Edge of Darkness

Tagged: Film | TV

1. UK television miniseries (1985). BBC TV with Lionheart Television International. Produced by Michael Wearing, directed by Martin Campbell, written by Troy Kennedy Martin. Cast includes Bob Peck as Ronald Craven, Joanne Whalley as Emma Craven, Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, Charles Kay as Pendleton, Ian McNeice as Harcourt, Zoë Wanamaker as Clementine. Music by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen. Six 50-minute episodes.

This miniseries is among the best television dramas ever made, a judgement that has been repeated by many critics during the decades since it was premiered on BBC2.

Ronald Craven, a widower with one daughter, Emma, is a police detective in Yorkshire. He is walking Emma to the house from the garage on a rainy night when a man in ambush kills her with a shotgun. The police first see it as a simple payback which went wrong. Craven was an obvious target, having made many enemies in Northern Ireland by having quite a few hard cases jailed. However, going through Emma's belongings, he finds a gun and a Geiger counter, and it turns out her body has been heavily irradiated. In London, Craven is told by Pendleton, who has an unspecified post in the Prime Minister's Office, that Emma was a known terrorist.

The next four episodes gradually unwrap an unsavoury conspiracy about storage of heavily contaminated nuclear fuel (see Pollution) and the possible manufacture of nuclear Weapons in a disused mining complex; this facility, Northmoor, is officially only for storage of low-level radioactive waste. A US businessman, Grogan, is seeking to buy it from the British company that owns it. Emma turns out to have been working with a group called Gaia – founded by enigmatic CIA agent Darius Jedburgh – searching for evidence that the government is involved in covering up the true nature of Northmoor. A group of six, including Emma, had attempted to reach Northmoor from beneath, via the old mine complex; three of them never emerged. The more Craven discovers, the more he feels the need to get into Northmoor himself, and in an unlikely but convincing partnership, he agrees to take Jedburgh with him. They successfully reach a storeroom containing plutonium rods.

At the level of narrative, all this is sufficiently gripping; but the drama's excellence is located elsewhere, though Troy Kennedy Martin's spare script gives a solid base to build on. Much of what makes the series so gripping, however, is unexpected. What suffuses the first episode and never goes away is grief. Bob Peck's performance is unusually silent; the camera frequently lingers on his face, and he has the ability to speak volumes with the merest flicker in his impassiveness, like an Easter Island statue on the verge of coming to life. It is hard to instance any other thriller on television whose strongest emotion is grief rather than rage or lust for revenge.

Aspects of Martin's script are transgressive by the standards of 1985 or even today – as when, searching for insight into Emma's life, Craven finds a vibrator; he raises it to his lips and kisses it. With another actor a subliminal incest theme might have intruded here. With Peck there's no trace of anything more than its being, simply, a part of her and to be cherished. All this is accompanied by the eerie, slow chords of Eric Clapton's guitar in a well-judged, moving theme – only a few minutes long – variations of which are used throughout. The other music central to the atmosphere of the series is a recurrent rendition of Willie Nelson's surreal 1975 song "Time of the Preacher", first heard when Craven plays a record of it while he is searching Emma's room. The lyrics end: "It was the time of the preacher / In the year of 01 / Now the lesson is over / And the killing's begun." The song plays a faintly sinister, equivocal role in the bonding of Craven and Jedburgh.

The most significant recurrence may be Emma's. She remains so alive in Craven's head that we are able to see her also, though there's no suggestion that she is a ghost; she is simply a projection of her father's mind, giving advice from "Put it on the cold cycle first" (of the washing machine), to her wake-up call of "Be strong like a tree", to her coming to her dying father almost at the end to explain that Gaia, the spirit of the planet, will save Earth from its enemy, humanity. "The planet will protect itself", says Emma, after it has been made clear by the story that humanity will not. Gaia will propagate flowers in cold places which will spread; being black, they will store heat, and kill millions of people by melting the ice caps. Troy Kennedy Martin was much influenced at this time by Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), a very influential book by climate scientist James Lovelock.

Although the end of Edge of Darkness is sf of a sort, it is somewhat fantastic science and its feelgood notion that Gaia can heal the world is a sentimental idea in a story that is notably tough-minded elsewhere. However the black flowers are such a powerful visual image that Edge of Darkness survives the lapse. The miniseries is also sf in a more obvious way, in that the Near Future Dystopia was becoming a popular subgenre, particularly in New Wave sf.

Aside from Craven, the other great character invention is Joe Don Baker's Darius Jedburgh. It is a splendidly larger-than-life performance, witty and bitter, calculating and brave and murderous. Jedburgh's greatest moment comes when he addresses a conference (in the famous golfing hotel, Gleneagles) of NATO-sponsored members of the Military-Industrial Establishment. Grogan speaks before him, and it becomes clear that Kennedy Martin's loathing for people who wish to "colonize the solar system" and reach "the High Frontier" is ironically a sidelong attack on one particular kind of sf in a television series that is itself science fictional. During his lecture, Jedburgh produces two plutonium rods he has stolen from Northmoor, holding one in each hand. The audience becomes uneasy and then panicky, and all except Grogan rush outside. Jedburgh moves the rods closer together, causing them to go critical and give Grogan an appropriate death sentence. It is the Time of the Preacher.

Edge of Darkness is of its era, when there was much talk about government secrecy, unanswered questions, worry about the use of nuclear weapons, and the growing feeling of many, some in her own party, that Margaret Thatcher was a divisive national leader. Meanwhile President Reagan in the USA had been touting a "Star Wars" policy of spending billions of dollars on laser weapons that could allegedly shoot down incoming missiles. The producers feared that the miniseries might be rendered out of date before it was completed. There is no question about the series being political; it is transparently so. Even though the BBC has guarantees of complete independence from government, it must still have felt risky to make the series. It is difficult to imagine a modern equivalent of Edge of Darkness being made today. Though the 1980s are not generally remembered as a period of freedom in the United Kingdom, in some respects it was easier to criticize authority then than now.

Edge of Darkness was replayed on BBC1 astonishingly soon after its original launch on BBC2, a measure of how highly the BBC regarded it. It won numerous awards, including a record-breaking six first places in the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards for 1986. [PN]

2. Film (2010). Warner Bros Pictures/GK Films/BBC Films/Icon Films. Director Martin Campbell. Written by William Monahan, Andrew Bovell, based on the television series of the same title by Troy Kennedy Martin. Cast includes Mel Gibson as Thomas Craven, Ray Winstone as Darius Jedburgh, Danny Huston as Jack Bennett and Bojana Novakovic as Emma Craven. 117 minutes. Colour.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle, converting a television miniseries that ran for 300 minutes to a film that would not exceed 120 minutes. They used Campbell again as director; they used a celebrated actor, Mel Gibson, as star, and although he was at a nadir in his career he did a reasonable job. The storyline, however, does not advance into new territory as the television original had done. It is much simpler, more violent physically and less violent emotionally, and deploys standard conspiracy tropes: the corrupt businessman who works hand in glove with a corrupt US senator; the vengeful Hero who like a force of nature cannot be stopped; the readiness of the conspirators to murder (sometimes with poison) anyone who gets in their way. The film has little of its original's visual subtlety. Jedburgh remains an interesting character, and is given an amusingly violent double-cross to precede his rather sad death scene. Despite good intentions, it is a routine film, replacing the manipulative but sometimes charismatic villains of the television version with familiar Clichés from central casting. Campbell, 25 years later, was not the director he had once been, though as recently as 2005 he had pleased the critics with the James Bond movie Casino Royale. [PN]


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.