Sten Guns In Knightsbridge

I watched Dead Head (1986), the 4-part thriller written by Howard Brenton.

Brenton had previously written many political plays, some of which had had BBC adaptations, such as Brassneck. Dead Head mixes 80s political and crime thriller elements with stylings from 1940s B-movies, including the outfits and settings and some of the comical working class bit parts popping up to lighten the heavy menace. There are also moments of pure comic absurdity (eg. the pile of torn pages in the phone box, as our hero tries to find an address by working methodically through a phone book) and a general indifference to realism about time and distance (why is there a public library apparently open in the middle of the night in central Birmingham?). Nowadays it is generally understood that life in Britain is essentially meaningless, but in the 70s and 80s this was still a controversial view, only espoused by marginal academics and clergymen. What better way to signal a world completely askew than by casting a Scottish actor (Denis Lawson) in the role of a London wide-boy, when he can do the accent no better than Ben Elton and wouldn’t be convincing in an episode of Only Fools And Horses.

The title sequence uses stirring dramatic music suited to those creaky old noir films. We see a rather disturbing little mechanical toy striding about with a flag, casting shadows.

The cast names flicker by and we get to the title.

The episode title comes up as we see the shadow of a human at the door and the doll struggles, having fallen over.

The titles are: “Why Me?”, “Anything For England”, “The War Room” and “The Patriot”.

The closing titles of every episode (except the final one) use an electronic rendition of “Pussy Cat Pussy Cat” and climax with a set of cliffhanger questions on screen:

We start with low-rent bad boy Eddie Cass in a bar. He has a noir-ish interior monologue running through the series, which on one occasion blunders over his drunken speaking voice.

EDDIE: It was Prince William’s birthday, weren’t it. I went in for an early pint to drink the little Prince’s health.

Since William (born 1982) is still a little Prince, we are very much in the present day of broadcast time, although there is not much else in the way of topical references.

Eddie introduces himself as a normal Everybloke who just happens to be involved in a bit of duckin’ and divin’ (money for menaces with shopowners; incompetent and aborted attempts to rob warehouses). This has got him in trouble with the law, played by Don Henderson (at this time long-established as George Bulman in Strangers), who in this case is also crooked and dipping in his pocket.

Eddie gets a special offer from his mate Stoker: £400 to collect some item from a flat in south London and then drop it off at a house near Regents Park. No questions, no answers, remember all the details as nothing must be written down.

So Eddie goes to the flat, where he meets a dead-eyed and scared teenager. As a typically corny noir twist, he accidentally smashes a glass outside, which would be helpful to find the place again later.

He goes to the posh drop-off house but no one answers immediately, and he doesn’t notice the lights going on and off as he moves away.

Being a hopeless mug who can never do what he’s told except when he’s credulously doing exactly what he’s told, Eddie goes down to the river near Vauxhall Bridge and opens the parcel… it’s a hat box but it’s been put to a different use.

Going back home where he’s staying with his mate Caractacus, he awkwardly surprises him in bed with new love Jill.

However a few minutes later some sinister men in raincoats (and also a young woman) arrive and start threatening to find evidence of stolen goods and/or heroin unless everyone gets in the cars outside and comes along for a chat with some very important people.

In the limo, Eddie sits next to Eldridge (played by George Baker) who quotes T.S.Eliot and muses that Eddie needs to play his cards right and be very careful as he’s now well out of his depth, which was only the very shallow end anyway. He notices that in the front seat there’s a guy with an earring.

After a rough night on his own he tries to connect with his ex-wife Dana (played by Lindsay Duncan). At the start he was whining about how they split up a while ago, but he’s now stunned to find she’s gone far up in the world, and it’s not hard to guess that she’s involved with the very important people that the men in the black cars work for.

Things become ever more chaotic and ludicrous as Eddie heads out across the country and gets taken under the wing of Hugo (played by Simon Callow), who was the passenger with the earring.

Hugo gets him away to a country house belonging to his mysterious employers, who are adjacent to but not the same as MI5. He belongs to a long line of ruling class servants of the state who feel bound by duty and honour and all that to defend the status quo and do whatever is required – “Anything for England”… but his conscience won’t support it anymore, the grisly business of having to clean up after the illicit activities of a Very Important Person who must be kept away from scandal at all costs. The costs (which currently involve the framing of Eddie) are now just too high.

Hugo tries to connect up with his other louche friends from Cambridge days. They’re now having a jolly old time playing at soldiers or stealing money from top jobs in the City, and are fascinated by this yarn about an above-top-secret conspiracy. FUN FACT: Lord Clive Ludlow is played by James Warwick, loved by millions as the heroic British lead in The Nightmare Man.

But the Deep State catches up with its renegades. Meanwhile Eddie catches up with Dana but she warns him to quit.

Hiding out in Bristol gives Eddie a chance to detox from the alcohol and get a bit fitter. But this is also a chance to encounter some old friends again, and find out the conspiracy is bigger and deeper than he suspected. We can also see the amazing range of looks and outfits Jill presented, and her little monologue explaining the divide&rule tactics of scapegoating and false rumours.

In the final phase, things get increasingly disordered. Eddie returns to London – notice that the tabloid outcry against the “Loony Left” is focusing this week on golliwogs:

There are posh girls who hang out with hippies with drugs in west London, which seems to be in the middle of a big development phase.

They also have posh Army boyfriends who have a mass of prejudices, including against “lefties”, but still insist they “can’t get involved in politics”. They are also partial to illegal drugs and like to drive Sherman tanks around car parks if at all possible.

In Glasgow, Eddie is now near the end of the line.

EDDIE: They’ve got all the guns… they’ve even got tanks… black cars… houses… fields… barbed wire… cameras on walls… cameras everywhere…. in trees… they can pick us off, any time… off our heads, OFF WITH MY HEAD.

But then he spots a production of Dangerous Corner at the Citizen’s Theatre… of course this has all been a twist on the Priestley plays (BBC1 did a full season of them in the mid 80s). All sense of coherent location is shaken off and the space of the drama is rather like that contorted world of passages and sets in the later parts of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Eddie meets Dana again, he sees another severed head, and he meets his final Very Important Person, who explains this is all about protecting a supremely important person, whose identity Eddie – as a patriot – will want to protect as well. And so he does… and the scene drifts away as we see this has been a melodrama playing in a ruined old mansion.

There is a final pay-off scene, for Eddie and Dana’s final pay-off.

Obviously the secret identity is someone in the Royal Family (Dana mentions that they are “opening something” in Scotland, and that’s one of their regular duties). The idea that someone linked to the Crown might be involved in serious crimes has a long history – there is a school of Ripper-lore that has it that Jack was in fact Sir William Withey Gull, physician to Prince Albert (this theory is used in Iain Sinclair’s novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987)). The 40s/50s trappings of Dead Head may be an allusion to the “Dead Fashion Girl” story of 1954, which also has a fringe of conspiracism that a Royal was connected. Unrelated to these matters, Caractacus does also mention rumours of large underground shelters for the Establishment in central London, with a system of secret tunnels enabling a subterranean world of agencies and activities. That cluster of ideas seems to have been circulating since World War 2 and it’s well-founded, since there almost certainly were/are secret installations and facilities around the capital and country.

In the end: anything for England, as England can be anything at all. So lucky to be rich/ Sten guns in Knightsbridge.

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