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Edge of Darkness

Entry updated 8 July 2022. Tagged: Film, TV.

1. UK television miniseries (1985). BBC TV, Lionheart Television International. Produced by Michael Wearing, directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin. Cast includes Joe Don Baker, Hugh Fraser, Charles Kay, Ian McNeice, Kenneth Nelson, Bob Peck, Zoë Wanamaker, Jack Watson, Joanne Whalley, John Woodvine. Music by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen. Six 50-minute episodes. Colour.

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 (Peck), a widower with one daughter, 21-year-old Emma (Whalley), is a police detective in Bradford (various Yorkshire locations were used). He is walking her into the home they share on a rainy night when a man in ambush kills her with a shotgun. As he had made enemies in Northern Ireland through his previous undercover operations there,Craven was an obvious target, and his superior officer Ross (Woodvine) tells him a simple payback must have gone wrong, However, going through Emma's belongings, Craven finds a gun and a Geiger counter, and it turns out her body has been heavily irradiated. On her phonograph he finds and plays the first track Willie Nelson's Red Haired Stranger (1975), which is "Time of the Preacher". The lyrics as a whole resonate with Edge of Darkness, ending with a dark quatrain, "It was the time of the preacher / In the year of '01. / Now the lesson is over / And the killin's begun." The song can be understood as being about the fire to come. Craven begins to learn of Emma's association with the Ecological ginger group GAIA (in Troy Kennedy Martin's original script, Craven had already known of Emma's links with GAIA, but this was written out; hints of his prior knowledge, however, are retained in the finished film). Later, in London, where he is tracing down both the Irish connection and GAIA, he is told by Pendleton (Kay), who has an unspecified post in the Prime Minister's Office, that Emma was a known "terrorist".Craven also learns that, searching for evidence of the true nature of Northmoor, a group of six GAIA members, including Emma, had attempted to reach Northmoor from beneath, via the old mine complex; three of them never emerged.

The next four episodes gradually unwrap an unsavoury conspiracy about storage of heavily contaminated nuclear fuel (see Pollution) in a disused mining complex, and its uses in possible manufacture of nuclear Weapons; the facility, Northmoor, is officially only for storage of low-level radioactive waste. Taking advantage of the 1980s British neoliberal passion to privatize industries, the American billionaire president of the Fusion Corporation of Kansas, Jerry Grogan (Nelson), is seeking to buy Northmoor from International Irradiated Fuels, the British company that owns it, in collaboration with IIF's CEO Bennett (Fraser), in order to profit from its illicit (and highly dangerous) potential for the generation of an unparalleled Power Source that will be used to dominate the world. A UK government committee – whose members hide behind official secrecy doctrine to conceal their knowledge of Northmoor's true contents and function – now prepares to OK Grogan's takeover.

Meanwhile Craven is introduced to the transgressively roguish (and ultimately rogue) CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Baker), who had himself founded GAIA years earlier, possibly a covert operation his own government was unaware of. The more Craven discovers, partly with the aid of Jedburgh (Baker's grip on this complexly minatory role is hypnotic, and hilariously absorbing), the more he feels the need to get into Northmoor himself; Jedburgh, increasingly disillusioned with "the dark forces who would rule this planet", plans to accompany him. Deep Underground they successfully reach a damaged storeroom – the Geiger counters go crazy – containing plutonium rods, as well as an enclosed refuge stocked with fine wine and food (in storage but ready to cook), great paintings, masses of centuries-old bling: a sybaritic vision of Western civilization. Craven and Jedburgh share a repast, both of them aware that they may have already received fatal doses of radiation. They separate. Craven rings for help on an ancient dedicated telephone, and finds eerily that he has reached Downing Street; Jedburgh makes his own way to the surface with two rods of deadly plutonium, arriving at a convention centre in Scotland –the famous golfing hotel, Gleneagles – where to an audience of NATO-sponsored members of the Military-Industrial Establishment the triumphant Grogan is announcing his successful takeover of Northmoor, a prelude to a universal triumph of Technology: "For the first time in the history of the planet", he proclaims, "Man will be in charge"; it is, he adds, America's "Manifest Destiny to invade space", leading to a time when the solar system itself will become a "regime for the United States of America and her allies". Jedburgh then exposes the plutonium, bringing the two rods together in a blinding flash, fatally poisoning Grogan and (almost certainly) Bennett. It is the Time of the Preacher.

At the level of narrative, all this is sufficiently gripping; but the drama's excellence is located elsewhere, not only in Baker's bravura performance, but as importantly in Bob Peck's rending presentation of grief, which suffuses the first episode and never goes away. His performance is in fact unusually silent; the camera frequently lingers on his face, and the merest flicker in his countenance is eloquent, like a seemingly impassive Easter Island statue 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.

Over and above its political explicitness, and its gift of adult roles to fine actors in their prime – including Zoë Wanamaker in a subaltern role she graces – some other aspects of Martin's script are transgressive by the standards of 1985, or even today: as when, searching her room for insight into Emma's life, Craven finds a vibrator, raises it to his lips, kisses it, puts it down again. With another actor a subliminal incest theme might have extruded here. With Peck there's no trace of anything more than an act of reverence. All this is accompanied by the eerie, slow chords of Eric Clapton's score, particularly a central, moving theme for guitar – only a few minutes long – variations of which recur throughout, a use consonant with the ongoing diegetic presence of "The Time of the Preacher", which Craven and Jedburgh bond over.

Throughout, Emma remains alive in Craven's head, so alive it seems no shock that she remains intermittently visible, though there's no suggestion that she is a ghost; certainly at first, she is simply a projection of her father's mind, giving him advice from "Put it on the cold cycle first" (of the washing machine), to her wake-up call of "Be strong like a tree"; her various admonitions and reminders serve, in part, as they represent Craven speaking to himself, to hint at the extent and depth of his prior knowledge of the story he's locked into. At the end, however, a more substantial Emma comes to her dying father to explain that Gaia, the spirit of the planet which she now embodies, will save Earth from its enemy, humanity. "The planet will protect itself" as it has before, says Emma, through a planetwide propagation of low-albedo black flowers: and "This time it will melt the solar ice caps". Humanity will not survive this. 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, its notion that Gaia can heal the world through a profusion of flowers is a sentimental idea in a story that is notably tough-minded elsewhere. In the event, however, as the narrative comes to its exceedingly bleak climax, the black flowers become such a powerfully redemptive visual image that the tale survives the lapse. The miniseries is also sf in a more obvious way, turning at its close into a Near Future Dystopia of the sort becoming a popular subgenre, particularly in New Wave sf.

Edge of Darkness evokes its era, when there was much talk about government secrecy, unanswered questions, worry about the use of nuclear weapons, and a growing feeling of many, some in her own party, that Margaret Thatcher was a divisive national leader. At the same time, beginning in 1983, President Reagan in America had begun to tout a "Star Wars" policy, a "National Defense Initiative" which, at a cost of billions, would create laser weapons able to shoot down incoming missiles. In 1985, Grogan's Gleneagles speech was no more sf than what his president was saying. Even though the BBC had guarantees of complete independence from government, it must still have felt risky to make so transparently political a series.

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/JC]

2. Film (2010). Warner Bros Pictures, GK Films/BBC Films, Icon Films. Directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Andrew Bovell and William Monahan, based on the television series of the same title by Troy Kennedy Martin. Cast includes Mel Gibson, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic and Ray Winstone. 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 as Craven (Gibson), 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 (2005). [PN]


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