Saturday, 27 April 2013

Danger UXB, part one

1979's Danger UXB has been a matter of curiosity to me ever since it was mentioned in (I think) one of Jeremy Bentham's Matrix Data Bank columns in an early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly, probably discussing the career of either Deborah Watling or Douglas Camfield or both. Happily, the digital age is often kind to those searching for old television. The run-down London of the late 1970s lent itself to being dressed as the blitzed city of nearly forty years earlier, and while the mixture of characters could have been twee - the sappers in the bomb squad at the centre of the series being composed of almost every regional stereotype - the cast are strong enough to animate what could with less spirited playing have seemed thin roles. The close camerawork gives many of the early scenes in the barracks an air close to documentary realism.

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.

The star of Danger UXB is a pre-Brideshead Anthony Andrews, portraying the straightforward, sensitive but resourceful Brian Ash. At the start of the first episode Ash is transferred from being a private in another regiment to a commission as a lieutenant in the royal engineers and has to learn how to defuse unexploded ordnance and command men in short order while also fending off the unwanted advances of his landlady's daughter Norma Baker. Norma is established early on as a sexual predator (her name surely alludes to Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn Monroe) who spends bombing raids avoiding her family's shelter, staying in their house wearing nothing but a dressing gown and demanding reassurance from a succession of billeted officers. Titillation is more than balanced by the psychological counterweights of Ash's disgust, based upon apprehension of the likelihood of his own imminent death while attempting to defuse a bomb, and the surreal and sordid aspects of the unreflective Norma's desire for sex. Deborah Watling strikes a plausible balance between intellectual unsophistication and sexual knowingness as Norma, and makes the most of her role as the principal female character in the series for the first few episodes until Judy Geeson's Susan arrives as a more appropriate (in terms of class and education) but also transgressive love interest for Brian Ash.

I'm of a generation and interest group whose first exposure to media criticism was in Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado (1983) and was reminded of the chapter title 'Circulating stars and satellites' in the eclipsing of Norma by Susan Mount. Judy Geeson initially plays Susan as tough and largely unsmiling as if she hasn't seen any of the later scripts (quite possibly the case). Susan emerges as a demure, affectionate and emotionally literate member of the officer class. She causes pain to Brian by choosing duty to her husband, mentally broken by the strain of secret work at 'Bletchley' (a sign that by 1979 'Bletchley Park' had yet to become established in the popular memory of the Second World War), over their relationship. Norma is from an aspirational  working-class family, and while initially prone to behave like a nightmarish sexual fantasy, is ultimately tamed by settling for a relationship with Ash's batman Gordon Mulley, leading to a marriage into the lower ranks which mirrors how Watling has dropped down the cast list as Norma has receded from the main plot. The appearance of Susan also expresses Brian Ash's increasing confidence in his roles as bomb defuser and officer; Norma personifies the social and material chaos of the Blitz and has little development beyond the 1940 episodes until her wedding at the end of the series in 'With Love from Adolf'. Norma, and Deborah Watling, fulfil their roles in the drama well enough. Given the publicity boost Judy Geeson seems to have had in spring 1979, one suspects she and her agent were hoping for something more to arise for or from Susan. There is a sense of something still to come for both women, which we will not see.

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.

Throughout Danger UXB women throughout act out their positions as onlookers to the hierarchies of class and military rank, while nonetheless being bound by it. They address all the "brave boys" by their first names irrespective of rank, Lieutenant Ash and Sapper Mulley being Brian and Gordon to Norma and her mother. This relative independence enables them to be used from time to time to provide commentary on the tight-knit bonds between the soldiers. At the same time, the war effort needs them to conform to social expectations, Norma by moving from officer-chaser to private's wife, and Susan by working for her father or persevering at her unhappy marriage to a psychologically fragile (and therefore sympathetic) husband. In the male world of the army, women are exotic figures with men performing their traditional gender roles. Not only does Gordon Mulley do Ash's ironing, Sergeant James, Brian Ash's senior NCO, is often seen typing in Ash's office, much as Susan is seen typing at one desk or another while carrying out secretarial duties for her father. The sergeant is both tutor to Ash and loyal helpmeet, analogous to a traditional view of the wife's role in a marriage. By accident or design James is seen typing away as Ash's military spouse in situations where soldiers approach Ash-as-patriarch: the decision of the Quaker conscientious objector John Brinkley to enlist in the Royal Engineers despite the opposition of his parents and the conflict with his own principles, and the plea of Corporal Salt for compassionate leave in order to persuade his wife to return to the country from bomb-threatened Manchester.

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.

Salt's storyline is associated with some of Danger UXB's best uses of locations in storytelling. 'Digging Out' makes great play of its factory setting, realised in one of those semi-derelict works which featured regularly in 1970s and 1980s television. In particular, the hand-held camera shots of Salt linger in the memory, tracking his pursuit of a voice which may or may not be that of his wife through the ruined works in the afternoon light, his mind adrift in place and time. The sequence brings Danger UXB transgenerically close to the supernatural, so much so that the incident which follows, the rescue of office worker Jean (Cheryl Hall) from under a suspended bomb, appears with hindsight to be more than dramatic foreshadowing of Betty Salt's fate.

'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.


3 comments:

  1. Interesting - I should probably check this series out some time.

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    1. What might be called a generously representative sample is available on YouTube...

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  2. I was fortunate to see the episode "The Pier" being filmed when I was 8 years old. It was filmed in Cromer in Norfolk and I watched entranced as Mr Andrews was blown off of the lifeboat slipway at least four times and brought to the shore. In the evenuing when we were walking on the beach I spent an awful amount of time annoying a chap with a rather cut glass accent and a metal detector....I must have hung around him for over an hour, offering to help dig whenever his metal detector beeped. I'm convinced it was Mr Andrews and he couldn't have been more tolerant or pleasant to a child who (I now realize at 44 years old) must have been a perfect pain. Jem Langley

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