Any person who serves in the armed forces has my utmost respect, gratitude and admiration. It takes a brave person indeed to deliberately risk injury and death fighting to save and help other people. People who serve in Bomb Disposal Units have a bravery which is on a whole other level entirely. It takes nerves of complete steel to deliberately stand next to a live bomb and attempt to diffuse it, or to check if it is live or not.
In 1979, a British television series called Danger UXB was created. The series would focus upon a Bomb Disposal team working in London during the Second World War.
As the German Luftwaffe carry out their seemingly unending bombing raids across Britain, we would follow this brave disposal team tasked with diffusing and destroying the thousands of bombs that had been dropped from German aircraft, but which had failed to detonate on impact. The series would follow the team from the start of the war, right up until the war ended in September of 1945.
The completed series would become one of the most suspenseful, authentic and gripping TV series ever made. The series was created by writer/producer John Hawkesworth(the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, Upstairs, Downstairs)and John Whitney. John Hawkesworth took the series idea to producers Verity Lambert(then head of Drama at Thames Television) and Johnny Goodman; the pair were on the lookout for a new series and they both loved his idea. The series was inspired by the book Unexploded Bomb – The Story Of Bomb Disposal, which had been written by Major A.B. Hartley.
The series would also help to change the face of British television forever. Up to this point British television series/episodes had been shot on tape and were mostly filmed in the studio, with just a few brief scenes sometimes shot out on location. Danger UXB however was filmed entirely on location. The quality of the stories, coupled with the visual quality of the episodes, meant that in effect this series looked like a collection of thirteen films. This series proved what it was possible to do when making a TV series. It begs the question as to whether or not we would have got all those glorious 1980’s miniseries shot on location, without this one having paved the way first?
Another new and unusual aspect of the series was that the writers were unafraid to kill off main/significant characters. Long before series such as The Bill or Game Of Thrones broke audiences hearts with shock character deaths, Danger UXB was doing just that. In doing so, I think it helped to bring home the brutal realities of life as a Bomb Disposal officer to audiences. Death or life changing injuries could claim these men at any second. This decision also ensured that all the bomb disposal sequences in the series became doubly tense, due to audiences knowing full well that main characters weren’t free of harm and that anything could happen to them. What made it all the more powerful was the knowledge that although the characters are fictional, real men had actually gone through what these characters were enduring. It gave the series a reality and a great deal of emotional weight.
The series was filmed in 1978. It would be broadcast on ITV between the 8th of January, 1979, and the 2nd of April the same year. The series follows new Royal Engineering Officer, Brian Ash(Anthony Andrews), as he takes command of a Bomb Disposal unit in London, after the current commander has been killed while attempting to diffuse a bomb. Brian is nervous at first, but he soon settles into the role and gains confidence as a commander. The men soon grow to respect him and they form a good team.
Brian’s ever dependable right hand man, is the steady Sergeant James(Maurice Roeves), who is the father figure to the team and really does his best to keep an eye on how everyone is coping emotionally and psychologically. The main members of the team are Sapper Wilkins(George Innes), who is the joker of the team, a chainsmoker, and also a petty thief; Lance Corporal Salt(Kenneth Cranham), a married man who is always terrified for the safety of his wife and children and who later becomes haunted by events in the series; Sapper Powell(Robert Pugh),who is sometimes loud and a bit of a bully, but who has our sympathy when he becomes truly terrified and traumatised on a couple of occasions due to bombings.
The team are up against the five different types of German bombs which were usually encountered in Britain during the war. All of the bombs vary in size and damage capability. As the series goes on, Brian and his colleagues discover that German engineers are booby trapping bombs or altering the way in which they can be diffused, this of course makes diffusing even more dangerous than before. Butterfly Winter, the 10th episode of the series, introduces the team to a new type of bomb – the unusual and extremely nasty Butterfly Bomb – a device which was very small and didn’t look like a bomb at all. Whoever designed this device was especially wicked.
In addition to following the team on their job, the series also focuses on civilians and shows us what life was like on the homefront. Brian lodges with a middle aged woman and befriends her outgoing and sexy daughter, Norma(former Doctor Who companion Deborah Watling). Brian also falls in love with Susan Mount(Judy Geeson), who is the gentle daughter of scientist Doctor Gillespie(the terrific Ian Cuthbertson), who is helping the government find new ways to defeat German bomb fuses.
Brian and Susan love each other so much and each one brings the other to life in a way neither have been before. This relationship is complicated though by the facts that Susan is married – unhappily so it has to be said, but she is still married none the less – and that her husband is slowly cracking up while working as a codebreaker. Brian and Susan’s relationship also means that Brian has to steel his nerves even more when he goes out on a job because he doesn’t want to be killed and leave her all alone.
I love this series so much because it has something in it for everyone. I also love that despite mainly being focused on the war and upon male characters, we do also get some strong and interesting female characters and we see how they got through the war.Susan in particular is interesting because she is a very intelligent and determined woman, one who gets involved with her father’s scientific work and isn’t content to merely stay at home and be the dutiful little wife. I also love watching how she blooms in Brian’s company and begins to feel properly loved and fulfilled romantically and sexually for the first time in her life.
Norma and Susan. Screenshots by me.
The character of Norma is also shown to be different to the expected female norm. She is a rulebreaker, a woman who loves to have sex, despite not being married(oh, the scandal!😉). We see through these two women that the old way of life for women of this time was changing. Women worked during the war in jobs which had always been done before by men, and they quickly realised they loved to work and were just as capable as their men were. Women were realising that they could be so much more than just wives and mothers, that they could do what they wanted to, not what society and tradition forced them to do. These characters and their actions make for just as much interesting viewing as the lads do.
I also like how the series shows us the psychological impact that this job had on the men who were a part of it. Their horrific and frightening experiences can’t just be forgotten and swept under the carpet, they will always carry the disturbing images and feelings of fear with them. We see the brave faces they put on in public, but we also see how much what they must do affects them.
All of the episodes are excellent, but I think it’s fair to say that Butterfly Winter, The Pier, Digging Out and Cast Iron Killer are the best of the best. The Pier and Butterfly Winter in particular are two of the most shocking and suspenseful episodes of the whole lot. I especially like how The Pier shows us that there was great danger to be faced from British explosives, as well as from the German ones, as the team are ordered near the end of the war to help dismantle British mines lining the coast. Beaches had been mined by our troops as a last line of defence should the Germans have ever attempted to invade the mainland.
The whole cast deliver absolutely superb performances, but it is Ian Cuthbertson, Anthony Andrews, Maurice Roeves, Kenneth Cranham, Robert Pugh and George Innes who all standout the most for me. A large number of soon to be famous faces appear throughout the series and it’s a real treat to see them. Anthony Andrews, Judy Geeson, Robert Pugh and Kenneth Cranham would go on to become very well known actors over the years that followed. Anthony would become a household name after his performance in another classic British series, Brideshead Revisited, just two years after he appeared in this. Anthony’s performance in Danger UXB is one of the best he’s ever given. It’s nice to see Osmund Bullock as Lieutenant Pringle, Osmund plays my favourite version of Mr. Bingley in Pride And Prejudice(1980).
Danger UXB is not only a brilliant television series, but watching it makes me respect and admire my grandparents and their generation even more than I already do. The amount of horror and difficult choices that generation had to face during WW2 was just staggering. I think this series does a very good job of helping those of us from younger generations connect with that time and with the emotional and physical impact of the war.
This is undoubtedly one of the best series about WW2 ever made. If you enjoy series which let characters, events and stories unfold slowly, which don’t have annoyingly fast editing every few seconds, and which don’t insult the intelligence or attention span of the audience, then this is most certainly the series for you.
This is my entry for the WW2 blogathon being hosted by myself and Jay in a few days time. I can’t wait to read all of your entries.