Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Danger UXB

1979, UK, Thames Television

A British television classic that somehow hasn't quite the reputation of series like Brideshead Revisited or The Jewel in the Crown, both of similar vintage, this is an often superior show, detailing the exploits of an unexploded ordinance disposal team from 1940-1944. The team is based on the home front, in London at the height of the Blitz (at least in the early episodes). Anthony Andrews plays Brian Ash, a freshly-minted lieutenant who is assigned to the bomb squad despite having no relevant experience - or training.

The first few episodes focus almost obsessively on the mechanics of bomb disposal: the members of the bomb squad themselves are only lightly sketched in, but soon the human drama comes to the forefront. Ash is centre-stage, but the writers are at least as interested in the fates of several of the NCOs and enlisted men, with several episodes cross-cutting between Ash - and his growing relationship with Susan, the daughter of one of the scientists who develop methods to combat new types of bomb - and one or other of the men in his squad. One story arc follows Corporal Salt, perennially in trouble, while another trails Mulley, Ash's batman, who falls for the feisty daughter of Ash's landlady.

This being Britain - and perhaps more to the point British television - there's a constant class-consciousness behind much of what's on-screen. Ash's officer colleagues take him for an Oxbridge man at first and are surprised when he turns out to be the product of a much less fashionable institution - although his background is clearly that of the landed gentry. The accumulation of tiny details over the course of the episodes is a fascinating social portrait - both of wartime Britain and a country in the 1970's which was on the verge of profound change (it's very clear we're watching Britain at war here, incidentally, and not just England: the small squad has a Scot and a Welshman, a Cockney and a northern lad).

The army is perhaps uniquely suited to reflections on class, with the aristocratic officer corps, the enlisted men and the reliable NCOs not quite sure of where they stand - having left their humble origins behind, they're still clearly not quite good enough to make the upper-class grade. Ultimately, of course, it's the characters, not the social or political insights, that make Danger UXB so compelling over the course of thirteen episodes - and for that, much credit goes to a fine complement of character actors, with Maurice Roëves (as Sergeant James), Kenneth Cranham (as Corporal Salt), George Innes (Corporal Wilkins) and Gordon Kane (as Mulley) particular standouts. Andrews does a fine job with Ash's character, although Judy Geeson seems rather too strained as Susan, a rare flat note in an otherwise excellent series.

1 comment:

Tex said...

A unique thing about this series is that the main characters get killed off pretty regularly. At least as I remember the series, the writers would develop your interest in a character and then blow him up. No doubt this was a true reflection of the high mortality rate in EOD units at the time.

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