Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Danger UXB, part two

Continued from part one
Danger UXB negotiates two production house styles. The early successes of Euston Films could be characterised as concentrating on the underbelly of society: criminals and the police who pursued them with dubious methods. In contrast John Hawkesworth, co-creator, producer and lead writer of Danger UXB, was conservative by reputation and just as interested in the upper echelons of stratified British society as the lower ones. This was seen in his previous series Upstairs Downstairs for LWT and The Duchess of Duke Street for the BBC. This formula didn't preclude social mobility, with dramatic tension being extracted from cross-class liaisons and the accumulation of wealth and status by outsiders. 

Danger UXB is something of a barracks Upstairs Downstairs, with its cross-cutting between barrack room and officers' mess. The series' low-intensity character arcs, burning fiercely in a climactic episode, recall Upstairs Downstairs too. That concerning the brittle insecurity of Major/Captain 'Fanny' Francis is perhaps the most successful. It casts, possibly somewhat against type, Kenneth Farrington then best known to audiences for a long on-off stint in Coronation Street, and more recently a regular in Emmerdale. Francis's obsession with discipline is the barely disguised sadism of a self-hating man and his enthusiasm for reviving pre-war regimental mess dinners a sign of his retreat from the realities of the world as well as his hatred of Ash, transferred from the officer whom Francis blames for the end of his marriage. It's not the wisdom of the hierarchy which resolves the crisis, but Ash pulling strings through Susan's father Dr Gillespie. The episode displays a respect for human beings but a cynicism towards the ability of established structures and those educated through them to manage the ongoing crisis, a sentiment as appropriate to Britain in 1979 as in 1941. 

Another more specific borrowing from Upstairs Downstairs is the presence of nightclub and music hall sequences in occasional episodes. There was little room for niche television in the three-channel era, when programmes had to build a broad audiences. Consequently there's singing and dancing from Micky and her colleagues in 'The Silver Lining' and 'Butterfly Winter'. A further indication is the appearance of variety artiste Sapper Binns, played by real-life variety artiste Bryan Burdon in 'Butterfly Winter' and 'The Pier', which seem to have been made as part of the same block. 'Butterfly Winter' just happens to include a sequence filmed presumably in Chipping Norton Theatre (given where the relevant exteriors are shot) where Burdon/Binns can do his act. Not only is the sequence nostalgic for an audience which could remember pre-television variety, it draws on Burdon's own pedigree, his father being Albert Burdon, a star of music hall most associated (I learn from Louis Barfe's Turned Out Nice Again) with the slosh-spreading wallpapering routine. Binns's stagecraft, specifically his knowledge of theatrical mechanics, is presented as an asset to the company and he becomes, perhaps, Hawkesworth's tribute to the multi-skilled theatrical turns of his early career.

Binns only appears in two episodes, both directed by Douglas Camfield and presumably made as one block. The disappearance and reintroduction of regular characters without explanation was part of the reality of television production at the time, but is used to give an impression of the realities of war service and wartime lives, as people are transferred in and out of the unit with little notice, or husbands are unexpectedly invalided back to otherwise-entangled wives. It also helps suggest the passage of time. As in Upstairs Downstairs, the series had an internal chronology mapped onto the historical chronology of the period covered, but was not presented so rigidly that it could not be retroactively revised should a second series have been commissioned. 

The series was launched in ITV's listings magazine, TV Times, with features concentrating on the experiences of the real bomb disposal squads of nearly forty years before. Danger UXB was promoted as a drama with a public service mission, restoring an obscured part of the war to public memory. This complemented one of the themes of the early episodes, the early publicity given to the skills of the anti-explosive squads in the press, which gave way to silence when it was realised that the increasingly complex charges were designed with the intention of killing trained personnel. The first TV Times article provided a diagram of a typical excavation shaft and images of several types of wartime German bomb, accompanied by lurid headlines such as 'Your guide to a deadly war game' and 'Rain of death that fell on Britain'. The second article, 'The men who had only 10 weeks to live' was accompanied by a photograph showing Anthony Andrews in the company of four real-life bomb disposal men and related some of their experiences, in some cases pointing out that these tales would be fictionalised for Danger UXB. Coverage for the rest of the series was restricted to the occasional photograph on the listings page, aggravated by the end of the run by a printing strike which led to TV Times being published in an abbreviated form with fewer credits.

Press reaction to Danger UXB seems to have been cautious. Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian (9 January 1979) thought it "not... an important series" fixed on "nostalgia and noise". Banks-Smith did however note the appeal of Anthony Andrews as a leading man, "one of those golden lads with sensitive mouths", and the Daily Mirror also remarked upon Andrews's emergence as part of a new trend in male lead towards "The new, gentle man", contrasting him with the "aggressive virility" of Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins in The Professionals and likening Andrews to Patrick Ryecart of My Son, My Son (21 May 1979). Andrews continued to be raised by Mirror writers as a point of comparison with later male leads that year, such as the "mean, powerful and ruthless" John Duttine in The Mallens (who was careful to emphasise that in real life he vacuumed the carpet and helped with the cooking) (31 July 1979). The Mirror's coverage also promoted Danger UXB's public service credentials, not only through a profile of John Hawkesworth as 'TV's Past Master' (5 February 1979) but reporting how the episode 'Butterfly Winter' had led a Brighton man to realise he had put a butterfly bomb in his daughter's toy cupboard. (15 March 1979). This followed the defusing of another butterfly bomb in a bedroom in Rainham in Kent (The Guardian, 14 March 1979).

With a large cast, high production values - with at least one explosion required a week - the assumption that Danger UXB was too expensive for ITV to recommission has a ring of truth. Though dismissed as a "potboiler" by one television historian, the juxtapostion of lectures on bomb engineering every few episodes with the continuing rollercoaster love lives of the male protagonists, together with a sense that the series is consciously revising the collective memory of the Second World War in Britain, encourages curiosity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there was at some stage thought of a second series, and there was even a Danger UXB annual published later in 1979. However, associate producer Christopher Neame's memoir A Take on British TV Drama: Stories from the Golden Years (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2004) makes no mention of a second series, instead moving on to preparations for the next Euston-Hawkesworth collaboration The Flame Trees of Thika, then pausing to note that the thirteen-episode run of Danger UXB would have had a longer and more profitable life had it been made in 35mm colour film as wished by the creative team, rather than the 16mm imposed upon it as a budgetary measure. Danger UXB was assumed to be still fresh in the public imagination when the Daily Mirror profiled Judy Geeson under the headline 'Blonde bombshell on a short fuse' on 21 July and on 30 October when it ran a news story about Anthony Andrews, but the latter was leaving the UK to seek work in the USA following the indefinite postponement of Brideshead Revisited.

Compared to other Euston Films series of the time, Danger UXB was not an overwhelming ratings success. Only four episodes made it into the top twenty, episodes five, nine, twelve and thirteen. The latter did well, with 16.05 million viewers, only 600,000 viewers behind Coronation Street, boosted perhaps by the heavy promotion given to Thames's Michael Crawford sitcom Chalk and Cheese which ran in the half-hour 8pm slot for the last two weeks of Danger UXB's run. Its series format masked serial elements (as Neame notes in his book) and if the difficult shoot he recounts prevented it from becoming a Thames/Euston banker, then as it stands it occupies a transitional space between Euston's long-running series such as The Sweeney and Minder, and the format which other Euston projects of the time (such as Out and perhaps also Quatermass) were exploring, the self-contained 'television novel'.

Danger UXB is available on DVD from Network