Saturday Matinee: Danger UXB

It was a commenter here at that reminded us of this classic British TV series. Set in World War II, it follows the exploits and characters of the officer (one Brian Ash, played by Anthony Andrews) and men of 347 Section (Bomb Disposal), 87 Tunneling Company, Royal Engineers.

Brian Ash is a complicated and deep character, Everyman thrust into a realm of absurd and frightful “perverted science.” We do not meet him in the opening scenes: instead, we watch another bomb-disposal officer working on a fuze, ultimately trying to remove its locking ring with a hammer and chisel. And then — we cut from this scene to a happy young man driving an MG down wooded lanes. It is Brian Ash, and we are there with him as he finds out that he has been assigned to bomb disposal.

“Don’t you have to, er, volunteer for that?” Ash asks nervously.

“No, not really,” his superior tells him. But “Don’t worry. You’ll pick it up as you go.”

The time is 1940, the Blitz is on, and the British are coming to tems with their lack of preparation. The Tunneling Company was a relic of Great War static trench warfare, and so they were seized upon by planners and thrown into the blitz’s time-delayed underside. “Before the war,” several characters note at different times, “everyone assumed that all bombs dropped would, you know, go off. Everyone was wrong.”

There is a good bit on the technical side of the weapons they face and fear. The bomb themselves are inert as hammers — if the bomb tech can remove the fuze and the gaine safely. But at the start of the blitz, there was little technical knowledge and no known render-safe procedures. They had to be developed on the fly. We meet the ordinary Type 13 electric fuze, the time-delay Type 15, the anti-handling Type 17 and the terrifying Type 50, designed specifically to kill British bomb disposal crews. You see a bit of the technological “wizards’ war,” which is personified by an eccentric scientist whose daughter becomes Ash’s love interest.

Each episode cuts jarringly between events in normal London or country life, and the daily grind of bomb disposal. Most bombs are routine and can be blown in place. Only those that are most hazardously placed need to be rendered safe and removed. So each bomb that must be defused is not only high-stakes for the bomb disposal officer, but also for others.

The acting is great. Anthony Andrews is an underrated but quite excellent actor, and he’s perfect in the role of Brian Ash. The supporting actors hold up the film with the stolidity of rugby props. The late Jeremy Sinden (trivia note: one of the voices singing, “na na na nanana na” in the chorus of the Beatles’ Hey Jude) is picture perfect as a fun-loving but more experienced officer, Ivor Rogers, who shows Ash the ropes, and later succeeds to the command of the company. Scots actor Maurice RoĆ«ves is so perfect as the experienced Sergeant James that we checked his bio for evidence of military service (and found it).

Each episode has its own internal rhythm and pacing. Some are upbeat, some are dark, some end with a mixed feeling. All are intensely human. Best of all they’re all on a single set of four DVDs, available for under $20 from Amazon. Can you beat that? We can’t. This series gets our highest recommendation.

(Note: hastily published. Hope to add graphics and maybe polish text later).