Lost Gems: Ultraviolet

The best vampire show ever?

Let’s face it, vampires are silly. Yes, they are. They so are. Unless you’re stuck in some perpetual Twilight of gothdom/Emodom, the whole “vampiredom is cool/mysterious/sexy/dark/a great way to live” should have been replaced in your psyche by vampiredom is “sad/ridiculous/obvious metaphor for oral sex and venereal diseases” years ago.

To be fair, in part, that’s because of the daftness of general TV depictions of vampires, which should have put you off them altogether. The vampires on Buffy very quickly became laughable and Angel very rapidly became self-parody. The Marc Warren Dracula adaptation was awful, and no matter how good the 1970s BBC adaptation with Louis Jourdan was, his flapping his way up a wall like an overladen man on a spacehopper was enough to cause hysterics – and not the frightened kind – in any viewer.

But it needn’t be so. As Being Human in the UK and to a lesser extent True Blood in the US recently showed, you can do vampires convincingly in this day and age if you do them right.

Ten years ago, Channel 4 did the first – and possibly the best – of the modern vampire stories. Starring Jack Davenport, Susannah Harker and Idris Elba of The Wire, Ultraviolet managed to bring science, intelligence, moral ambiguity, decent characters and all the hallmarks of modern storytelling to the vampire story – all without saying the word ‘vampire’ once.

Although it’s been repeated and issued on DVD, it’s hard to get now (although you can watch every episode on YouTube) as it’s been deleted, so it’s officially a Lost Gem. Here’s a shiny fan-produced trailer for you, albeit one with a very bad choice in soundtrack:

The show revolves around Jack Davenport’s character, Mike, a police detective who finds his best friend – who’s marrying the woman he’s still in love with – accused of corruption on the day of his wedding. Two police officers (Idris Elba and Susannah Harker) turn up to investigate him, but they don’t behave in the right way and ask odd questions. In fact, on investigation, it turns out they don’t even work for the police, although they seem to have all the credentials to prove it.

It’s not long before evidence piles up that’s exceedingly odd: photos with no one in them, SWAT teams that use odd grenades and guns with TV cameras on them. Eventually, Mike discovers that his friend has become a vampire.

And that’s episode one.

The differentiator
What differentiates Ultraviolet from rubbish vampire fare is that it tries to answer seriously the question “What if vampires really did exist?” without every mentioning vampires – calling them ‘leeches’ or Code Fives (V in Roman numerals) instead.

The government’s secret investigative unit uses science to fight the vampires. No stakes through the heart, only carbon-ammunition and it’s shoot first, ask questions later or else the super-fast, super-strong vampires will get you before you can blink. No garlic, but grenades containing allicin, the active component in garlic.

But it’s not just the humans who have access to science. Vampires may not take well to a stake to a heart, but bullet-proof vests can come in handy there. They may not be able to reproduce since they’re dead, but could they use IVF treatments to overcome that? And since only humans – not mirrors, television cameras or even telephones – can see and hear vampires, communication might be a problem, but only if you didn’t have access to a computer, for example.

Equally, the show also poses more philosophical problems. Should we just accept that vampires are evil and kill them, or are they just another persecuted minority, the latest in a long line of government and church victims following women, the disabled and gay men and women? Since they don’t need to kill to get blood and they recruit very selectively, is peaceful co-existence a real possibility and is Mike joining the equivalent of a Nazi death squad, rather than a heroic band trying to protect us from the terrors of the night?

Over the course of the show’s six episodes, it walks this tightrope, never coming down on one side or other, always leaving you with the possibility that our heroes really aren’t heroes after all. It’s not until the final episode when all is revealed and the team with right on its side is revealed. I’m not saying who that is.

Character, as well, is everything, with the relationships among the main cast and their significant others – or would-like-to-be significant others in most cases – and the usually vengeance-driven rationales for the unit’s behaviour and beliefs explored subtly and at great length. And there are some good lines in dialogue, particularly for Idris Elba’s ex-army SWAT team leader Vaughn Rice (“The public would vote the Archbishop of Canterbury PM if they knew. I don’t want to live in Iran. Do you?”).

There’s some great acting from the core cast, with guest star Corin Redgrave providing a tour de force performance as the voice of vampire reason. Direction and writing from Joe Ahearne (This Life, Apparitions and some of Chris Eccleston episodes of Doctor Who) are first rate. It’s perhaps a little slower than some people might like, with the fourth episode being perhaps the best paced of the lot, but it’s intelligent drama for intelligent viewers so the excitement is usually intellectual and to do with the characters rather than the action.

Second series, the US version and clips
Unfortunately, there was never a second series, principally because Joe Ahearne was so busy writing and directing the first series, he never had time to come up with any new ideas for the next series. Which is a shame, really, but it did free up Jack Davenport for Coupling.

Here are a couple of taster clips, as well as the first ten minutes of the first episode, and if you liked them, there’s a playlist with all six episodes up at YouTube so you can watch it when you have the time. But it’s really worth owning on  DVD honest.

Incidentally, trivia lovers, Stephen Moyer, who plays Mike’s best friend and vampire, is now the vampire star of True Blood; there was also a pilot for a US version of Ultraviolet produced by Howard Gordon and Chip Johannessen that starred Idris Elba and Mädchen Amick – but it was a bit soapy and rubbish and was never picked up for series.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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