Dead Head (1986) – Tuesday’s Overlooked TV show

Dead-Head-34033_4 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

deadheadDirector: 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

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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18 Responses to Dead Head (1986) – Tuesday’s Overlooked TV show

  1. Sergio – An excellent review as ever. This really does sound like that most unusual of things: innovative television. Even there are a few lapses, it sounds like a terrific premise, and the cast is great too. I like it that the show pays some tribute to Hitchcock too; I have a soft spot for his work. Glad to hear the DVDs are now going to be available.

    • Thanks Margot – I doubt it will be available in the US any time soon as it is such an obscure title, but a fascinating one none the less, especially if you like british TV drama.

  2. Colin says:

    You know, I don’t remember seeing this at all. It certainly would have been my era – I was 17 or 18 years old in ’86 – but somehow it passed me by. Have to say it does sound great though.

    I think your point about the contrast in not only the styles of TV but also the aims of the medium is well made. Something like this just wouldn’t get made now mainly, I think, due to the fact the marketing people wouldn’t know how to sell it, or even who to sell it to. British TV at that time took more chances, both in terms of programming and scheduling, and the same is true of cinema to some extent too. I’m not sure, at least as far as TV is concerned, exactly when it all changed. I guess the late 80s and early 90s mark the transitional phase – targeting the middle ground, and all the mediocrity such a strategy entails, seems to have gradually crept in by the mid-90s.

    • Cheers Colin – I remember it only vaguely at the time (I was onl visiting the UK at that point) but am a lot more appreciative now. In the late 80s, with the arrival of John Birt at the BBC and the beancounters taking over at companies like Granada it all changed – not least because this would have been one of the last dramnas to be made on tape and shooting on film was more expensive and required more in the way of pre-sales and co-financing I suspect. Channel 4 was still doing interesting things but it is infuriating how little space there is for experiemntal things to be done today – but nowadays there are too many alternatives (cable, satellite, home video, games, internet) so why should TV be the alternative medium anyway? Still, it’s hard not to conclude that in some respects young people are missing out but don’t even know it. Ah well.

      • Colin says:

        Oh the reasoning behind it is all understandable enough but the timidity or sameness remains frustrating.
        I know I’ve been over this before and I don’t want to become repetitious – there’s more than enough scope for that at work – so let’s just say television and I parted company maybe 20 years ago.

        • Have you been watching any of the Scandinavian series like The Killing and Borgen? They have really taken off here, just like the books and Broadchurch, which was an 8-part serial about a single murder investigation, was a solid gold hit. On the other hand there are far too many forensic and cop dramas at the moment, most of which surround the death of a young person (to elicit instant empathy in the viewer of course). Some good popular stuff too though: the Gillian Anderson series, The Fall, was very nasty but incredibly well made and Luther, with Idris Elba, is utterly barmy but a huge success. The Tom Stoppard verison of Parade’s End is a pretty impressive adaptation of the Ford Madox Ford books (albeit with a happier ending, which I am not sorry about though). There should be slots for cheaper, rougher, edgier and more imaginative TV though, I agree …

          • Colin says:

            No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of those. I’m aware of them of course but I seldom watch TV these days.

          • Fair enough chum, I certainly seem to be watching less and less. You might enjoy BROADCHURCH though – easy to get in disc and the cast alone is great value, though in fact the story, while a bit over-extended, does pay off properly and fairly at the end.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    It is very frustrating that so much is still hard to get your hands on. I have never heard of this one and in fact have never seen the Potter show either.

  4. John says:

    From the post ‘s title I thought you were going to review the TV adaptation of a Reginald Hill book. Then I realized that title is plural — DEADHEADS. And it was in the 90s. Never heard of this DEAD HEAD. No surprise it’s a UK show. Back in the 70s and 80s we sorry US TV watchers only got to know of UK TV if some PBS producer decided to buy the show and air it over here. (We did get to see the original The Singing Detective, by the way, before Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters gussied it up for the movies.) Or if Norman Lear found a British show and Americanized it (or should I say U.S.-i-fied?) as he did with “All in the Family” and “Sanford & Son.” If I run across a Region 1 DVD I’d give DEAD HEAD a look. Or perhaps it’ll turn up on that infamous video website where I tend to find a lot of old movies and obscure cinema and TV.

    • If you download the VLC player on your computer then it will play DVDs from any region, but I’m not saying that for this particular show, which is a bit of an obscurity even by UK standards! Believe it or not John I wrote this review about 5 months ago when the DVD came out in the UK but kept delaying the posting as I just knew it would be too obscure for practically everyone except me! Mind you, I am of course now completely entranced by the notion of Steve Martin starring in Singing Detective (instead of Robert Downey Jr) rather than Pennies From Heaven, but I completely take your point chum :) By the way, nice to have you back John, even if a bit less often. Family always comes first – and in fact I am off to the airport in an hour to collect the Australian branch which is in town for a two-week holiday, which will be bliss – it’s niece time! All the very best, Sergio.

  5. Sergio, state-run Indian television in the 70s and 80s telecast a lot of British serials, mostly sitcoms, and I’d be surprised if the mandarins who decided what we saw then would have even heard of this BBC serial. Alright, I hadn’t. Incidentally, the scene in the second photograph has been shot either in an Indian or a Pakistani store or restaurant—the word “tikka” is a dead giveaway! Thanks, Sergio.

    • Thanks very much Prashant – I don’t think this one would have traveled much – and you re right, Eddie is seen at the beginning working in a protection racket, extracting money from various shop and restaurant owvers. Not a very nice guy really …

  6. Kelly says:

    Neat find! I actually never finished watching The Singing Detective, as I traded my set for David Lynch’s On the Air. I don’t regret it, as the latter is far more difficult to find these days.

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