Saturday, September 10, 2005

Classic viewing: "Edge of Darkness" (BBC DVD)

Undoubtedly one of the best BBC TV dramas ever made, “Edge of Darkness” first screened in 1985 and reflects the dark mood and preoccupations of the time.

Starting with a simple tale of human tragedy, the plot slowly widens to encompass national and international concerns. Bob Peck delivers an extraordinarily controlled and nuanced performance as Yorkshire detective Ron Craven whose young daughter, Emma, is gunned down outside their home. Still grief-stricken, Craven discovers a handgun and a Geiger counter in Emma’s room. Was the gunman after him, or his daughter?

As Craven makes his own investigation of her death, several strands slowly come together: his own past in counter-terrorism in Northern Island, his daughter’s environmental activism and the current inquiry he is meant to be conducting into a rigged election at a Yorkshire mine refitted as a low-grade nuclear waste containment centre. These threads come to form one line of inquiry, taking him inexorably into the heart of a trans-national nuclear state.

What unfolds is, in effect, an extremely intelligent five-and-half hour action film mixing espionage, conspiracy theories, environmentalism and a touch of science-fiction. Quietly compelling, it is made with astonishing attention to detail. It uses both silence, and a terrific score by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton, to great effect.

It has a gorgeous sense of surrealism as well: two frighteningly, clinically British spies (one all army charm, the other a glumly FT-reading lawyer) are funded by the Endowment for the Arts as “strolling players”; while larger-than-life Texan CIA man Darius Jedburg (Joe Don Baker) is obsessed with golf and British ballroom dancing.

But, as one review brilliantly puts it:
“The moment that most lingers in the mind is the sequence where Baker and Peck find a [disused] bomb shelter buried deep in [a] nuclear plant. Fine wine, the best books, and, of course, a classic motor car. The two settle down for a gourmet dinner.

“It's hypnotic enough for its oddity alone, but what is even more striking is that this relaxation occurs in the middle of a fraught chase sequence. Character development amid the action? Doesn't happen these days.”

Watching it again, I was amazed how much I recalled from seeing it as a kid in Australia. It holds up amazingly well, and its commentary on the links between industry, energy and the military and the way a society deals with terrorism and ecological concerns are also still more than relevant. Really excellent viewing, even if the parts of the final episode (“Fusion”) are a little melodramatic.

Further reading: Wikipedia, DVD Times, imdb, BBC Cult TV.

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