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.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Commitments

1991, United Kingdom/Ireland, directed by Alan Parker

The Commitments hit Dublin's movie screens in 1991 in a blaze of local publicity, the first film to be based on one of Roddy Doyle's books. The film was a huge box-office hit - a rare glimpse of contemporary Ireland on the big screen, albeit somewhat exaggerated for cinematic effect. In 2005, the film has the air of a historical document, given the changes in Ireland, and particularly Dublin, over the period since the film was made: Roddy Doyle's entire Barrytown trilogy seems to belong to a little-lamented past, although it's still not hard to find pockets - or whole areas - of Dublin that have been leapfrogged by the Celtic Tiger.

While the context may have changed - or we'd like to think that it has, at least, with a veneer of wealth and sophistication - Alan Parker's film remains as fresh as it did in 1991. The aspiration to stand out from the crowd is as infectious as it ever was, and lines that worked fifteen years ago are equally hilarious now, a testament to Doyle's exceptional ear for Dublin vernacular (much of the script is lifted straight from his novel, which is written in long strings of dialogue).

The film chronicles the unlikely birth of a band playing 'Dublin soul', modelling themselves on the American greats, but what's perhaps most appealing is the manner in which it remains true to its roots. The film even-handedly presents the unpleasant side of its characters, and there's no overnight ascent to glory, just a succession of gritty gigs in which the band members channel their annoyances with each other into a series of increasingly confident on-stage performances. Alan Parker revisited the territory of Fame here and avoided the melodrama this time out, mainly by hewing close to the source material; there are a few shots of excessively poetic poverty, but the core rings true. It's striking how many successful British and Irish movies are - often clear-eyed - celebrations of working-class life, a genre virtually absent from US cinema - perhaps because it makes no sense to celebrate something that you're supposed to aspire to leave as soon as possible.


List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States