Classic TV: Ultraviolet

When Jack (Stephen Moyer) goes missing just before his wedding to Kirsty (Colette Brown), his best friend, police detective Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport), sets out to track him down and find out why he has disappeared. When he finally finds him, Jack tells him that he is in hiding because he is being hunted by an undercover government “death squad” who are out to kill him. But what kind of government organisation would be trying to murder him, and why?

Colefield gradually learns the truth, that Jack has been turned into a vampire, and he is drawn into a secret world of modern day vampires and the shadowy government organisation trying to defeat them. Eventually he is slightly reluctantly recruited into the team of vampire hunters, led by a priest, Pearse Harman (Philip Quast), and assisted by a haematologist Dr Angela March (Susannah Harker) and an ex-soldier, Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba). The team investigate a series of incidents that may or may not be related to vampires. In the meantime, they become suspicious that the vampires are orchestrating some kind of grand plan that will have profound consequences for humanity.

Ultraviolet Region 2 Collectors Edition DVD cover
Ultraviolet Region 2 Collectors Edition DVD cover

British television has a rich history of spooky horror, sci-fi and fantasy series, especially in the 1970s. But by the late 1990s, the genre window had become much more narrow. Sci-fi and fantasy were out, and even British TV's most iconic sci-fi series, Doctor Who, had struggled to an ignominious end in 1989. Significantly, there was a brief feature-length revival of that show in 1996, but the resulting Americanised effort didn't really please anyone except the most hardcore fans. By the mid-1990s, cop shows, detectives, medical dramas and social realism made up the bulk of British TV drama output. Ultraviolet's producers, World Productions, were particularly associated with successful police series and thrillers, including Between the Lines (1992-94), Cops (1998-2001), Line of Duty (2012-18) and Bodyguard (2018).

It was the huge success of an American import, The X-Files, that made British TV look again at the now unloved sci-fi and fantasy genres in the mid-to-late '90s. The 1998 series Ultraviolet was a tentative step back in that direction and, with its low-key style and spooky theme tune, it was clearly a programme that took at least some inspiration from The X-Files.

But the series' broadcaster, Channel 4, was obviously still wary about sci-fi and fantasy, especially as these were not areas where it had much of a tradition. And when Ultraviolet debuted in the autumn of 1998, Channel 4 was remarkably coy about just what its new series was all about. The word “vampire”, for example, appeared to be banned from the channel's lexicon and at no point in the series is that word ever used. Instead, a vampire is always referred to, in pseudo-military jargon, as a “Code Five”, probably intended to be written as “Code V”.

The closest the series comes to using the V word is in the opening title sequence. The camera pans across a prone body in close up, finally settling on a suspicious double puncture wound in the victim's neck. As the eerie theme music plays, the titles flash up and the “V” in Ultraviolet is briefly left flickering on its own, subtly acknowledging to the audience that, yes, this show is going to be about vampires.

Jack Davenport in leather jacket
Jack Davenport as police detective Michael Colefield

The first episode of the series is, unfortunately, a little muddled and underwhelming. With its initial emphasis on the relationship between Colefield, Jack and Kirsty, it feels a little like it's been designed not to put off fans of Jack Davenport's previous success, the twenty-something drama series This Life (1996-97), which had recently ended its run. The crucial moment when Colefield learns and accepts that vampires are roaming around London, and that his friend is one of them, has gone AWOL and we never do see exactly how Colefield made such an extraordinary leap of the imagination to accept that this is the reality. Was a scene cut because of Channel 4's fear of the V word?

From the second episode on, though, Ultraviolet becomes much more interesting. What makes the series notable is its intelligent and imaginative updating of the vampire myth for a new era, and it's the characters played by Quast, Harker and Elba who introduce us to this new mythology.

Vampires (sorry, “Code Fives”) are still vulnerable to sunlight, but the series produces scientific explanations for why other traditional vampire-killing methods work. It's not the stake through the heart that kills a vampire, but its aversion to wood. Instead of stakes and crucifixes, the vampire hunters use special guns with carbon bullets, a substance that turns vampires to ash. They also use grenades containing allicin, a compound found in garlic. Vampire bites are also only visible under ultraviolet light. And while crosses and holy water might work on some vampires, it's mostly a psychosomatic effect exploiting the victim's own fear about such culturally iconic murder methods.

Susannah Harker with her hand on a boy's face
Dr Angela March (Susannah Harker) examines a suspected vampire victim

As is traditional, vampires have no reflection, and this also means that they have no electronic signature at all. They won't appear in photos or in videos and they can't use telephones without using a computer voice synthesizer. The ashes of the “dead” vampires (they can't really be killed and can still be revived from this form) are stored in metal canisters in a sealed lab, something entirely in keeping with the series' modernist aesthetic. For a vampire series, Ultraviolet has very little gore and hardly any neck-biting or fang-bearing. It's much too cool and restrained for all that stuff.

Probably because of the reluctance to fully enter into the horror or fantasy genres, Ultraviolet often plays out more like a police procedural, with car chases, shoot-outs and detective work. Unlike in most traditional vampire stories, the vampires aren't interested in killing humans, because that would eliminate their food source. They do turn some humans into vampires but, they say, they only take those who are willing. And often they don't even keep a promise to turn those who want to be turned. More vampires means more mouths to feed and humans, who can go out in the daylight and who can use telephones and other modern technology, are often more useful to them as they are. Instead the vampires are more interested in trying to keep the rest of us alive, to ensure them a constant supply of fresh blood. For this reason, they invest their resources into researching blood disorders and diseases in order to keep human blood healthy and palatable for discerning vampires.

It's clear that Ultraviolet's writer-director, Joe Ahearne, has thought seriously about just how vampires would operate if they existed in the real world. But the rethinking of the vampire myth extends beyond just the technicalities and the traditional iconography. As the series develops, there's a nagging question that keeps cropping up. Who exactly are the good guys and who are the bad guys? In a series about vampires, the answer may seem obvious, but Ultraviolet's achievement is that the answer to that question becomes increasingly unclear.

Philip Quast in Ultraviolet
Philip Quast as Pearse Harman

The vampires see themselves as an oppressed and persecuted minority and hostility to them as a medieval prejudice that should have been abandoned long ago. Shouldn't they have the right to live, just like any other person, just like any other species? As they see it, it's religious dogma and superstition that have characterised them as evil, but they are just another part of the natural world.

And the attitudes of the vampire-hunters are disturbing, especially Idris Elba's character, the former soldier Vaughan Rice. He is fanatically anti-vampire, habitually refers to them as “leeches” and will kill any one on sight. Susannah Harker's character, Dr March, can be almost equally ruthless and implacable, at least to begin with. As Colefield begins to see just how the organisation operates, he starts to ask questions about the morality of their work. Some of the vampires do bad things, but that's true of humans too. When they finally get up close to a vampire (Corin Redgrave), and are able to have an extended conversation with him, he turns out to be somewhat arrogant, but intelligent and articulate.

It's in the third episode, in particular, that the difference between the heroes and the villains becomes hard to discern. A woman is set upon by muggers late at night in an underground car park, only to be rescued by a mysterious benefactor who kills her attackers. It gradually becomes apparent that the woman is being protected by the vampires because she is pregnant with a new human-vampire hybrid. She is tracked down and March repeatedly tries to force or con her into having an abortion. With a hounded woman caught between vampires who want to trick her into producing a hybrid child and the government who want to force her to abort it, the line between the good guys and the bad guys becomes increasingly blurred.

Idris Elba and Jack Davenport
Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba) with Colefield (Jack Davenport)

In later episodes, it's discovered that the vampires are attempting to produce synthetic blood. Could this be the beginning of the end for the human-vampire conflict? If vampires can live on synthetic blood then humans will now be safe. But there's disagreement within the team as to the implications of this and over the real motives of the vampires. March comes to think that the efforts to produce synthetic blood are intended to end the vampires' reliance on human blood and that this will mean peace with humans. But her boss, Harman, suspects that it's a prelude to something worse, a temporary substitute for the vampires to use in a nuclear winter, during which they will take over and enslave humans. He envisages a future where vampires farm humans to keep their food source intact, and to protect us from our self-destructive ways. As he tells March: “Our free-range days are over.”

Ultraviolet delves into some quite dark places and tilts at headline issues like abortion, paedophilia, global pandemics, artificial insemination and genetic engineering. These are combined with even bigger, but more traditional, themes about death, God and religion.

The private lives of the main characters also intersect with their work hunting vampires. Colefield obviously still carries a torch for Kirsty, but in later episodes she becomes involved with a mysterious undercover reporter trying to get access to his organisation. Colefield becomes increasingly suspicious that she may have been turned into a vampire and he has to face the possibility that he will have to kill her. March, meanwhile, learns that part of the vampires' plan is to resurrect her own dead husband, something that inevitably leaves her with conflicted emotions. And Harman has to face his own illness and possible death from blood cancer. Will he be tempted to change sides to save his life?

The series also has a fair bit of before-they-were-famous appeal, with Idris Elba, Jack Davenport and True Blood's Stephen Moyer among the cast. Susannah Harker was already familiar to British TV viewers for her roles in the original House of Cards (1990) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). The performances are played very straight and serious, from the tough Elba to the morose Davenport to the beautifully sad-looking Harker.

Idris Elba wearing a suit in Ultraviolet
Idris Elba as Vaughan Rice

Jack Davenport is perhaps not the most charismatic lead and he often looks bored and sullen, like a man who wishes he was somewhere else entirely. I kept half-expecting him to pick up the phone and shout “Get my agent. This thing is about VAMPIRES!”

Fortunately, Susannah Harker and Idris Elba are more interesting. Harker's character is torn emotionally, something she is capable of just hinting at with those huge, sad eyes of hers. And Elba's character's experiences with vampires have given him a dark heart, and he views them as not much more than vermin. Elba also gets the series' most suspenseful scene in a ticking-clock sequence when his character is trapped in a warehouse with a set of vampire coffins with time locks that are set to open, complete with a digital countdown marking off the minutes.

When it ended after six episodes, Ultraviolet left several loose ends and plenty of potential for another series. In fact a certain amount seems to be left deliberately unresolved. Unfortunately, that second series never came, and an attempt at a US remake by the Fox network never got further than an unsatisfactory pilot episode, despite the involvement of Idris Elba reprising his role from the British series. Ultraviolet's writer-director Joe Ahearne would return to this kind of material with the paranormal series Strange (2002-03), Apparitions (2008) and The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012). He would also direct several early episodes of the revived series of Doctor Who.

Although Ultraviolet has the ideas, the execution isn't always as great as it could be and the narrative can be a little murky at times, especially early on. But once the series gets going, it becomes intriguing and involving. Ultraviolet feels as if it had the potential to run longer and to explore its premise and its characters further. It remains one of the most thoughtful and intelligent attempts at revamping the vampire mythos for the modern era.


Year: 1998
Genre: Thriller
Country: UK
Episodes: 6 x 50 mins

Cast Jack Davenport (Michael Colefield), Susannah Harker (Dr Angela March), Idris Elba (Vaughan Rice), Philip Quast (Pearse Harman), Colette Brown (Kirsty), Fiona Dolman (Frances), Stephen Moyer (Jack), Thomas Lockyer (Jacob), Sean Cernow (Lestat), Corin Redgrave (Dr Paul Hoyle)

Screenwriter/Director Joe Ahearne  Producer Bill Shapter  Cinematographer Peter Greenhalgh  Editors Jason Krasucki, Nick McPhee  Production designer John Bunker  Music Sue Hewitt

Production company World Productions  Original network Channel 4


Popular Posts