Creative Commons License

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

TV on Tuesday: Revisiting Ultraviolet

Starting a wee bit of a theme this week of going back to old films, books, or tv series that I once enjoyed.

Series Link (Note: You must be in the UK and registered on 4OD, which is FREE):

The opening credits show a vampire-bitten body under UV light

ULTRAVIOLET was a six-part supernatural detective series that aired on channel four in the UK in 1998, which I have some very fond memories of. Thanks to the online archive 4oD I was able to watch it again last week, actually the thanks should also go to JJ who searched it out.

Anyway, there's always a double apprehension watching something that one has 'fond memories of' with someone who is new to it. Firstly, that they will find it (and by extension you) reprehensibly bad/boring/stupid and secondly that you yourself will find that your memories were misplaced and that it has aged especially badly or that your earlier judgements were wrong or, at least, are now outdated and that it wasn't nearly as good as you've been giving it credit for.

(L-R) Philip Quast as Father Pearse J Harman, Idris Elba as Vaughn Rice,
Susannah Harker as Dr Angela Marsh, and Jack Davenport as Michael Colefield.

Thankfully Ultraviolet mostly escaped these concerns. Mostly. I'll return to the problems later, but first what made Ultraviolet enjoyable before still works now.

Despite being a TV series about vampires it is not campy, brooding, angst-ridden (at least, not with teenage angst) or over-the-top. Instead it is a very clever modern reinterpretation of the various vampire myths and gives a serious 'what if' explanation to the problems these myths create when faced with our contemporary understanding. For example: If vampires don't show up in mirrors, what about CCTV recording? Although, to be honest, I can't really think of a scientific reason why vampires can't be finger printed, which is a later consequence of this 'leeches cannot be recorded' policy. Still, it's a commitment and interpretation of the myths that is at least consistent.

That Ultraviolet represents the work of one person, the writer and director Joe Ahearne, means that it has a unity and consistancy of vision that is perhaps sometimes lost in productions with several or many writers. A comparison for further elucidation. To return to Utopia, a recent six-part channel four conspiracy thriller, which was billed as having a single writer, Dennis Kelly, but if one looks at the credits there are in fact many more contributors; based on original concept ideas by, script editors and supervisors, additional writing credits and so forth, all this means that it is not one script by one person, but a script that probably had multiple versions, many rewrites, and was subject to last minute changes, ongoing things that directors and producers would change. The Ultraviolet script, in contrast, seems as if it was much more settled and that each episode held its own story and linked to ongoing narrative points, shows something structured and well understood, that there is no danger of something or someone being mentioned then forgotten about and accidentally dropped. A possible failing to this unity if view is that minor inconsistencies or narrative mistakes that one person might overlook due to their closeness with the work would have been spotted by working with others. At any rate, this is pretty rare, but it does ask one to absolutely accept the artistic vision of the writer/director.

This is because Ultraviolet plays its supernatural elements totally straight. Indeed, the entire series is almost completely humourless (except accidentally, the nineties hair) and asks you, the viewer, to take it all very seriously. Something I'm not overly capable of. Still, it is the seriousness and thought to the medical and scientific (if not the social) aspects that help one accept this otherwise absurd logic. Indeed, it must be one of the only vampire-based series that doesn't actually call them vampires and treats the situation as 'normally' as possible. In this regard the programme plays much like a standard detective story, albeit with supernatural elements, with the main characters spending each episode tracking the activities of the code five's (code V, their name for vampires) and their willing, and no so willing, human servants in an attempt to reveal the wider conspiracy (i.e. what are the leeches up to?)

As the story is so simple and straightforward, it is the characters that must provide the main interest, with their various interactions, developments, and failings being vitally important. Thankfully, for the most part, there is a very strong cast. For example: Idris Elba's portrayal of the ex-army agent Vaughn is as a stock tough guy, and he has the least developed character, but he's so captivating on screen that it hardly matters.

Jack Davenport play Michael, who is the programme's main character. He is our way into the story and we stay with him as he tries to resolve the problem that got him connected with the shadowy CIB and their fight against the leeches in the first place. With such a central role, Jack must carry almost the entire weight of the series and thus it is with him that any blame usually stops. JJ's own critique of Davenport's performance was pretty damning, but she wasn't alone. A brief bit of internet research will normally show reservations about Jack Davenport's casting, usually describing it as one of the main problems with the show and perhaps they're right, but then perhaps this is because how the character is written rather than the fault of the actor.

My own opinion is that Jack Davenport's character must be too many different types throughout the programme. He is linked to to every main and secondary character, he is both loyal and contrary towards CIB, ambivolent and protective to his 'women'. In short he has mixed reactions to everything about him and everything in the show is related to him. Although mixed emotions are realistic, they don't play especially well for a central character that must carry the show. He is at one moment absolutely driven by duty and willing to risk his life, in another moment, he is oppositional to the authoritarian structure of the CIB and protective of his outside friends. Is he maverick or hero? It is this uncertainty (from the writer) that unsettles. Finally, for someone so conflicted and apparently so moved by emotion, Jack Davenport plays it very downbeat. This must be a directorial choice. We could blame the casting, but as Joe Ahearne had experience of working with Jack Davenport on 'This Life' I'd expect it was this that led to Ahearne building the role for Davenport.

It becomes apparent that Joe Ahearne means the character to be a maverick who is nonetheless also driven by his duty to the 'greater good'. Thus, a policemen seems a good choice. This character is better described in the other supernatural detective series that Ahearne wrote and directed, Apparitions, which starred Martin Shaw as a maverick catholic priest/witch-hunter. An actor who is well known for playing mavericks (Judge John Deed is almost the same character) and it's fair to say that Jack Davenport is not so renowned.

In closing, it was really great to revisit a TV show that I had such fond memories of and had not seen for at least ten years. I was pleased to see it has aged well (despite the hair and amusing mobile phones). Some good writing and a well structured script means that a production will always age very well. It's amusing to think how this show, if suggested for broadcast today, would be received by Twilight influenced producers. I'd expect they'd be horrified by the ordinariness of the vampires and lack of simmering sexual tension. I for one, however, am glad of that.