Let’s play a TV buff’s game: can you identify today’s overlooked show? It’s a 1986 multi part ‘authored’ BBC serial; the setting is modern-day London, the narrator wears a fedora and is haunted by the image of woman’s severed head found in the Thames; the style pastiches Film Noir; and British tabloids got all steamed up by the strong sex scenes. It must be The Singing Detective, right? Well, no …
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked AV Media meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“Too much is going my way these days …”
Some of you may have noticed I slipped a bit of misdirection in there as there is no severed head in The Singing Detective - instead it belongs (as it were) to a four-part serial screened six months before Dennis Potter’s iconic show, and was appropriately entitled Dead Head, which also refers to the rather dim-witted protagonist. Written by Howard Brenton it starred starring Dennis Lawson and Lindsay Duncan and has been largely forgotten since its single network transmission – which is due to change now that it has been released on DVD in the UK.
Lawson plays Eddie Cass, a fedora-sporting South London lowlife who despite (or rather, because) of his lower class life is a dedicated royalist who has always voted Conservative. He may seem contradictory but is hardly complex, being a bit of a dunderhead involved in various petty crimes and shady deals such as collecting protection money from fish and chip shops, most of which is then taken away anyway by a corrupt police officer (a brief cameo by the great Don Henderson). At his local pub he is offered £500 to collect a box and deliver it to a rather ritzy address in Regent’s Park. He knows the deal is dodgy but can’t turn down the money, especially after the messy split from his wife Dana (Duncan). Before long Eddie is embroiled in a conspiracy after the botched delivery (apparently there was nobody home …) leaves him holding a leather hatbox containing a severed head. Shocked he puts the box in the river and heads to his friends and partner-in-crime Caractacus (a great performance by Norman Beaton). But the bully boys from Special Branch crash in, turn the place over and take Eddie for a ride.
In the back of a very fancy car he is admonished by a very slimy and upper crust George Baker (in his pre Inspector Wexford days) that the hatbox belongs to his ex-wife, that Eddie is now knee-deep in trouble and that he must do whatever they say. Eddie is certainly scared, and being the rather conventional and petty minded little scoundrel that he is, is mostly worried by the fact that one of Baker’s thugs sports an earring (did I mention it’s the 80s by way of the 1940s …). Eddie, realising he is being set up for the murder of the girl heads to see his ex-wife – after a fairly graphic night of passion he again has to flee when it seems that even she is mixed up in the machinations of the secret state. By the end of episode one he realises he is being set up as the patsy for a string of killings so heads North – but on the train he is intercepted by Hugo Silver, the earring-wearing member of Special Branch, a splendid and eccentric performance by Simon Callow. It turns out that he is an agent who has gone rogue (and not just because he is gay – after all, this is the British Eton-educated crowd we’re talking about) and throws Eddie off the train and jumps off after him.
He handcuffs himself to the ever-unwilling Eddie and takes him to a country safe house. It seems that Special Branch are helping to cover up a series of Jack the Ripper-style murders being committed by someone very important indeed. Eddie and his new minder spend a while in the country, where the landed gentry prove to be utterly vicious, in-bred and devious. Eddie also has a steamy encounter with a member of the aristocracy sporting only a pair of galoshes while he is still handcuffed – this apparently got the British tabloid press very upset in their pernicious way. But then her fiancée turns up (the usually very nice James Warwick from all those Agatha Christie shows in the 80s, here playing an unmitigated nutter) and does some terrible things to Eddie. Eventually our anti-hero seeks refuge in Birmingham with Caractacus, who is now rebranding himself as a community and spiritual leader. Eddie gets his act together again and heads to Scotland to find Mr Big – or so he thinks. Astute viewers will suspect in advance that as the denouement takes place near a theatre running a production of Pristley’s dual-ending play ‘Dangerous Corner’, the answers Eddie finds will not be clear-cut.
Hitchcock is a major influence, both on the bombastic synth score by Richard Harvey (which quotes from Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho and Vertigo), and in the general plot development, which closely mirrors The 39 Steps as Eddie leaps out of a train on his way to Scotland, is helped by a secret agent who then gets killed, spends much of the story handcuffed and even finds time to make an impression on a country lass. Norman Beaton and Simon Callow provide the main ballast in the the supporting cast and mercilessly steal every scene in which they appear (though sadly their characters never meet). Given that the script is by controversial playwright Howard Brenton and that it was made at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘reign’, it comes as no surprise that despite the thriller frills (Brenton refers to the genre as “the poetry of tosh”) it soon develops into a picaresque state-of-the-nation polemic, with the highly patriotic Eddie disillusioned by utterly insane upper class toffs and treacherous lower orders. It ultimately adds up to – what?
Well, Eddie is certainly meant to represent the common man, cast adrift by the rich and powerful who in the 80s under the ‘Iron lady’ got richer and more powerful while the poor got poorer and more disenfranchised. But this is also a sexy and original thriller, one with several postmodern flourishes (specially towards the end) and which rarely misses a step though some of it doesn’t work (a tank chase set in Glasgow sticks out very badly as being little more than excuse for noise and bluster) and it can seem a bit repetitive too. However, the performances are all first-rate and this is the kind of ambitious, witty and provocative TV that we just don’t really get any more without it feeling ridiculous overblown as some sort of ‘special event’. This release on home video is very welcome indeed – any fans of Potter’s The Singing Detective or perhaps more pertinently Philip Martin’s more nakedly surreal Gangsters (BBC, 1975-78) will find much to enjoy and mull over.
DVD Availability: Eureka have finally released the serial on a two-disc set. Made with the then standard mixture of 16mm film for location shooting and video for studio interiors, the transfer to disc is extremely pleasing if occasionally on the soft side. Extras include a pair of self-deprecating audio commentaries by Brenton and about 13 minutes of small deleted items all taken from the first episode.
Director: Rob Walker
Producer: Robin Midgley
Screenplay: Howard Brenton
Cinematography: John Abbott and David Bushell (studio), John Kenway and Keith Froggatt (film)
Art Direction: Gavin Davies
Music: Richard Harvey
Cast: Dennis Lawson, Lindsay Duncan, Simon Callow, George Baker, Susanna Bunyan, Norman Beaton