On Air: Ultra scary with a modern bite

Blood-sucking fiends are back on our screens - the undead are out to get us all.
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PUT IN descending order the following risks: unprotected sex with a stranger, eating a beefburger at a football match, or being bitten by a vampire.

A nip on the neck by someone with over-sized incisors obviously comes at the bottom of most sane people's lists, which is a problem for Joe Ahearne. A 35 year-old veteran of the BBC2 hit This Life, he has just written and directed a six-part series for Channel 4, Ultraviolet, that demands we take vampires seriously. That they are amongst us in considerable numbers. That they are organising.

"I wanted to ask the question what if vampires existed today - what would they look like and how would they live?" says Ahearne. "And what if, rather than the lone figure in most vampire stories, they had become organised. How would modern society respond to the threat - and what issues within today's society would be called into question?"

The vampires in Ultraviolet are organising because, for the first time in history, mankind has, according to this synopsis, the ability to destroy itself. CJD, E-coli and Aids are infecting their food source (an HIV infected vampire? Now there's a double menace).

Instead of allowing us to roam free range, as they have for centuries, they now want to farm humanity wholesale.

Jack Davenport, in his first role since playing libidinous lawyer Miles in This Life, takes the lead role of a policeman who is initiated into a special undercover squad whose job it is to track down and liquidate the undead (no stakes in the heart - they use carbon bullets). Susannah Harker - a direct descendent of Joseph Harker, spookily enough, a friend of Bram Stoker's and the inspiration for Jonathan Harker, the hero of Dracula - plays the only female member on the squad. She's a cancer specialist whose husband and son have been drafted into the ranks of the undead.

The credentials are excellent, in other words. But can we really get that unsettled by vampires, when there are real blood-borne killers out there on the streets of Britain?

"Vampires are obviously a fundamentally illogical concept," agrees Ahearne, a graduate of film school in Bristol (where David Puttnam was a tutor). "But, in this series, we have applied logic to the genre to see how far we can push it. It treats vampires seriously - not ironically, metaphorically, or even erotically - although anyone biting another person on the neck is intrinsically erotic."

That's a brave, or foolhardy, thing to do when one assesses how filmmakers have dealt with vampirism in the days since Hammer played it straight with Christopher Lee ("the Sean Connery of Draculas", according to Ahearne). Humour, metaphor and eroticism are the usual modi operandi, whether it be George Hamilton camping it up in Love at First Bite or Isabelle Adjani proffering her milk white neck in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu.

From The Hunger and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lost Boys to Fright Night, camp knowingness has been the tone taken by filmmakers to address the subject. However, when Ahearne took his original script idea to former BBC drama supremo, Tony Garnett, at World Productions, and told him that he wanted to play it straight, Garnett told Ahearne that he would not like it any other way. The perception was that vampires had had every last dreg of camp and eroticism sucked out of them already.

"I wanted to look at what unsettles people today," says Ahearne. "Some fears are age old, like dying, but the series includes modern terrors like Aids, genetic engineering and paedophilia. Blood, and what can be transferred in blood is heavily in people's consciousness these days.

"Also, people's concepts of evil have changed so much and I am interested in testing how 'good' characters might respond to the threat that vampires would pose. Are, indeed, vampires unremittingly evil?"

The blurred moral edges might sound all too modern, but Ultraviolet is a very long way from the cynical, smart-talking, twenty-something lawyers who dominated This Life. Ahearne scripted two of the episodes from the second (and final) series, and directed a further three.

His favourite line of dialogue, by the way, was one he wrote for Anna, when she was choosing gay character Warren's leaving present with an uneasy Miles. "Trying on a Versace is not the same as taking it up the bum," she says. So Ultraviolet has quite a lot to live up to.

'Ultraviolet' starts on Channel 4 tomorrow, at 10pm