Joe Ahearne (2005)
Here’s an interview with Joe Ahearne about his great UK vampire TV series, Ultraviolet, which was about the only decent home-grown genre thing Britain produced in the 90s. When I did this interview in 2005, it was already old news and Ahearne had move on to Doctor Who, so this was, and still is, a retrospective. I’d actually interviewed him about it twice or so beforehand, and visited the set way back when I was a young cub-nerd reporter with even worse hair than I have now. But at least I had some then, I suppose.
Originally published in SFX Special Edition 22.
The drought had lasted for a long, long time. We’d been holding our heads up for a promising cloud drifted over, only for it to deliver a feeble spattering of drops. The TV landscape was as dry of good genre programming as the Sahara is of Pimms.
Cast your mind back to 1998. We were nearing the end of the decade, a decade that had furnished us with the unambitious Goodnight Sweetheart, the cheap and cheerful BUGS, and the diabolical Crime Traveller. Doctor Who was long dead, the BBC refusing to bring it back. Producers who dared poke their heads above the parapets to tout SF fare shirked from calling it such, it was the genre that dared not speak its name. “We don’t do big-budget fantastical television very well, best leave it to the Americans,” many programme makers said. The BBC’s hugely expensive Invasion Earth had just aired. At £1 million an episode, and with less than stellar ratings, it seemed they were right. The flop of the Doctor Who pilot two years earlier hadn’t helped. It was the time of the cosy, clichéd Sunday night drama with vets, cops, nurses and farmers falling over each other in 1950s Yorkshire. That time looked set to last forever.
But then came a show that proved you could do decent telefantasy on a British budget and not have it look like it was made of milk bottle tops. It took a perennial horror theme, that of vampires, and put a new spin on it, a spin that would soon be echoed by the likes of Buffy and Blade. That show was Ultraviolet.
“I wrote it because I am very interested in television with a strong visual element,” says writer-director Joe Ahearne, arguably one of the hottest properties on the now revived UK genre scene. “I was always more interested in being a director than a writer, but I wrote it simply because there was nothing like that out there at the time. It was the kind of thing I wanted to direct.”
Ahearne, a softly spoken chap who often breaks into a gentle laugh as he speaks, had been working on a short film with actors Siobhan Redmond and Neil Pearson, then stars of cop drama Between the Lines. They put him in touch with John Heyman and Tony Garnette of World Productions, producers of the series. He submitted a draft of a vampire show of about four pages, and they were interested. Rather than make his show right off, they offered him a gig working on the second series of This Life. The lad who’d wanted to be a director had so impressed them with his writing that he found himself penning two episodes, and he got his wish, flexing his directorial muscles, being behind the camera on three. Once he’d proven himself on that though, the greenlight was ignited, and Ultraviolet moved into production for Channel 4.
“That was my big break rather, than Ultraviolet. Even though I wrote and directed the whole of Ultraviolet. This life was bigger, it was more in the public conscience,” he says.
This Life star Jack Davenport, who played the slightly priggish Miles, was paired with Susannah Harker as part of a secret government department tasked with hunting down the undead (interestingly, in real life Harker is descended from the man who inspired Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula). In the show Davenport’s character, Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield, is pitched from normal life of blissful ignorance into a terrifying world where vampires are real when his best friend, Jack Beresford, disappears on the night before his wedding. These bloodsuckers weren’t the languid fops we were used to, quaffing blood like absinthe, but predators in snappy suits who had coexisted with humanity for centuries, only, as the show slowly, terrifyingly revealed, we were making so much of a balls-up of the planet that they’d decided to and boot Homo Sapiens from the driving seat.
The series’ great innovation came in taking it all terribly, terribly seriously. The guys hunting the vampires were grim-faced pros who had severed all ties with their previous lives to hunt down the creatures who had, naturally, done them some wrong. The vampires themselves were dangerous businessmen pursuing a hostile corporate takeover of Planet Earth Inc. The board was set, but it wasn’t the vampires that Ahearne focussed on, but their pawns.
“We found that once you’ve worked out how these people hunt vampires, there isn’t much mileage figuring out who is a vampire and who isn’t, they can find out with their gadgets. As we developed the stories from episode one we decided it was much more interesting to look at the contested characters; the humans helping the vampires.”
These ranged from folk who didn’t want to age – like the man whose mother had Alzheimer’s – to members of the team itself. In a great twist, it transpired Michael’s new boss, Father Pearse Harman (Philip Quast) was dying, and he is offered the vampire’s kiss. In this way Ahearne tackled several fairly weighty issues – from global warming to paedophilia – without ever over-relying on the vampires themselves. In fact, the word “vampire” is never once uttered throughout the show, the creatures of the night simply being referred to as “Code 5’s”. V for vampire, V for five in Roman numerals. The show is littered with similar clevernesses.
Ultraviolet’s use of intermediary human characters foreshadowed the later Blade film series, as it also did in its use of hi-tech vampire bashing gadgets. The members of Ultraviolet used carbon dum-dum bullets (wood, with little crosses on the tips) and alicin spray (derived from garlic). Even better, Ahearne took the idea that vampires couldn’t be seen in mirrors and extended it to modern technology – the vampire hunters carried video detectors on their guns which enabled them to determine who was a vampire and who was not. The vampires also could not be heard over electronic devices. It was so original, and the show had a substantial impact on the way vampires were represented on film and television.
“I don’t know if it really was that big an influence,” says Ahearne. “It came out here before Buffy and Blade, so it was before people had seen that kind of thing, seen vampires treated in that kind of way, though David Goyer did cite the show as an influence, which was very gratifying to hear!”
The show parts company with these American imports there. Whereas Blade and Buffy both rely on special effects, Ultraviolet deliberately avoided the use of them, having just a few in each episode.
“The trouble is, they cost so much,” says Ahearne. “Even something as seemingly straightforward as car chase takes time and money to do. When you’re shooting six hours of TV on a short timescale, you just can’t do it, even though Ultraviolet was an expensive series. I think that’s one of the big advantages of writing my own stuff, though I sometimes prefer to film someone else’s, it lets you know exactly what you can achieve from the outset. You’re not going to sit there and write ‘insert action sequence’ if you know from directing that it won’t be possible under the constraints of a TV schedule. And I think it’s the same with CG. Obviously now you can do a lot more than you could even seven years ago, but that takes time. If you give people weeks and loads of cash then they’ll come up with something really amazing, but often they don’t have that luxury so you end up with something that, well, still looks like a rubber monster!”
It may have been done for purely pragmatic reasons, but Ahearne’s reluctance to go the route of the big bang means that Ultraviolet has not become dated, something Ahearne points out happen to many older shows (he once said Blake’s 7, respected at the time, now looks like “A joke”, for example). In fact Ultraviolet still looks fresh, primarily due to Ahearne’s directorial style and his clever use of dusk and dawn light. However, this was something that made it all a little bit difficult.
“Shooting TV is not like making a film. You can’t go back and do it again if the light’s not right, and that’s another thing we had to take into account when writing the episodes. Originally the show was going to be about a vampire detective, but then I realised that it would all have to be night shoots, and that is hard. Even Ultraviolet, which we shot large parts of during the day, was logistically complicated. It was very hard work, especially directing all six episodes. That’s not something you usually do on a series like that, so it was very tiring.”
Nevertheless, as the series’ placing here demonstrates, it was all worth it. Sadly, despite its success, Channel 4 did not commission a sequel to the story. “I don’t know why,” says Ahearne, “it was one of the most successful dramas in its timeslot. Maybe they just weren’t interested. But I’m just very happy it came in the top ten here. I wasn’t aware that it had much of a life after it was shown. I mean, it’s not like Doctor Who, so I’m glad it’s still got a following.”
Its success was noted on the other side of the Atlantic. Following a route that was to become all-too familiar in following years, Ultraviolet was snapped up by the Americans to be turned into a slick, fast-paced vampire show.
“I think there was only a pilot,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in it at all. What happened was the company, World Productions, who made it sold the rights. They took Idris Elba [who played Vaughn Rice, one of Michael’s colleagues] from the British version, so there was a presence there, and I think they used quite a lot of my material for the first couple of scripts. But the problem is that I wrote Ultraviolet as a series – actually, I prefer miniseries, because if it were a series, with only six episodes, it wouldn’t have been regarded as very successful!” he laughs. “But I’d done what I wanted to do with it. If you make a series in America, it has to be able to run for five or six years, you’ve got to come up with something that can really run and run and run, because it is only when it gets into syndication that it makes its money. The thing I did wasn’t designed to do that, so I think the American version was designed as a sexy vampire soap. No criticism there,” he says, honestly meaning it, “because you have to make something that will run, and there wasn’t enough story material in mine for that. I don’t know why it didn’t work, but it didn’t.”
With no sequel forthcoming, Ahearne later went on to direct another genre treat, the sophisticated and quite scary Strange. Starring the curly headed (and surprisingly non-Welsh, after his turn in BBC2’s Coupling) Richard Coyle as a sort of ex-priestly demon-hunting Doctor Who, Strange, written by Andrew Marshall, ripped up the carpets of reality to show us all the paranormal nasties lurking beneath. Ahearne, with his dual-stranded career as writer/ director now ell-established, brought a lot to the six episodes as director.
“Because I write, when I’m directing someone else’s work, I don’t mess around with it. Although many TV companies like to put writer/directors to work on scripts that they haven’t written, I always try and respect what someone else has written, I think if they wrote something then that’s what they meant, they don’t want you to go and change it.” The show marked a bit of a departure for him, as he had been primarily a comedy writer, working on a string of BBC hits, from bizarre 1980’s laugh-fest The Kenny Everett Television Show to the wryly amusing 2point4 Children. “He is a really funny guy,” says Ahearne. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine the creator of the George Cole vehicle Dad penning a show about demons, but pen it he did and it worked well. There was to be no second season for this series either.
“Strange was different to Ultraviolet,” says Ahearne. “Again it was a very expensive show, but I don’t think it was quite as successful. It was a bit more exposed than Ultraviolet, the BBC put it out at 9.00 – prime time, so it had more to prove. Ultraviolet was always going to be a bit culty going out when it did. But it’s very difficult to decide where to pitch your show, what slot it fits into.” Indeed, perhaps this lack of an easy pigeonhole may explain why there was a lengthy gap between the initial pilot and the series.
Right now Ahearne is prepping for his next big project - Double Life, a film starring Christopher Eccleston, late of Doctor Who fame. Produced by Sophie Belhetchet, who got Ultraviolet on screen, it is a story of obsessive love with an SF twist.
“It’s difficult to describe what it is without giving too much of the plot away,” says Ahearne. “And I don’t want to do that. We’re at too early a stage. But it does have SF elements to it. It’s more about love and relationships really, but I think I will probably look at it and describe it as a genre piece,” he says, explaining his caginess, but Ahearne is not being trying to divert us, nor is he trying to cast wide the net of appeal. It’s not a case of “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction, not science-fiction”, as the producer of The Last Train said to SFX. This is not a man who is afraid of genre labels. “It’s just that it’s one of those dramas where the SF doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story so you don’t really want to describe it as such. We will, be able to talk about it in more detail in a few weeks, but not right now.”
The film starts shooting in Budapest later this year, set for a theatrical release in 2006. We’ll just have to see how SF the flick will be, but if one thing is certain, Joe Ahearne – the man who helped end the genre drought on British television – will not disappoint us.
Ahearne on Doctor Who
“I was really happy to get the job on Doctor Who,” Ahearne says. Something everyone who worked on it felt, no doubt, as rumour has it people were very keen to be involved. “I don’t know what to say about it without saying the same old thing, there’s only so much you can say about working on a TV show where everyone’s happy to be there and working hard. It was a bit of a reunion for me, actually, as the production designer on Ultraviolet, John Bellington, worked on Doctor Who. I had a similar problem with him too! He made such a good job of the incarceration chamber on Ultraviolet that I was always disappointed I’d not set more scenes in there, but by the time I saw it it was too late to change the script. It was the same with the TARDIS, the set was amazing, and huge, and I thought it a shame there weren’t more bits in my episodes in it. But you can’t dictate to the characters where they’re going to go, they go where the story needs them to be,” he says. He is full of praise for the cast and crew. “Russell T Davies got a great team together, and Christopher Eccleston is such a great actor, that I don’t think they could have done it any better than they did.”
But it wasn’t all roses, at first, Ahearne was only booked for a couple of episodes, but in the end did six – “Bad Wolf”, “Boom Town”, “Dalek”, “Father’s Day”, and “The Parting of the Ways”. All the really cool ones, you might think, but Ahearne points out a problem with it. “When you do that many episodes, it takes a lot of time. They did all of it in Cardiff, pre-production, post-production, everything. It took nine months, which meant I had to move there, basically, so it was hard being away from home so long. But,” he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice, “I don’t think for a man like me, who’s interested in visual spectacle, you could have better job than directing episodes of Doctor Who where he’s fighting the Daleks.”