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Edge of Darkness (BBC)

Keeping with the theme of nuclear annihilation that began with Doctor Strangelove yesterday, I’m taking a look at Edge of Darkness, the BBC serial which was recently remade into a (reportedly disappointing) Mel Gibson film. Directed by Martin Campbell, who would go on to save Bond twice (with GoldenEye and Casino Royale) and is directing the upcoming Green Lantern, Edge of Darkness was something of a phenomenon in British television during the eighties. Originally broadcast on BBC 2, it was popular enough that it garnered a repeat on the parent station (BBC 1) within days. That’s something practically unheard of. And, yes, it’s just that good.

How does Detective Craven bear the loss of his child?

I bemoan the state of Irish television quite frequently. Perhaps more often than I should. I’m not expecting the type of consistently original broadcasting that we get from the United States (although we do get the bloody reality television shows); I’m not demanding RTE turn into HBO or anything so ridiculous. To be absolutely honest, I’m expecting something like this. To put it in context, Edge of Darkness was produced during the last recession by the BBC for broadcast on their secondary channel. And we have never produced anything half as interesting to be broadcast on our own primary channel, even in the boom years.

The plot – at its most basic – follows Detective Rodney Craven, after the death of his daughter Emma at the hands of a gunman waiting to ambush them at home one night. However, his inquiries lead in several… interesting directions. Some point to Craven’s shady history managing informers in Northern Ireland, while others point to something altogether more sinister. And yet, it’s how the movie deals with a father’s grief which sets it apart immediately out of the gate. The bulk of the first episode is spent in silence, with Ronald coming to terms with his loss.

However, the case evolves into something far more sinister. Beginning with the revelation that his daughter’s body was radioactive, Ronald finds himself tracing the threads through the environmental lobby, leading to some very dodgy activity happening at a British nuclear facility at Northmoor. Before Ronald knows what’s happening, he’s finding himself mingling with British intelligence and Darius Jedburgh, the “energy attaché” to the American embassy (“straight-up CIA”).

This serial will rock your world...

What’s truly remarkable about the serial is how skilfully and magnificently it sets itself up. It runs for six episodes, but it perfectly balances its elements. Despite the tendency with such conspiracy-driven dramas, the serial manages to seem intimate – focusing perfectly on Detective Craven’s angst and guilt – and yet manages to perfectly foreshadow all its twists and turns. Indeed, Campbell and writer Troy Kennedy Martin manage to perforate every frame with an impending sense of nuclear dread even before that angle to the case has been mentioned. It seems that the cast inhabits a world tittering on the edge of nuclear annihilation, with televisions buzzing in the background on the subject (featuring Margaret Thatcher discussing the necessity of Trident or a Panorama special on Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars scheme).

It’s perhaps because of that organic evolution – the fact the concepts that become crucial later on are seeping through the celluloid from almost the first frame – but the series never seems quite as hokey as it probably should. Indeed, writer Troy Kennedy Martin famously summed up his original script as “about a cop who turns into a tree”. And I’m not talking metaphorically. The original draft of the script literally ended with Detective Craven turned into a tree. Rumour has it that star Bob Peck – seemingly believing that his days of playing a tree were best left in primary school – curtly informed the writer that, “I’m not turning into a f***ing tree”. Damn straight. Perhaps it would have been too much mysticism for one BBC miniseries – nailing the ecological colours to the mast.

And yet if the transformation itself is gone, it remained ticking away in the background – like much of the strange ethereal spirituality which underpins the movie. Craven is, according to his dead daughter, “like a tree”. According to a psychiatrist in the second half – about the point where things take a turn for the surreal – Craven “identifies himself with a tree”, he has an “arboreal passion”. Of course, the emphasis on Willie Nelson’s music The Time of the Preacher, hinted at this sort of pseudo-mystical bent to proceedings early on.

Of course, the miniseries enjoys its nearly six hour runtime to introduce these ideas gradually, so the viewer isn’t immediately overwhelmed. Indeed, the introduction of Emma’s spirit – which accompanies Ronald on his quest begins as something slightly more understandable. Originally it’s the echoes of sentiments from long ago in an empty house, half-remembered whispers from her childhood or her growing up. Gradually these evolve into statements and idea that Craven himself could never have heard, and eventually into discussions between Ronald and Emma. Is she his subconscious, piecing together ideas that he couldn’t consciously fathom? Is she his daughter’s spirit, hanging on in order to impart some vital information? Or is she a spiritual guide wearing his daughter’s face? Or is she something else entirely?

The miniseries is steeped in images of Thatcher’s Britain, and very much a product of its time (although it so skilfully introduces the ideas that even someone unfamiliar with British socio-political history can get a feeling for the time and place). It opens with a trade union disputes – we are reminded that we’re always on “the brink of another strike”. Even the government is crippled by oil-related disputes – the intelligence services themselves only use their Mercedes “on posh occasions”. This is a whole other world.

Bob Peck never phoned it in...

And yet, the series remains strangely relevent. Looking back at the eighties and based on the description above – particularly the nuclear angle and references to Star Wars – one might be forgiven for assuming the series has aged poorly. However, much of the series’ content remains strangely relevent, from its general environmental undertones to its insecurity about the blurring of the lines between the public and private sectors. As the script wryly observes, the threat comes not from foreign governments, but rather the multinational corporations who are adopting the roles traditionally associated with government.

Perhaps, however, the greatest appeal of the series can be found with its star, Bob Peck. Peck is probably best known to international audiences for his role as a game warden in Jurassic Park, but Edge of darkness undoubtedly represents his finest work. He carries the serial effortlessly, delivering the raw emotion which powers it through most of its runtime. His central performance as Craven is perfect and perhaps the finest aspect of a production that is, honestly, magnificent on so many other levels.

Of course, that’s not to dismiss his supporting cast. Joe Don Baker (who would go on to work with director Campbell on GoldenEye) takes big Joe-Don-Baker-sized chunks out of the scenery as CIA agent Darius Jedburgh, a wonderful creation who manages to exist beyond the crass American stereotype he was likely intended to evoke. This is a man who regards his posting in the United Kingdom as an assignment in the “third world”, or whose idea of blending in with the natives is driving a white Rolls Royce while wearing a cowboy hat, and who absolutely adores the BBC show Come Dancing, all while worrying about the state of our golf courses. The rest of the cast is suitably impressive, from spooks Ian McNeice and Zoe Wanamaker to Black Adder star Tim McInnerny as a young socialist. It just drips of class, and is a testament to the quality of British television actors.

Campbell’s direction is equally impressive. He takes the story across the length and breadth of Britain, from the quiet surroundings of Yorkshire to the urban jungle of London to the House of Commons to the mines under a nuclear facility. No wonder he was pegged as a suitable James Bond director after this. All the while, Campbell shows the same finesse which would serve him well as a big screen director. As much as the miniseries is driven by ecological concerns, Campbell’s intimate direction grants the series a personal perspective. From the exploration of a father’s grief in the first episode through to smaller moments like Craven reading the newspaper on a chair covered in a white cloth (to hide the blood splatter), the show balances the thread perfectly.

And this is saying nothing of the wonderful ambient score, featuring wailing guitars and mournful bass to beat the band, provided by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen. It honestly wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Miami Vice, but still adds a layer of mournful foreboding to proceedings. Nobody who listens to the music in the opening sequence of the first episode has an excuse for expecting a life-affirming drama. It’s really top class.

Edge of Darkness is a television classic, and an example of just what television is capable of that film isn’t. In adapting his work for the big screen, Campbell demonstrated that sometimes television allows a concept space and room to breath that just isn’t possible in a two-hour film. Troy Kennedy Martin was reportedly amazed that – with its overt and critical political content – the BBC had ever agreed to make the series, but they should be proud that they did. It might not be perfect – it veers a little too far into mystical territory in its second half with “black flowers” and such – but it’s pretty damn good, and one of the finest examples of eighties drama you’re ever going to see.

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2 Responses

  1. I agree with everything you say about Edge of Darkness – it’s totally brilliant on all levels and pretty much my favourite T.V. Drama of all time. Only thing is, so many even positive reviewers, seem to have a problem with the Black Flowers. Personally I thought that whole concept was incredibly important and beautiful to boot. It’s actually referred to several times during the series (Gaia is the Goddess of Mother Earth, by the way), and makes the point that even if it’s highly undesirable and unwise to destroy our ecosystem, nonetheless the Planet is actually quite likely to survive, even if we do not. I don’t actually consider this to be mystical at all. Great Review.

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