Drama: Death after life - a cool and sexy way to go

Ultraviolet Channel 4 Undercover Heart BBC 1
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Following the premature death of This Life, TV companies across the length and breadth of Wardour Street must have wondered how they could bring it back from beyond the grave and grab some of its sexiness for themselves. Not sexiness in an erotic sense - although that comes into it - but in the sense of panache, youth, fashionability... whatever it is that separates ER from Casualty. In practical terms, This Life's sexiness derived from its abundance of attractive but believable people in their twenties drinking wine, listening to Portishead, wearing nice clothes and taking them off at regular intervals. You could watch these people having fights, breakdowns, and second thoughts the night before their weddings, and you still wished your life was more like This Life. So how best to repeat that sexiness? Simple. Commission a project from the same personnel.

Jane Fallon, the series' producer, has returned with Undercover Heart, starring Daniela "Anna" Nardini, while Joe Ahearne, a writer and director on This Life, has created Ultraviolet, starring Jack "Miles" Davenport. The Lifers are back. Their respective channels must be rubbing their hands together and waiting for those 10-page encomiums in Sky magazine to come rolling off the presses. The only fly in the chardonnay is that Ultraviolet is about vampires. Not quite as cool a subject as Channel 4 must have been hoping for.

Actually, Ultraviolet is as cool as a serious drama about a squad of government-sponsored monster hunters in 1990s London can possibly be. The secret vault where desiccated vampires are stored may count silver spray paint and margarine tubs among its construction materials, but Ultraviolet is significantly more X-Files than Blake's Seven. The effects are expensive. The squad's briefing-room is in moody semi-darkness. Davenport and chums talk about "leeches" and "Code Five" - no one is ever heard heard making jokes about fangs and Transylvania. Sue Hewitt's music and the Alien-ated title sequence are eerie and arty - not to mention the title itself. To appreciate how sexy that is you've only to compare it with the series' working title, Crossing The Line. This is in fact a more suitable and subtle name, but, let's face it, it's not as cool. It sounds like the title of any of the cop shows you'd hit if you threw a dart at the Radio Times.

That said, the beauty of Ultraviolet is that it behaves more like a cop show than a horror story. Several plots are threaded through the whole series, but each episode also has its own self-contained murder mystery which operates within strict police-drama conventions: for 10 minutes at a time the tense but straightforward investigative procedure lets you forget that the crime being investigated is the over-eager recruitment of involuntary blood donors.

Which is where Jack Davenport comes in. An even more valuable attribute than his cheekbones is his gift for underplaying. As Michael Colefield he slouches around in a leather jacket, eyes half-closed and mouth half- open, and he doesn't so much speak his sarcastic remarks as sigh them, as if vanquishing the undead were as painful a chore as cross-referencing case files after a fiery night with Anna. And he doesn't have the Miles fringe anymore, thank the Lord. The producers must have reasoned that the series had more than enough horror as it was.

If Michael's driven boss, played by Philip Quast, has a little too much of the Peter Cushings about him, with his neat streak of grey hair and a voice that would send most vampires scurrying for their coffins, the rest of the cast echo Davenport's muted delivery. Just like the constables and sergeants we're used to, they fall out over tactics and ethics - but here, the ethical issue is whether one can justify the extermination of another intelligent species, whatever its dietary requirements.

The suggestion that the hunter might not be so different from the hunted was there in the original Dracula novel, but in Ultraviolet it's a central theme: the bite of a vampire can turn you into an inhuman killer, but, as Michael learns, joining up with the opposition can do the same. Last week's Kafka-esque episode saw a woman trapped between one side and the other. It was genuinely disturbing, and we didn't see a vampire at all until the last five minutes.

Joe Ahearne has a sharp eye for all the dramatic possibilities that creep into view when you apply vampire lore to a contemporary setting. We know that vampires don't show up in mirrors, for example, so what about video surveillance footage or airport X-rays or, in last week's chiller, prenatal ultrasound scans? And if someone returns from the dead as a vampire, can they be said to be dead at all? How would they feel about the spouse they left alive, and vice versa? Ahearne poses these questions with such ingenuity that you hardly notice that they are being asked about a non-existent subject.

Something has to be amiss, though, when a drama about ruthless vampire- slayers is more plausible than one about police work, and so it is with Ultraviolet and Undercover Heart. The latter series, with Daniela Nardini, specifically recalls This Life in its clever opening sequence. Five people put on their glad rags and make-up for an evening out: four of them get together for a cosy dinner party, the fifth walks the streets as a prostitute. For the next ten minutes, though, all thoughts of crime are forgotten, and there is no indication of the party-goers' jobs as they knock back the red wine (where would a Nardini heroine be without it?) and talk about their relationships. The schtick of Undercover Heart is that it uncovers its protagonists' private lives, or rather the point where the personal and the professional clash and tangle.

Stephen Mackintosh plays Nardini's husband, a vice squad man who is undercover as a pimp when one of his prostitutes is murdered. Almost an honorary This Lifer, he's cut from the same cloth as Jack Davenport - and if their shared fashion sense is anything to go by, that cloth is black leather. He and Nardini mutter the bumpy dialogue with all the conviction they can muster, but Peter Bowker's script has too many hang-on-a-second stumbling blocks to let the action flow. A husband and wife stationed together? A blind date where the woman doesn't let on to the man that she, like he, is in the force, even though we are repeatedly told how brutally honest she is? And, oddest of all, a little girl who wants a PEP for her ninth birthday? Quick, someone, put a mirror in front of her and check if she has a reflection.