Created, written and directed by Joe Ahearne, later to helm some of the best episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s short stint on Doctor Who as well as the adaptation of James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall, Ultraviolet’s six instalments starred Jack Davenport, then best known for This Life, as Michael Colefield, a police officer unwittingly dragged into a government-sponsored assault on the undead.
Ahearne summed up the premise as follows: “Vampires are living among us. Rather than the vampire stories of old where they’re alone and operating by themselves, they’re organising. We’re not quite sure why. The government knows about it, and there’s a government organisation trying to find out what they’re up to.”
Ultraviolet’s origins lie in Ahearne’s longtime fascination with the vampire legend. “The old Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing films – that’s what I grew up on,” he explains. “I’d written vampire stuff before, so this was just another go at seeing what way you could reinvent the story because, particularly when I started writing, there had been very little modern vampire stuff. The later Hammer films – Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula – were very much of the same formula: vampire bites girlfriend, boyfriend chases vampire down, girlfriend gets staked.
“I was trying to do something that’s more, ‘If there really were vampires around, what would be the logical implications of that?’ Trying to apply logic to a supernatural concept, treat them more as another natural phenomena, which we don’t have all the explanations for yet, but which can be combated scientifically. Religion doesn’t get an awful lot of a look-in in this show. The way we talk about it is like a homeopathy — you don’t know whether it has an effect or not, so our ‘vampire detectives’ don’t rely on it.”
Ultraviolet arose out of Aherne’s earlier association with World Productions. “This was one of the things I pitched at them. They liked it, so I wrote a pilot [then called Crossing the Line], then worked on This Life for a few episodes, then wrote a few more of them. Then they asked me to direct some of them, then all of them. It didn’t happen all in one go – it happened over the period of two or three years.”
Ahearne says he wouldn’t call Ultraviolet ‘science fiction’ exactly. “But it was close to it,” he admits. “It had a sci-fi ethic and it looked like sci-fi. It was a thriller with a fantastical element. There was an embarrassment factor back then.”
That extended to not even using the word ‘vampire’ on screen. “It wasn’t mentioned in the entire series,” he points out. “It wasn’t something that the broadcaster insisted on. It was something I did myself when I was writing it. I thought there was going to be a resistance factor to certain words and images because there was a lot of baggage attached to them. You just try and cut out the baggage by misdirecting people and trying to get them to not attend to those things.
“When I wrote it originally it was much more action based, and not so much psychologically concerned. A bit more comic strip, a bit less dark. At the time that wouldn’t be commissioned, so for Channel 4 it had to be an angst-ridden tale of millennial woes. They had to have a reason for doing it other than it was a fantasy or SF story. You can’t really call a spade a spade.
“To me, the essence of Ultraviolet was Vaughn stuck in a safe with four time-locked coffins. But if you’d majored on that in the pitching document, you’d never have got anywhere. You have to talk about it as a police series with a twist – which it was as well. You’re not lying… For the audience you’re selling to, which isn’t the audience which is going to watch it, you have to choose your words carefully. You have to blow up the straight drama element, and minimise the elements we’re all interested in.”
Having previously worked with Jack Davenport on This Life, Ahearne admits that the actor was his first choice for Ultraviolet’s Everyman, Michael Colefield. “I’d written the pilot before I worked on This Life, but after I’d worked with him, and as I was writing the other episodes, I did have him in mind. His character seemed to fit into that quite well.”
Ultraviolet boasted many celebrated actors. Philip Quast, Olivier Award winning star of The Fix, played the former priest and head of The Squad, Pearse Harman, with Idris Elba as the team’s military muscle, Vaughan Rice. Big Finish Audio’s Sapphire and Steel star Susannah Harker was the Squad’s resident scientist, Angie March.
Ahearne hoped that the twists and turns in Ultraviolet would surprise its audience. “You still have a vampire chasing someone, but he doesn’t bite him, he just shoots him, and hopefully people thought, ‘Oh right, maybe I can’t second-guess everything that’s going to happen in this.’ And again it’s quite logical: if a vampire wants to kill someone, they don’t have to bite them, they can do it however they like. When I first started writing Ultraviolet, it was quite superficial. It was about how the technology had been updated and so on. What the producers did was make me tackle the psychology.
“Vampire stories of old are about sex, basically,” he claims, “Quite an adolescent version of sex as well. Doing it in the modern day, 100 years later, there’s no real need, to use the vampire myth to talk about sexuality, because we’re not living in a Victorian age. We’ve gone beyond that. We tried to use the vampire stuff to talk about other things.”
In addition to touching upon an array of contemporary physical hazards, including CJD and AIDS, Ultraviolet also explored social maladies, with one investigation centring on the murder of a priest by one of his pupils. “From Pearse’s point of view, since he’d been a priest, it was an immediate signifier of vampire involvement. Another episode dealt with genetic engineering, particularly IVF treatment. One of the issues about vampires is their immortality. That’s why people are tempted to ‘cross over’. The human version of that is having babies really. That’s how you make yourself immortal – by leaving something behind. So we had a story where you think vampires are trying to create offspring – but why would they want to do that? They don’t have biological clocks. They can live forever.”
Ahearne wanted Ultraviolet to “blur the divisions between what we consider to be evil, and what isn’t. You may get a sense from the first episodes that the vampires have a good argument. It’s like talking to a really good politician. You can’t really fault their logic, and so if they’re trying to con people or not, you don’t know.”
Ultraviolet was a hit for Channel 4 on its first broadcast, and subsequent repeats on Sci-Fi Channel. An American pilot was made without Ahearne’s involvement but never broadcast – in the words of X-Files producer Howard Gordon: “We screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well.” Ahearne felt that there might be another two hour movie in the concept, but nothing ever came of it – a pity, as Ultraviolet stands up as one of the strongest British SF entries from the end of the last century.
Verdict: If you’ve not seen Ultraviolet before, go and get it now; for those who have, despite the lack of anamorphic transfer, this new collectors’ edition is well worth having. 8/10