I missed Dead Head’s television broadcast, but I recall it as part of an era when BBC dramas were regularly courting controversy. The flat crudity of the title was provocative enough in itself, but the tabloids really cut loose over the welly boot sex scene. It’s debateable whether the serial would have gone down as an ‘80s classic in the way Edge of Darkness or The Singing Detective have, even if the BBC hadn’t buried it (or chosen to forget it; it was never repeated). It’s quite self-consciously oddball, while being too overtly politicised to reach the hallowed heights of a really eccentric masterpiece (like The Prisoner, for example).
Dead Head is also quite rough around the edges (there’s some strong material in the third episode, but it’s also dangerously close to filler). Nevertheless, Howard Brenton’s absurdist, satirical thriller is, patchily, quiet brilliant. It’s stylised and singular of viewpoint in a manner instantly recognisable as borne from an era (some might malign it as dated) when there was much to react against and the BBC was a forum where which one could do so.
This isn’t a subtle thriller. It’s heavy-handed at times, but Dead Head avoids toppling headlong into the territory of playwright as polemicist, one who wants to set the world to rights through political finger wagging, by dint of a strong plotline that engages even when Brenton gets detoured by indulgences. The premise is simple enough; a 1980s envisaging of Jack the Ripper. By that I don’t mean the (highly entertaining) Michael Caine serial that arrived a couple of years later. Although, the central conceit of Dead Head is that of the most titillating of Ripper theories, and it’s one shared by the Caine version, along with Murder By Decree, the Sherlock Holmes versus Jolly Jack movie starring Christopher Plummer. It’s also to be found in Alan Moore’s From Hell, later adapted as a lesser Johnny Depp movie.
Popularised in these is the idea that someone of great importance in upper echelons of British society is responsible for the heinous Whitechapel murders, and that the establishment has committed a cover-up. Dead Head pushes thus further, pinning the blame on scapegoat Eddie Cass (Dennis Lawson), a hapless, none-too-bright and delusional small time crook. One who always voted Tory “because I’m a loyalist to the Queen”. It’s perhaps Eddie’s unquestioning deference to the monarchy, which informs his ultimate decision to align himself with the forces of darkness, that is the biggest stretch here (although, it also makes him a good ‘80s capitalist, so there’s a cute rationalisation too).
Dead Head may have dated, but in a world where realisation has dawned that a celebrity paedophile was invited into the nation’s teatime homes for decades, and curried favour and audiences with the royal family and heads of state, Brenton’s serial is quite timely for rediscovery. Is it so unbelievable that such dark deeds could occur, when investigations into allegations of Westminster child abuse and even murder are on-going? The way the wind is blowing, we may end up giving credence to David Icke’s vision of our sovereigns as human-sacrificing reptiles.
Other aspects also carry a topical frisson. While Brenton, a playwright largely absent from the small screen between this and Spooks in the early ‘00s, frequently uses a hammer to crack a nut (as did many an understandably charged narrative during the decade), there’s a surreal relatability to Eddie’s plight. Unsettling and paranoid, this vision of Britain is one where our every move is scrutinised and controlled, where we’re expected to behave like dutiful worker drones and passively accept the status quo, while bowing to mammon and immersing ourselves in idle distractions. One where the media fall over themselves to report whatever they’re told. So, nothing at all like it is now.
The Man: For reasons of State, I trust you can be counted on.
Brenton attests he didn’t have an idea of who did it, but its quite clear where he’s directing his spotlight. The hints of where this will lead are there in the first scene, with Eddie informing us of his royalist devotion. The corruption of his revered institution is made known to him in a whispered revelation during the final episode (“Oh, I see. Well, I mean, of course, in that case”), but fails to dent his allegiance (“Appealed to my patriotism, didn’t they?”)
Ironically, although he gets handsomely rewarded for keeping mum, this isn’t the putting number one first that exemplified the decade. Nevertheless, Brenton regards Eddie as “a good Thatcherite”. In the first episode, Eddie doesn’t ask questions about what’s in the box; all that’s important is that he’s “earning the 400 quid”. In this respect, Dead Head shares a sequence of DNA with The Prisoner. The key requirement is not to ask questions (and to know one’s place, although that is less significant in McGoohan’s series, except in an existential sense).
Eddie opens a Pandora’s hatbox when he no one answers the door at his given destination. From there, he’s down the rabbit hole, and director Rob Walker underlines Brenton’s ideas by envisaging a very ‘80s landscape. It’s one that manages to feel both cinematic and boxed in by the limitations of a TV budget (and Pebble Mill filming). Walker also came from a theatre background (the radical left-wing Half Moon Theatre), and had a desire to put filmic language back on TV (ironic, given the BBC’s best output during this period is far from staid).
Their “mythic South London” is introduced in a choke of dry ice, suggesting more an over-stoked MTV video than the envisaged noir. But the combination of elements suggests something else going on. There’s Eddie’s voice over, more the bemused resignation of a Double Indemnitythan an assured Philip Marlowe type. And there’s his hat, which is actually more of a tip that they’ve been watching Brazil than a desire to embrace ‘40s Hollywood (Brenton suggests that they had a crazy idea this would bring headwear back into fashion). In some respects Dead Head’s shifting paradigms can be seen as a precursor to the peculiar matrix milieus of Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor a decade and a bit later (a little later still, Fight Club would have it’s own ripper-esque head in a box).
This stylised London is at its strongest in the first episode; each has its own tone, but this one in particular is sealed in the fog of nighttime excursions and murky machinations (we get a clear enough explanation of the plot during the second). Brenton admitted that he made up Dead Head as he went along, and that this was a dangerous approach. He thinks, and he’s right, that this works in as much as the entire tale is told from Eddie’s point of view. The downside is common to many a thriller; as things become clear, so the telling becomes less vital; it would be hard to argue that the second episode isn’t the best, and it’s not coincidental that it features Eddie most out on a limb, battling to keep his head above the waves.
Another aspect of the production that bears noting is Richard Hartley’s synth score. It signposts the era every bit as much as the political commentary. Hartley had scored such a broad spectrum of films including Bad Timing, Sheena, and Dance with a Stranger, and also four episodes of Doctor Who (The Trial of a Time Lord) the same year as Dead Head. He creates an ominous, oppressive atmosphere.
We see the employments of conceits and sleights of hand in the first episode; Eddie may be the narrator (Brenton comments that this means we know he survived, which would suggest he hasn’t seen Sunset Boulevard), but he is not all-seeing; when Eddie fails to drop off the package, he turns turns away from the house and a light goes on, then off again, and Eddie misses it (unless he knows he didn’t see it and it represents part of his narrative conceit).
Eldridge: What you have to get into your mind is that your own little Third World War nuclear explosion has been personally arranged, and it might go off at any time. Or it might never happen.
The first episode is a mix of Princess Di photos (foretelling another of the most renowned conspiracy theories of the modern age, and one that also revolves around the protection of the monarchy), crooked, racist cops/government goons and the Thames shot like its straight from the pages of a penny dreadful. The spectre of the Armageddon announces itself too, never far from the mind during the decade. As would be customary in BBC prestige dramas from the decade, there’s a sex scene, although not the one with welly boots.
The main force of the performers are highly praiseworthy. Lawson, a decade on from Star Wars, is a commanding everyman, convincing as one not so clued up (contrast this with his confident schemer in Local Hero). He’s ably supported by Norman Beaton as Caractacus (best known as the title character in Desmond’s), George Baker as the calmly intimidating Eldridge (the same aspect that makes Baker dull in many a show gives him icy steel here) and Lindsay Duncan as Eddie’s wife Dana. Whom Eddie doesn’t yet know is intimately linked to the reasons for his being chosen as a lamb to the slaughter. The secondary characters aren’t all so note perfect. Susannah Bunyan, whose Jill will be crucial to the third episode, is rather wooden.
Anything for England
Simon Callow takes centre stage in the second episode as handwringing, conscience-easing toff Hugo Silver. Hugo doesn’t think it’s right that Eddie Cass gets the blame. Brenton has referred to Eddie as taking a Dantean tour through the circles of hell. His working class shmo is completely out of his depth in the halls of the lorded and landed gentry. Brenton also recognises a certain kinship to the same year’s Withnail and I. The “raving homosexual” in Dead Head is Hugo (“Once, for purely professional reasons, I enjoyed a rather nasty little gay scene in Moscow”), and like Uncle Monty he reveals himself to be an excellent cook (in stark contrast to the squaddie in the final episode).
Hugo: Do as you are told. If you do not do as you are told, you will not believe what will happen to you.
Callow is such a winning presence, wresting attention from everyone else, that Dead Head can’t help but suffer once he has exited (Bretton recognises this, and regrets killing him off). Eddie’s urban dweller voices a similar disdain for the country as found in Bruce Robinson’s ‘60s memoir, but the stop off also serves as a backdrop for substantial exposition. Brenton sees Hugo as emblematic of a self-regarding weariness amongst the upper class, contrasting with a previous Tory notion of service (“It’s not all champagne and larks. Loyalty and duty weigh heavy on the soul of those born to serve”). To complete the effect of Eddie’s discombobulation, there’s a contingent of Hooray Henrys in the near vicinity (this is the episode with the nude girl in the willies).
Hugo: The one who performed that atrocity. We were ordered to protect him.
Hugo’s account of the fate of Mary Campbell (who, we discover, was known to Dana) may be the sickening centre of the episode, but Brenton reserves particular bile for the toffs yet to come. At times he slips too firmly into caricature (“We’re the idle rich. What else is there to do but feel?”), but generally the contrast in setting to the opener is persuasive while proving equally oppressive. Eddie can find little solace in the open air, or a country house. He is tortured by a lord (played by James Warwick, he “embezzled £1m from ICI” but was never prosecuted because of the scandal it would create). He sits idly (easy ways to adjust to) in the lap of luxury recovering, but then encounters murder amidst a fox hunt (urban foxes are left untouched in the opener).
The War Room
Brenton lays claims to the third episode as his favourite, but it’s by some distance the weakest of the three. It’s crippled by repetition and filler and is also the most budget TV looking of the lot. On the plus side, Norman Beaton is a winning presence throughout, taking over from Callow as Eddie’s guide. Caractacus tells Cass that he needs to get fit (“You is fighting a Holy War”) and this circle of hell takes our protagonist to the lower classes, as Eddie gets off the booze in Bristol. There’s graffiti, punk, disco and roller-skates. None of it very convincing.
Caractacus: World War III done break out a long time ago. You’d know that if you were black.
Eddie sees that Caractus has undergone a change (“I had a flowering Eddie, I had a flowering”). His friend warns him of the policeman in his brain that he can’t turn off, martialling his thoughts, and thematically, the episode has its moments. If Jill’s tale of Hiawoops and the totem pole suffers in the delivery, it makes for a succinct metaphor for the blindness in society (the ravenous totem pole is near enough to Icke’s human-consuming reptiles).
Caractacus: You are being traduced.
But the sense that the entire episode was all for nothing is compounded with the reveal that Jill’s with the fuzz and Caractacus has become both public servant and dick (“You’d do the same, man”, which Eddie effectively does in the closing scene). Brenton sees his choice to have Caractacus sell his soul as a mistake, and it does rather serve to undercut the previous rather under motivated 40 minutes. This is an episode swimming in rhetoric, only for it to be rendered hollow when it is revealed that everyone has a price.
The finale has Eddie, pissed again, but discovering he has been let off the hook. Caractacus has been fingered for the crime, and Eddie can’t get arrested (“You’re just one more loony. If we took you seriously, you’d be dog meat by dawn”) He sets off on the trail of the perpetrator, which takes him via rich junkie Angela (Leonie Mellinger), who Eddie naturally has his way with (anyone would think this was HBO), amid asides about violent hippies.
Eddie’s confrontation with Eldridge is particularly effective. It’s revealed that Eddie is only alive because of his wife’s influence, and that they kept letting him go because “Good sport, old chap”. Eddie tortures the toff just as he was tortured by a toff, and the tremendously catchy end credits electro version of Pussy Cat receives due reference. Eldridge isn’t able to spill the beans before he dies, but he offers, “Don’t you know? The pussycat”.
There’s an overly broad interlude with a Glaswegian tank (the army has nothing to do with politics, “Unless it’s the micks, wogs, or Loony Left”, Eddie is told), before Eddie returns to the bosom of his wife, and has a fateful meeting with The Man (Ernest Clark). Eddie is paid handsomely for his silence, which leads to a new life with Dana, running a hotel in the Costa del Wherever (depicted with an intentionally obvious set, and Eddie and Dana breaking the fourth wall). The final titles read, “Goodbye Eddie Cass – A Hero of our Time”, just so there can be no doubt regarding the ironic warping of priorities that leads him to winning out.
Brenton refered to Eddie as the hero in the commentary, but he’s very much the warped hero. He has his price, and accentuates the corruption and ensures the continuance of the system. He’s the sort of guy who leads us to now. Brenton envisaged Dead Head as what he called “highly operatic poetry of tosh”; that is, entertainment but entertainment possessed of possible depths. He opines that television today is more earnest, dull, and genre-ridden. Sections of it may possibly be all of those things, but there’s a section of it that is also very, very good. What it may miss is Dead Head’s willingness to experiment with style, form and content. It doesn’t always work, but it is distinct and unique, and the laudable for that.