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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Davenport’

I believe that at some point near the start of this rather unusual, unexpected year, I talked about getting to the point where I’d seen all the classic SF and fantasy TV series of the 20th century (this was on the occasion of finally viewing the whole of Sapphire and Steel). Well, if nothing else, 2020 has given me the opportunity to learn that – for instance – there were in fact many episodes of The Avengers I hadn’t actually watched, and remember that there were quite a few other shows, some of them relatively obscure, around as well (Star Cops obviously leaps to mind).

Star Cops usually gets cited as the last proper BBC science-fiction show of the 20th century (this overlooks Invasion: Earth, from 1998), with ITV’s last effort of the century probably 1999’s The Last Train – but by the mid 80s, there was a fourth channel in town, the sensibly-named Channel 4. For me, Channel 4 will always be the place where I first saw repeats of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, but by 1998 it was making its own cult dramas, specifically in the form of Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet.

The first episode, Habeas Corpus, opens in central London, with a shabby, nervous man sitting on a bridge watching the sun go down. A car pulls up nearby, sinisterly (at least, as sinisterly as a piece of parking can be). Meanwhile, detective Mike Colefield (Jack Davenport) – a slightly infelicitous choice of name, surely, it always puts me in mind of the Tubular Bells dude – is busy at the stag night for his partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer). He starts getting phone calls from the nervous man, demanding to meet – it seems he is an informant of Jack’s – and eventually agrees, just to get the man to shut up.

The informant has taken cover in an amusement arcade, but just before Mike arrives a man who emerged from the sinister car at sunset shoots and kills him. Mike gives chase, but loses his quarry when he heads into a tube station – our first inkling that this may be more than just a conventional cop thriller comes when Mike is unable to locate the killer using the station’s CCTV system: he simply doesn’t register on the screen, having previously not shown up in a mirror…

The next day, Jack’s wedding is thrown into chaos when the groom fails to appear, and a full investigation into his appearance uncovers evidence that he was actually on the take. Mike initially refuses to believe it, but soon realises that something very odd is going on – the informant was shot and killed at point blank range, but once again the security cameras show nobody near him at the time. The involvement in the case of two detectives supposedly from CIB (the anti-corruption unit), Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba), also doesn’t ring true somehow. Mike launches his own personal investigation and discovers that March and Rice are not police – she is a former academic, he is ex-army – and their ruthless methods and secretiveness make him suspicious. Jack himself reappears, insisting they are members of a death squad looking to kill him, asking for Mike’s help in learning more about them.

After witnessing Rice and his men in action, Mike acquires some of their gear – guns with weird sights firing wooden bullets, and gas grenades loaded with a garlic-derivative – and discovers they are based out of a church and led by a priest named Pearse (Philip Quast). But what could a Vatican-led team be doing using wooden projectiles and garlic against killers who avoid the sunlight and don’t show up in mirrors…?

The team check out the ‘prison’ where dormant Code Fives are kept in storage.

It nearly goes without saying that Ultraviolet is a product of its era, part of the boom in ‘quality’ genre entertainment which followed the massive success of The X Files (the same as Invasion: Earth, really). A lot of these programmes really weren’t terribly good, and I was slightly worried about revisiting this one – I remember Ultraviolet as being brilliant, but then at the time my life-long affection for Hammer horror movies had been joined by a fascination with Vampire: The Masquerade and its associated games and I was a sucker (no pun intended) for anything in this particular vein (ditto).

Happily, Ultraviolet is very nearly as classy and enjoyable as I remember it being at the time – it doesn’t look quite as slick and cinematic as I recalled, but the only thing which feels a little dated about this opening episode is the incidental music, which is just a bit too on-the-nose. The great thing about it is that it’s in no hurry whatsoever to get to its genre elements, or overplay them when they appear, and it steers clear of most of the classic trappings of the genre. The v-word itself is carefully never used on-screen – the latter-day inquisition’s targets are referred to by the euphemism ‘Code 5’, or possibly ‘Code V’ for those with a classical education – and the show takes a reasonably sceptical attitude to some of the lore. We don’t get to see the effect that daylight has on them this week, but a length of wood through the heart results in a spectacular dissolution. As far as the efficacy of holy symbols against them goes, Angie March suggests this may be psychosomatic – but on the other hand, Jack (who has been turned by the opposition) suggests that there are some places they can’t easily infiltrate (the implication may be that he’s talking about holy ground), while Mike finds himself incapable of entering a church while suffering from the after-effects of being bitten.

These days, possibly the main point of interest in this show is that it features one of the first lead performances from Idris Elba – much more famous these days, of course, for advertising the seasonal output of satellite TV networks – while Jack Davenport (well-known at the time for This Life) has also gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career too. Odd to see them both looking so young here, but that’s the eerie preservative effect of archive TV, I suppose. It’s clear from the start that this is kind of a high-concept show – as the Exposition Man, Philip Quast gets most of the best dialogue – and everyone at this point is still suggesting character in small ways rather than actually getting much to work with. The slowest element of the episode concerns Mike’s relationship with Jack’s fiancee (Colette Brown), whom he clearly has a bit of a thing for: it skirts the borders of soap-opera melodrama, and doesn’t add much to the episode. However, it does set up some of the continuing threads that will run through the series, and isn’t in itself enough to spoil what’s a notably confident and effective introduction to the series.

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