Pop TV at its best -- set in London under the blitz
Nowm who dares accuse "Masterpiece Threater" of elitism? A new kind of electronic blitz was unveiled last Sunday on PBS with the premiere of a British pop-entertainment-type action-adventure series concerning a bomb disposal squad during Britain's World War II Blitz -- "Danger UBX" (12 more Sundays, PBS, 9-10 p.m. through March 29, Check local listings for premieres and repeats).
Ever since "Upstairs, Downstairs" broke the class barriers on and off the screen (it was watched by TV viewers in all walks of life and levels of income), the highquality British imports (from BBC and other suppliers such as Thames, London Weekend, and Granada) have been attacked by one source or another as being too highbrow, egghead, elitist. Everything from "I, Claudius," to "Crime and Punishment" and "Pride and Prejudice" came under attack.
Not so "Upstairs, Downstairs." That was a London Weekend production -- a fact of interest to those wondering where future programs like Masterpiece Theater will come from, now that the BBC has made exclusive arrangements with the pay-TV RCTV in this country.
"Danger UXB" is produced by the same John Hawkesworth who was responsible for the best of "Upstairs, Downstairs." This Thames TV series is pop TV at its very best. It is brittle, exciting entertainment at the same time that it explores its own fascinating world of wartime England. It manages to combine the thrill of real-life incidents in the day-to-day operations of a bomb- disposal squad (UXB means unexploded bomb) with the day-to-day life of typical wartime Royal Engineers and typical civilian Englishmen as well.
Instead of "Upstairs," we have the actions and attitudes of a young upperclass officer and the upperclass women and friends in his life. Instead of "Downstairs," we have the enlisted men in his squadron and their life among the lower classes as they existed in wartime England and, perhaps, as they still exist today to some extent. The series is sociologically oriented to include the amazing spirit of the British during the German blitz, but never so much so that it spoils the fun and thrills of the action and the sometimes soapiness of the romance.
In its own chin-up-while-socializing-for-merrie-olde- England way, "Danger UXB" could conceivably be criticized as "blitz-chic." But that is not meant as a criticism . . . well, call it hard-edge praise.
"Danger UXB," like its cultural predecessor," Upstairs, Downstairs," runs the deadly risk of becoming a "pop-cult" series -- beloved by those who "never watch TV ordinarily" but insist they make an exception only for this one. That is the fascinatingly questionable but popular status which Hawkesworth's more recent "Duchess of Duke Street" never quite managed to attain.
If you missed last week's opener, try to see it on one of its repeats before Sunday. But if you can't find it, don't let that stop you from tuning in to Episode 2, which airs this Sunday, because the first episode merely introduced our hero, Brian Ash, the young Royal Engineer officer who finds himself posted to a hastily organized bomb disposal company whose job it is to cope with the unexploded bombs that hitler has been lobbing onto Britain and which are threatening to paralyze the country.
Brian's almost nonexistent training and first experience with a bomb are enough to keep you squirming in your seat -- but the real people-to-people action starts in Episode 2 and continues througout. But WGBH producer Joan Wilson, in what I consider questionable judgment, has decided not to allow the final episode to be seen by previewers because she's afraid they won't keep the ending secret. (There is no suprise ending -- Thames TV simply left it a bit openended so that a future follow-up series remains a possibility).
The star of "UXB" may be a familiar face to many American TV viewers, especially to inveterate PBS fans -- Anthony Andrews, a perennially boyish, handsome, sandy-haired actor with an incisive intellect who seems quite at home playing scions of the aristocracy. He was Mercutio in the recent BBC "Romeo And Juliet," and, of course, young Lord Stockbridge (who married Georgina in "Upstairs, Downstairs"). Recently he talked to me about both this series and the forthcoming WNET/Granada co-production of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" in which he plays the part of Sebastian.
Anthony had just had lunch with commentator Alistair Cooke, who provides fascinating Blitz background fore and aft for the UXB series. cHe [Mr. Cooke] said he was thrilled because he found it so much more exciting to research 1942 than the Edwardian era he had been forced to do so often.
"When I started this series I went down to the Royal Engineers base in Kent to learn about fuses and everything. I was astouched to find out that even today they still find an average of two or three bombs a week from the war period. They're live, and the Royal Engineers are still dealing with them."
Mr. andrews says he is suprised that Masterpiece Theater chose UXB: "You're so used to semiclassical material in that series and it seemed a bit of a jump to 1942 wartime material." However, he was interested to learn that Masterpiece theater was just concluding its "Testament of Youth" series which concerned World War I -- so it is much less of a jump.
He insists that UXB is not an attempt to emulate American action shows: "It's just very John Hawkesworth. It's got the Hawkesworth stamp all over it insofar as he manages these interconnecting stories of characters and families."
There were sequels to both "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Duke Street" -- will there be a sequel to "UXB"?
"No. We had this controversy in London when it became obvious that its popularity was becoming so enormous. John [Hawkesworth] and myself wanted to finish it off, but Thames wanted us to go on with the series.
"I suppose it could be rejuvenated because we were forced to leave it open at the end. It won't be changed for America, as far as I am aware. Although the first episode is not the strongest, it is essential because it gives explanations of the techniques of bomb disposal and the history of the bomb disposal department -- all about fuses and bombs. 'UXB' is the story of a young man who goes in completely naive, learning step by step how to survive in this incredible field, and the audience must learn step by step with him."
Mr. Adrews looks back fondly on his role as Lord Stockbridge in "Upstairs, Downstairs." "It was extraordinary for me, coming in at the end and doing very little. But being the guy who got the girl (Georgina) really put me on the map -- it meant lots of roles."
Mr. Andrews's career began at the Chichester Festival Theater, then he did several plays in the West End and then television, television, television.
"The face of television in England is now changing as it is over here," he says. "We are now making longer and more expensive movies for television. That's the coming wave in England. I hope it will boost the financial end as well. The money an actor gets for British TV is so much less than American TV."
"Brideshead Revisited," will be completed some time next month and will probably not be aired until the 1981-82 season. Nobody seems to know whether it will be shown in 5, 6, 10, or 13 episodes. Some scenes were shot at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Last Year, when I visited the mansion north of York, I was unable to enter many rooms because the crew was shooting or setting up to shoot.
"'Brideshead' will be the most expensive TV production ever to come out of England. The budget was originally L2 million -- by the time its finished it will probably be L5 million. Already it has taken us two years and we are still working on it.
"It was worth everything to work with Laurence Olivier in "Brideshead.' He was wonderful even though very tired from having done 'The Jazz Singer.' But it was remarkable to see him pull himself together to shoot in Venice."
Mr. Andrews is happy that the film was shot on that location. "The owner of Castle Howard has an enormous problem because an entire wing of the house was destroyed by fire in the late 1940s and even since he has been trying to raise the money to refurbish it. One of the things that Granada TV did for him in exchange for allowing us to shoot some scenes in the house was to refurbish part of it authentically.
"I hope enough Americans are interested in British period drama and will like Evelyn Waugh. 'Brideshead' is unique -- but it is not a fast-moving action-adventure story. It is an atmospheric novel which was a classic in its own time because of Waugh's approach to atmosphere. I think we have succeeded in getting that on the screen. I wouldn't be surprised to find both England and the US in the midst of a Waugh revival soon. His letters and diaries are fascinating."
Well, if there is not a vogue for Waugh in he US, already it looks as if there is a developing vogue for "Danger UXB" which premiered last week to surprisingly large and generally enthusiastic audiences.
But I predict that even if there doesn't turn out to be a vogue for Waugh and "UXB," there is certain to be a vogue for Anthony Andrews.