Come, come back to 1986, when the BBC, seemingly in a bilious reaction to the height of flag-waving Thatcherism, threw up a strange four-part fever dream of a show, a stylised class-war thriller aimed at the heart of a sick establishment. Shown once, it caused a bit of a fuss, and then was promptly shelved and never broadcast again, only to linger half remembered in the minds of a generation. ‘Remember Dead Head? What the hell was all that about?’
Denis Lawson, giving his best cockney snide, plays Eddie Cass, a booze-addled, whining toe rag who accepts an offer of a grand, simply to transport a hat box from one London address to another. But things go awry, the hat box is found to contain a severed woman’s head, and from that point on, Eddie seems to be the focus of a cruel game played by the powers that be, pursued, seduced, humiliated and tortured, up and down the social scale from one end of the country to another, until he finally determines to find out why.
Starting with a scene in a pub filled with smoke, Howard Brenton and Rob Walkers’s Dead Head flags up its anti-naturalistic colours from the get go – The Third Man (1949) via O Lucky Man! (1973), filmed on video and 16mm, and with a dry ice budget to kill for. The cast are significantly costumed rather than simply clothed, and characters and situations shift alarmingly as comedy is followed by pervy sexuality is followed by menace. This is a world of smacked-up debutantes and gun-toting SAS frogmen, emerging from rivers mid foxhunt. The upper classes are crazed and debauched, and their shady protectors are capricious and chaotic.
It’s flawed, of course, it’s built on sand, a series of vignettes that barely hold together. The third part loses momentum as it takes an awkward turn into subsidised theatre-group dynamics; the plot relies upon coincidences and illogical leaps; and of course the 80’s pop video stylings have dated alarmingly, but this, for my money, only adds to its nightmare charm. And the bare-faced audacity of the punchline is positively Pythonesque.
Lindsay Duncan vamps and fatales like it’s going out of style, Norman Beaton, Don Henderson and George Baker pop up along the way, and Simon Callow pretty much steals the second episode as a cracked spook of divided loyalties: ‘Once, for professional reasons, I joined the rather nasty little gay scene in Moscow.’ Really, Mr Callow? Highly recommended.
Watch a clip from Dead Head: