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Danger U.X.B. (1979)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia

Main image of Danger U.X.B. (1979)
Euston Films for ITV, 8/1-2/4/1979
13 x 60 min, colour
Directors includeFerdinand Fairfax
 Roy Ward Baker
ProducerJohn Hawkesworth
Devised byJohn Hawkesworth
 John Whitney
Writers includeJohn Hawkesworth
 Jeremy Paul

Cast: Anthony Andrews (Brian Ash); Maurice Roëves (Sgt. James); Kenneth Cranham (Sapper / Lt. Cpl. Salt); Robert Pugh (Sapper Powell); George Innes (Sapper / Lance Cpl. Wilkins); Peter Cartwright (Maj. Luckhurst); Judy Geeson (Susan); Kenneth Farrington (Capt. / Maj. Francis)

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In London during the Second World War, the newly-promoted Lieutenant Ash has to run a bomb disposal unit despite a complete lack of training, fighting within the ranks and considerable interference from some of his superiors.

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One of Euston Films' few excursions into period drama, Danger U.X.B. took its title from wartime signs warning of unexploded bombs. It charts the progress of a London bomb disposal unit over several years as the bombs get bigger, more complex and increasingly booby-trapped, targeting those attempting to defuse them.

Devised by producer John Hawkesworth from true-life stories by Major Arthur Bamford Hartley, Danger U.X.B. has a circular structure, the first and final episodes (both by Hawkesworth) mirroring each other as the protagonist Brian Ash has to defuse a bomb under similar physical circumstances. The main difference being Ash himself. The series charts his development from inexperienced youth barely out of training school to highly experienced, emotionally and physically scarred veteran. Anthony Andrews is utterly convincing throughout, and it's not hard to see why he was initially considered for the role of Ryder rather than Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981).

Class stratification figures strongly, with Ash placed squarely between his working-class sapper subalterns (the men come from Wales, Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester etc.) and his harsh, frequently foolish upper-class superiors. The latter strand, featuring the inflexible and obtusely by-the-book Captain Francis, peaks in the episode 'Bad Company' (tx. 26/2/1979).

Although despair and irony eventually overtake the narrative when casualties pile up after Ash and his men try to remove British mines in 'The Pier' (tx. 26/3/1979), the series generally contrasts sombre and humorous moods, with Ash's chorus of lower-class sappers (especially Kenneth Cranham as a soulful Scouser and George Innes as a Londoner with strong criminal tendencies) frequently acting as a down-to-earth counterpoint. Episodes such as 'The Silver Lining' (tx. 5/2/1979) focus especially on the sappers' experiences, while 'The Quiet Weekend' (tx. 12/2/1979) tenderly contrasts Ash's gauche attempts to organise his first adulterous weekend with Susan with his confident defusing of both a bomb and a tense situation with a fellow officer.

Atmospherically photographed (mainly by Norman Langley) in a style privileging darkness and shadow, the deliberately unsensational approach may have stopped Danger U.X.B. being more of a ratings success when originally transmitted, despite strong characterisation, sympathetic acting (especially Maurice Roëves as Ash's loyal sergeant) and numerous enthralling and suspenseful bomb-defusing sequences which compare favourably with those in such classic films as The Small Back Room (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1949) and Juggernaut (d. Richard Lester, 1972).

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. The Blitz (2:14)
2. Bomb tutorial (3:15)
3. Class (2:38)
4. Ash's first time (3:53)
Complete episode - 'Dead Man's Shoes' - Part 1 (15:30)
Part 2 (16:21)
Part 3 (19:19)
Small Back Room, The (1949)
Andrews, Anthony (1948-)
Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)
Bass, Alfie (1920-1987)
Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Euston Films
WWII Dramas