of Birmingham the next.
Arranging the story structure as a “39 Steps”-style chase cross country, allows Brenton to examine all facets of British life circa the Thatcher ascendancy, but in a mischievous allegorical fashion which uses the conspiracy thriller format to hint at sinister connections between a bevy of cipher figures, such as the high flying businessman embezzler turned stately home dwelling Lord with a yen for torture (Winston Crooke), a rogue homosexual MI5 operative running his own clandestine operations (Simon Callow), and a prophet-like former West Indian crime partner of Eddie’s called Caractacus (Norman Beaton). A nice air of intrigue is built up using typical film noir tricks in which the familiar is continually made to look strange and threatening, thus constantly leaving Eddie (and the viewer) off balance and unable to uncomprehend anyone’s motive for behaving the way they do.
Eddie is the ultimate Everyman -- being buffeted and manipulated by forces he has no inkling of. The choice of episodic structure allows Brenton to go off on frequent tangents and to introduce all sorts of strange character beats, and comic interludes to thread the paranoia and tension. But as Eddie starts to understand the nature of the plot against him, he decides to fight back. One of the recurring themes of the serial involves Eddie, a man who loves his country with a fervent patriotic zeal, often ending up (quite literally) being buried in it: an urban city boy born and bred, he frequently finds himself muddied and bruised and soiled and wet, either from wading in the Thames (when trying to dispose of the severed head) or mired in the silt and mud of fields and lakes and rivers of the English countryside -- the place where he attempts to lie low after leaping from a train at the behest of the upper-class spook Hugo (Callow). Just as often he gets handed great wads of money by unlikely or mysterious figures, even though they might seem threatening: frogmen with machine guns emerge from a riverbank during a fox hunt at one point, and hand back a pouch-full of cash Eddie assumed they’d intended to confiscate from him; and even the malevolent genre veteran George Baker, who plays the seeming mastermind of his predicament, hands him £1,000 and a bottle of whisky after first threatening him with ruin and exposure. Motives and actions here are always unpredictable and changeable.
Denis Lawson is outstanding in this early TV role as the spivy central character Eddie Cass, a clueless ne’er-do-well who appears in almost every scene of the serial since this is a story told entirely from his uncomprehending point of view. Simon Callow specialised in eccentric larger-than-life characters during the 1980s, before his turn in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” granted him the much higher profile he still enjoys today, and he dominates the whole of episode two as the cultured but out-of-control rogue spy Hugo. Norman Beaton similarly looms large over episode three when Eddie tries to get himself fit for the coming fight back against his persecutors by placing himself in the hands of his Rastafarian former crime partner, who sets out to wean him off the booze with a special ‘toughening up’ programme run out of the back of a Birmingham pool hall. Episode four takes Eddie to Glasgow in a hippy bus loaded with smack, and in the company of a high society young lady who likes to slum it with the working classes (Eddie never goes short when it comes to women, despite his travails -- managing to bed someone new in nearly every episode). Lindsay Duncan, as Eddie’s inscrutable ‘femme fatale’ ex-wife Dana, turns out to be pivotal to a plot that hinges on a Jack the Ripper-like set of circumstances; and other notable cast members include Susannah Bunyan as the mysterious New Wave-styled girlfriend of Caractacus; and Don Henderson (who only appears in one scene) as a suitably Bullman-esque hard case cop.
“Dead Head” is always intriguing and for the most part highly watchable, managing to string the viewer along for three and a half hours thanks to some deft handling of the central mystery element, despite its frequent forays into more offbeat territory resulting in somewhat unnecessary digressions and a self-consciously quirky approach. Some of the characters are more like ciphers than real people and the heightened aesthetic feels a bit too artificial and knowing for its own good upon occasion. This is all of a piece with the arch, ‘post-modern’ nature of modern British TV drama in the 1980s. But for all its appeal, Brenton and Walker never come near to even approaching the inventive brilliance of Dennis Potter’s work at its best. Richard Hartley’s synth-based score feels almost operatic on occasion, adding considerably to that highly stylised feel, especially in the end titles theme which is a wacky vocoder-driven electronica treatment of the nursery rhyme “Pussy Cat Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?” The film noir trappings also come filtered through 1980s era furnishings, especially in the tarted up flat of Eddie’s ex-wife – all silk bed sheets and drapes, and white leather couches – and the unusual amount of location filming, taking in London, Birmingham and Glasgow as well as the countryside around the Midlands area, also makes this a snapshot historical tour brochure guide to divided Britain under Maggie’s iron grip.
The 2-disc set from Eureka Entertainment offers all four episodes of the BBC drama in pristine restored condition, with clear mono audio sound. Howard Brenton – now seventy years of age – provides a chatty commentary for episodes one and two, and there are some extended versions and alternative cuts of certain scenes under a section entitled deleted scenes. Brenton proves to be an amiable commentary provider, pointing out references and allusions to poetry and the work of Jean Luc Goddard along the way, and often speaking of his younger self in the third person, with a detached air of amusement at his former pretentions (‘this is a typical early Brenton speech!’ he interjects at one point). It’s a witty and enjoyable hour and forty minutes, but it would have been nice to have full commentaries for the other two episodes as well. Instead Brenton is able to give us only a quick précis of his thoughts on the final two episodes, offering hints at how he would have changed the ending to the third episode if he could have had the chance to re-write it.
“Dead Head” is a far from perfect piece of work. Brenton even admits that he made up the plot as he went along (never the ideal way of constructing an intricate thriller scenario, although quite a common one in long-running episodic TV drama these days) since it was written at such breakneck speed that there was no time to plan it out more thoroughly. However, an excellent cast and spirited performances help to sell the more questionable parts of the narrative; and the resolution, though ambiguous, feels at one with the theme of the piece throughout. A flawed but nevertheless always interesting curiosity from the vaults of the BBC.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!