Saturday, 27 April 2013
Danger UXB, part one
London and the south-east are consciously placed as bearing the brunt of the air assault. Thames Television's then head of drama, Verity Lambert, said that part of her agenda for her department and its sibling Euston Films was to present 'London and the south as a region... a very rich region because it has so many different strata in it' (Manuel Alvarado and John Stewart, Made for Television: Euston Films Limited, 1985, 85) and while mostly set among the suburban villas and terraces of south London, the series ventures into the West End, to the country and to the coast, obeying the request of the Independent Broadcasting Authority that Thames Television's output closely reflect its London and the south-east ITV franchise without being too obviously limited to the inner west London locations which dominated Thames/Euston series such as The Sweeney and (soon after Danger UXB) Minder.
In his previous series The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC1, 1976-1978), producer and co-creator John Hawkesworth presented his audience with an assertive female protagonist working against the grain of the system within which she pursues her career. Louisa Leyton/Trotter manages the expectations her employers have of her, as a woman and someone of non-genteel manner and background. In contrast, in Danger UXB Brian Ash has been conscripted into an exclusively male hierarchy dealing with an unprecedented crisis which demands the most of his largely calm and cautious personality. Danger UXB is about men - their relationships among themselves, their roles as defenders and providers for women, children and country, the rituals through which they comfort and suppress their incompleteness.
Twin yearnings for a return to and a release from tradition amidst sudden upheaval and unwanted widening of horizons is part of the stock of war melodrama, but it is Charlie Salt, of all the sappers, who epitomises the way Danger UXB develops these themes. Perhaps Kenneth Cranham's theatrical background recommended him for the character with the most approachable and most developed psychology. In episode five, 'The Silver Lining', Salt is attracted to and forms an idealised view of a nightclub dancer, Micky (Geraldine Gardner), leading to a sexual encounter between them. By episode seven, 'Digging Out', Salt is haunted by his responsibilities towards his wife and family, leading to his going absent without leave and being injured in the blast which kills his wife, a brief Lancastrian cameo from Maggie Ollerenshaw. Salt's need for the emotional and physical ties of marriage and fatherhood lead in episode ten, 'Butterfly Winter', first to the false promise of a future with Micky, and then his death attempting to defuse a bomb in a child's bedroom. Micky's background in entertainment and her relaxed sexual code help distance the viewer from Salt: firstly because her presentation as a dancer underlines that Danger UXB is a fiction performed by actors, and because her morality might be more identifiable to a late 1970s audience. In this she appears deceptively modern, which accentuates Salt's sense of betrayal when she disappears from her dance engagement to take up upmarket prostitution.
'Butterfly Winter', where Salt dies, is another episode which makes use of a location away from the series' usual inner suburbia. The squad are sent to a small country town which though notionally in Kent appears to be composed from parts of Stow on the Wold in Gloucestershire and Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. It and episode twelve, 'The Pier', dramatise the war's pollution of the entire country, not only the cities of the early episodes. The butterfly bombs fall miles from anywhere of military significance and look harmless, almost like children's toys. 'The Pier' is based around a home-made threat, as Ash and his men search for mines left on a pier in Brighton (though the location is a quieter town less touched by change between 1943 and 1978) as defence against the anticipated German invasion in 1940. Euston Films worked with small crews, but the pier is captured from numerous angles and directions and at different times it is made time capsule, adventure playground, ghost town, and gallows platform.
Part two, discussing the politics of Danger UXB, the Hawkesworth inheritance, the presentation of the passage of time and the making of historical folk memory, and failure of the series to become a 'banker' for Euston Films, can now be found here.
Danger UXB is available on DVD from Network.