When Dead Head was first broadcast in 1986, it caused some outrage in the press. The four part series had the misfortune of appearing in the midst of a concerted newspaper campaign to ‘control’ television; having succeeded in forcing video censorship onto the UK, TV seemed the next target (at the time, there was no OFCOM for idiots to complain to about anything that had offended them) and shows like The Singing Detective had already worked moralising hypocrites into a frenzy. Dead Head, with its violence, nudity and anti-establishment theme, was an obvious target. Notably, the BBC never repeated the series, and other than a barely-noticed showing on Sky Arts a few years ago, it remained unseen until a barely-noticed DVD release in 2013..
The series follows the misfortunes of Eddie Cass (Dennis Lawson), a petty crook and chancer who accepts a dodgy sounding, but well paying, job delivering a mysterious package from one side of London to another. The journey takes him from the rundown East End to the wealthiest areas of the capital, only to find that there is no -one to collect at his destination. Curiosity finally overcomes him and he opens the parcel, to find a woman’s severed head in a hatbox. Panicking, he dumps the box in the Thames and heads for home. But he’s soon picked up by MI5 agents who put the frighteners on him before giving him £1000 (and a bottle of whiskey) and sending him on his way. Realising that he is being set-up as a fall-guy, Eddie embarks on a cross-country voyage to find out the identity of the real killer, a journey that takes him to Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow, and from the bottom rung of society to the very top. But as a patriotic monarchist, how much does Eddie really want to know about who the powers-that-be are killing to protect?
Howard Brenton’s drama is, effectively, a modern-day Jack the Ripper conspiracy story, with its hints – never fleshed out – that the murderer has royal connections digging into the Ripper theories that powered films like Murder By Decree. Eddie, the perfect fall guy thanks to his ex-wife’s new boyfriend being the mystery killer, is both manipulated, stitched up and protected – as those helping him are killed, he’s kept alive and paid off, but also threatened and left facing the knowledge that if those controlling his life decided to pull the plug, he would be publicly blamed for the murders. As he tries to find the truth, knowing that his every move is being watched, he’s betrayed at every turn buy people who are either not who they claim to be or have been bought off. And the class divisions of Britain – more blatant in Thatcher’s Britain, perhaps, but something that many seem determined to emphasise and perpetuate today – are never far from the surface, as Eddie the everyman finds himself mixing with the idle rich, the downtrodden and the all-powerful elite.
Director Rob Walker gives this TV Noir a genuine sense of atmosphere, the show wearing its crime film influences proudly. The opening shot, of Eddie sat in a pub, is inexplicably shrouded in mist, and the London fog is omnipresent here. Although appearing to have a contemporary (1986) setting, the show is also out of time – the men wear hats as if this is a 1940s story and the women – femme fatales the lot – seem equally like classic Noir figures in appearance. The bombastic, overly dramatic theme tune also feels old-fashioned, even for the time. Yet the series also has an apocalyptic feel, its half-demolished and derelict buildings that Eddie constantly finds himself in and continual references to ‘the bomb going off’ hinting at the end of the world.
The cast is excellent – Lawson, as the put upon Eddie, is excellent in his constant confusion and anger. He’s never really likeable – a drunk, a criminal and a man who ultimately knows his place, he’s not a traditional sympathetic hero, but Lawson brings a humanity to the role that makes you want him to succeed. Simon Callow, as the posh MI5 turncoat, is a entertaining loose cannon who never quite seems trustworthy, while Norman Beaton, Lindsay Duncan (as Eddie’s estranged wife Dana), Susannah Bunyan and George Baker all provide memorable supporting characters.
Compared to modern US shows like Spartacus or Game of Thrones, the content of Dead Head no longer seems so shocking, but it’s hard to imagine the BBC now making a show with so much graphic violence (the gun deaths are pretty bloody) and, more pertinently, gratuitous female nudity. The memorable nude scenes from Leonie Mellinger and Tacy Kneale (as ‘the girl in the wellies’, according to mouth-foaming tabloids) would be seen as far too exploitative and un-PC to pass muster now, I suspect. This may well by why the show was apparently locked away once the initial broadcast concluded – the edgy mix of sex and violence, the political cynicism, the class politics, the suggestion that the army is populated by smackhead, racist toffs and the darkly satirical humour make this quite a challenging proposition for broadcasters who feel more comfortable with twee costume drama, soap operas and simple-minded game shows.
Very much of its time, Dead Head nevertheless remains fresh and engrossing. The mix of film and videotape can be visually disconcerting though in a weird way it adds to the other-wordly oddness of the piece. And the 1980s bleak cynicism actually feels quite relevant even now. It extends to the final moments of the series, which avoid an audience-pleasing neat wrap-up, but which have been telegraphed from the opening scene, truth be told, and make perfect sense for the time, the story and the character. After all, as the closing titles say, Eddie is “a hero for our time”…