Quality film news, reviews and features
12th March 2003 22:05:00
Posted by Eamonn McCusker

Edge Of Darkness

DVD Video Review

1985 seems like so long ago but if history serves only to educate us in one thing, it is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As a result, Edge Of Darkness is almost, but not quite, as pertinent now as it was then. In 1985, Reagan and Thatcher were in power, the Cold War was ongoing and Col. Muammar Qaddafi was being accused of state-sponsored acts of international terrorism. Public concerns over nuclear war were higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis and far from believing that 'duck and cover' would succeed in saving our lives, the two previous years had seen The Day After and Threads on television. Closer to home, with strikes across mining and manufacturing, race riots in the inner cities and protestors at Greenham Common, the UK seemed to be an uncomfortable place to live.

It was within this atmosphere Troy Kennedy Martin wrote Edge Of Darkness, filmed for the BBC by Martin Campbell, later to direct GoldenEye, and produced by Michael Wearing, who also produced Boys From The Blackstuff. Of the three, Troy Kennedy Martin was the major name, a writer well known within British film and television circles and who had been involved in the writing of Z Cars, The Italian Job, The Sweeney and Reilly, Ace Of Spies.Edge Of Darkness was first broadcast on BBC2 in six 50-minute episodes but due to the instant critical praise it received, it was repeated almost immediately on BBC1 in three 1hr40m episodes and repeated once again shortly after. Each time, the viewing audience grew unlike the pattern of declining viewers so typical of repeats.

It initially appeared to be a mini-series about Yorkshire CID Detective Ronald Craven's (Bob Peck), investigation into the murder of his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), a young scientist and member of an environmental pressure group. Soon, however, and before the end of the first of six episodes, Edge Of Darkness begins to essay consistent themes between historical conflicts and the nuclear currencies of the future, developing recurrent themes throughout man's history on a planet that regenerates to ensure its survival, ideas first proposed in Dr. James Lovelock's Gaia theory. Delve even deeper and Edge Of Darkness becomes layered with subplots examining national intelligence, Northern Irish politics, the secrecy of Government and an ancient rivalry between the Knights Templar and their brethren in the Teutonic Knights.

It should be apparent that Edge Of Darkness was not a series with humble ambitions and its placing at fifteenth in the British Film Institute's Top 100 Television is testament that it more than matched the challenge Troy Kennedy Martin placed on himself when he began work on it. In addition to its placing within the BFI's list, Edge Of Darkness continues to be fondly remembered by many of those who watched it, possibly due to the fact that in 1985, and even today, it is a wonderful example of the type of very high quality television the BBC can produce when under pressure to back up its public-service remit, funded by the licence fee. Much of this is beyond mere nostalgia - I challenge anyone to find someone who speaks so highly of 'Dear Heart' - as there does seem to be a popular view that Edge Of Darkness did soar to levels that television rarely tries to; that it was an example of a type of television that the British really were exceptional at, above all the hours of dreadful television shows stillborn every year since 1985. If Edge Of Darkness does not stand alone in British television history, it has few acquaintances.






Episode Guide

Be warned about this section as what follows is a detailed breakdown of each episode, each section of which contains major spoilers, including all of the importan developments within the plot. My reason for doing this is that, in researching this review and for long periods before purchasing this DVD, I found so little information on Edge Of Darkness that I became frustrated that such a wonderful television series had so little information online, particularly in the breakdown of the story. My assumption in writing this review is that many people would have suffered the same frustrations and will be reading this to remind themselves of the plots and conspiracies within Edge Of Darkness:

Compassionate Leave: The series opens with Craven investigating corruption and election fixing in a trade union, paying particular attention to the re-election of the union leader, James Godbolt (Jack Watson). With much of the local establishment dissuading him from continuing his investigation, including his own Chief Constable, Craven calls a halt to it, leaving the union hall to pick up his daughter Emma. On returning home, Emma is shot dead by an unknown assailant who escapes. Rather than mourning her death, Craven prefers to get involved in the investigation into his daughter's murder, beginning with a search through Emma's possessions. There, he finds a pistol and notes on the environmental pressure group she was involved with - the GAIA organisation.

Having exhausted his local contacts, Craven travels to London in the hope of getting closer to the truth behind GAIA and the Northmoor nuclear facility Emma had been investigating before her death. Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker) and Pendleton (Charles Kay) from the CIA and the Prime Minister's office, respectively, are introduced and are shown to have been involved with Emma. Following a suggestion by Jedburgh, Pendleton makes contact with Craven, offering enough hints that the killer may not have been after him, but Emma.

Into the Shadows: Investigating further, Craven is led to Emma's boyfriend, Terry Shields (Tim McInnerny), who provides further details on GAIA, of which he is also a member. Immediately after, Craven decides to visit Pendleton who introduces him to Henry Harcourt (Ian McNeice), also attached to the Prime Minister's office but who has been drafted in from the City to investigate procedural and legal irregularities at the Northmoor nuclear facility. Harcourt and Pendleton, working from here on in as a team, inform Craven of Emma's role in a break-in at Northmoor and that she had recently been exposed to large doses of radiation. They further suggest that Godbolt's involvement in union corruption may have been affected by his relationship with the owners of Northmoor. Pendleton and Harcourt arrange from Craven to meet Jedburgh who makes available a file containing details on GAIA and the Northmoor facility. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police, as part of their investigation, track down who they believe is the killer and Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson), CEO of Fusion Corporation flies in to meet Robert Bennett (Hugh Frazer) of IIF, Northmoor's current owners regarding a buyout of the facility.

Burden of Proof: However, impatient he is becoming with the official police investigation, Craven is soon drawing into the murkier issues surrounding Emma's death having been requested by Pendleton and Harcourt to attend a parliamentary enquiry into the purchase of IIF by Fusion Corporation, only to find that it is hoped he will testify on behalf of the intelligence services and the government to prevent the buyout taking place. Pendleton informs Craven of their belief that Bennett and IIF had Emma killed, strengthening his belief that the killer, now identified as McCroon (Sean Caffrey), an informer known from Craven's time in Northern Ireland, was not acting alone but was in the employment of an organisation more closely connected to the nuclear industry than paramilitaries in Ulster. After leaving Parliament, Jedburgh and Pendleton find that Terry Shields has been murdered and Craven is introduced to Clemmy (Zoe Wanamaker) who describes the history both of Jedburgh and the GAIA Organisation. Craven returns home and requests that the police watch on his house is removed, only for McCroon to return, exactly as Craven had hoped for.

Breakthrough: After breaking into Craven's house, McCroon is shot dead seemingly just as he was about to tell Craven who he was working for. Subsequently, Craven has a breakdown and is checked into hospital. Elsewhere, Pendleton and Harcourt investigate an irradiated body that has been dragged out of the lake beside Northmoor, an investigation that furthers their enquiries into IIF's activities. With Jedburgh returned to London following a number of CIA missions in South America, Craven convinces him to break into Northmoor, following the same path the GAIA Organisation took to enter the facility. Using a new contact supplied by Jedburgh, Craven alone breaks into a new military intelligence facility, brought online but unoccupied, to source a map of Northmoor. Craven escapes from the police just as they become aware of his presence within the building and mount a raid, escaping into the Barbican to meet Clemmy. Before Craven leaves for Northmoor, however, he is again asked to attend the parliamentary enquiry where he meets Godbolt once again, whose full participation in the GAIA Organisation's and IIF's activities at Northmoor become clear.

Northmoor: With Godbolt's assistance and following the same path the GAIA Organisation took into the facility, Craven and Jedburgh enter Northmoor but are entirely unware that Bennett and Grogan have already arranged for an armed security team to be made available. After Godbolt leaves, Craven and Jedburgh make their way to a hot cell where they discover a store of plutonium, the presence of which IIF had always denied. Jedburgh takes a quantity of plutonium and leaves Craven to make his own way out. Due to radiation poisoning, however, within the hot cell, Craven collapses within Northmoor after contacting Pendleton. At the parliamentary enquiry, Bennett states that plutonium was indeed present at Northmoor, stored on behalf of the Ministry Of Defence, against all international agreements, making clear that the conspiracy at Northmoor has been entirely government-sponsored from the very beginning, a fact that Craven and Jedburgh are, as yet, unaware of.

Fusion: Craven wakes up in a military hospital with Pendleton standing by his side, finding out that Jedburgh is still missing with the plutonium. Further investigations by Pendleton and the security services discover that tracking Jedburgh has fatal consequences, as he leaves a trail of bodies on a route up to Scotland. Craven leaves hospital, deciding that he must track Jedburgh down, contacting Clemmy to find out where he is staying. Pre-empting this, however, Jedburgh decides to make his location known to all parties by confronting Grogan at a conference, exposing him to the radioactive plutonium, only to escape once again as the conference ends in chaos. Craven finally tracks Jedburgh down just as the full extent of the conspiracy becomes apparent to everyone involved. The cottage in which Craven and Jedburgh are located is raided by special agents with the security services, authorised by the government - Jedburgh is murdered and and Craven is last seen standing on a hilltop as all the stolen plutonium is recovered by government agencies.



Summary

What most impresses about Edge Of Darkness is the way in which images and scenes remain in the memory long after the series has ended. Admittedly the characterisation, the central story and the manner in which the major themes are bound into the script are all superbly handled but in a series filled with great moments, it is the ability that Martin Campbell and Troy Kennedy Martin have to distil key events and emotions into the most straightforward of scenes that marks this series out for greatness, over simply being very good. Standout moments include the palpable sense of loss after Emma's death, transforming what should have been a busy, lived-in home into a house containing only Craven and Emma's ghost or the cut between a very young Emma telling Craven that her mother sleeps below with Emma on the top bunk to a scene at Emma's funeral, with the position repeated within the Craven family grave. There are even moments of comedy, such as Jedburgh and Craven watching a videotape of Come Dancing, with one telling the other that the British deserve the Falklands on account of the way they dance. And the use of Willie Nelson's Red Handed Stranger is impressive, not only how it bonds Jedburgh and Craven when they first meet but how they reprise the song in Scotland.

A criticism often made against Edge Of Darkness is that it is too long and, as a result, is both padded and dull. To be fair, this is not entirely inaccurate. For example, much of Burden of Proof is concerned with the parliamentary enquiry and, as a result, is a rather slow-moving episode. By contrast, the fifth episode, Northmoor, is mostly set within or around the nuclear facility and relative to the rest of the series, is action-packed. There is also the feeling that the final episode tries to do too much as though the previous five left too many loose ends and that 'Fusion' was the last chance to clear all of them in a single sweep through the story.

In as much as I can see this point of view, I disagree with the impact it has on the series. I believe the relatively slow pace of Edge Of Darkness allows the characters and the story time to include characterisation and strands of the plot that might have been excluded in a tighter cut. This includes Jedburgh's love of golf and Come Dancing, Craven's interest in country music and Emma's caring for their home after the death of her mother/Craven's wife, which goes some way to explaining the close relationship between father and daughter that would have been disturbing had this not been established. Indeed, any attempt to greatly reduce the length of the series would probably have cut Joanne Whalley's character out of the series after her death as, with only being seen through, and spoken to by, Craven, her presence does little to explain the plot but only allows Craven the chance to better understand a daughter who lived a very separate life, one which he did not fully comprehend.

It is actually the relationship between Emma and Craven that humanises the story, allowing Edge Of Darkness to be seen not only as an environmental/nuclear drama in line with Threads but also about the story of the emptiness that one feels after the death of a close relative. As mentioned, the scenes in Craven's house following Emma's death are particularly well executed. Anyone who has been through a death in the family will recognise the silence within their home in the hours following the death, the sense that some regular activities must go on, that posessions must be put in order and that the spirit of the deceased is still present, resulting in the feeling that they can still be heard, seen or felt.

In addition, relatively minor characters such as Clemmy, Godbolt and the CIA's cleaner in London, along with the major roles of Emma, Craven, Jedburgh, Pendleton and Harcourt simply allow the series to breathe deeper and to open up the edges of the plot possibly more than necessary but give the viewer the opportunity to find out a little more about the characters with every viewing, something that was clearly successful in the increased viewing figures with each repeat.



Transfer

The picture has not been enhanced for DVD. Instead, it appears it has simply been transferred across from video in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. To be perfectly honest, the picture is fine, much as you would expect a BBC series from the mid-1980's to look. Of course, the image could be sharper and contain less VHS fuzz but carry out an Internet search on Edge Of Darkness and there are mentions of this in reviews of the original broadcast. There were reports that an earlier version of this DVD was transferred with a significantly poorer quality picture but this has since been deleted. Both DVD's are published by Revelation and although the earlier DVD has been deleted, a number of shops still have them in stock so if you are shopping for Edge Of Darkness, be careful which version you select - this reissue is the one with the blurred photograph of Craven on the front, not the issue with Craven and Jedburgh cover.

As expected, Edge Of Darkness has been transferred with a Mono soundtrack, once again in line with the original broadcast and, as with the picture quality, I am not entirely sure it matters. A remix into stereo would have added little as, with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and direction typical of the BBC in the mid-80's, much of the action and dialogue is focussed squarely on the centre of the screen, not to either side nor to the rear. The soundtrack is, however, clean of noise and hiss. I doubt it has been enhanced for DVD so this demonstrates the quality of the original soundtrack. Finally, the series is superbly scored, with the motifs from the justly famous Eric Clapton/Michael Kamen theme used throughout as well as the Willie Nelson song, "Time Of The Preacher" from the Red Headed Stranger album, released in 1975, an important song in the establishment of a relationship between Craven and Jedburgh.



Extras

As with the picture quality, this reissue contains a number of extras that were not on the original release, all of which are on the first disc:

Cast Filmographies: This only contains details on the careers of Bob Peck, Joe Don Baker and Joanne Whalley but is, at least, up to date.

Director Biography: After beginning his career on episodes of The Professionals and Bergerac, Martin Campbell went on to direct Goldeneye, The Mask Of Zorro and Vertical Limit after Edge Of Darkness.

Writer Biography: Having already written for Z Cars and The Italian Job, Troy Kennedy Martin was a major scriptwriter when Edge Of Darkness was released. He has, however, done little since then and certainly nothing that has had the same impact as his earlier work, though it will be interesting to see what happens with the remake of The Italian Job.

Episode I Script: Unfortunately, this is not available as an Adobe Acrobat or text file for viewing as DVD ROM content or printing. Instead, the script is presented on television in large print over one hundred and fifteen pages.

BFI 100 List: The entire British Film Institute Television Top 100 list is not presented here, nor is there any information from the BFI on Edge Of Darkness bar a one-page screen. Instead, the top twenties from the complete list and the drama list are shown, both of which include Edge Of Darkness, at fifteenth and fourth places, respectively.

Introduction To Edge Of Darkness: Presented over twenty-four screens and written by Troy Kennedy Martin, this summarises many of the themes in the series including nuclear paranoia, ancient conflicts, international politics and the environment. What is refreshing is the candid view that Kennedy Martin takes with some of the themes in his work, particularly the original ending where Craven turned into a tree.

Background To Edge Of Darkness: Over forty-seven pages, this section details what happened before Emma's murder as a basis for the action in the series, ensuring the entire story, including unseen activities, had continuity. As with the Introduction, this is also written by Troy Kennedy Martin. Honestly, I do not feel this is a necessity in order to follow the plot of Edge Of Darkness. Much of the information presented here is discussed within the series, particularly in the later episodes where the story is explained thoroughly. The only area in which this extra is useful is where it contains background information on each character including history that is only touched upon elsewhere, such as Craven's role in Northern Ireland.



Overall

Without doubt, Edge Of Darkness is one of my favourite television series of all time. Sure, 24, The Office, Band Of Brothers are all great, as are Boys From The Blackstuff, Blackadder and The Avengers. I was tempted to say Edge Of Darkness was the best but this might be interpreted as over-enthusiasm rather than an honest appraisal. As yet, I don't believe I've ever watched a television series that remained in my mind as much as Edge Of Darkness, nor had me fixed to the screen through the original broadcast, the repeats and a few showings on DVD and my feeling is that this has much to do with the feeling the series generates as well as its undoubted quality. I don't doubt some people will find it slow, instead I find it more open as it allows each character greater opportunities to demonstrate true motivations, rather than being thrown a character to provide some instant gratification.

Some viewers may find it difficult, instead I find it layers conspiracies allowing you to see as much or as little as you want to work to find. Some may even find it date, instead I find it a wonderful dramatisation in a period of time during which actions were taken, from which the repurcussions are still being felt. Of course, it is not perfect - Fusion feels rushed, odd details like Craven's interrogation techniques are poorly developed and Jedburgh's activities outside of London are glossed over. Overall, however, I really cannot recommend Edge Of Darkness highly enough, not only for the quality of the acting, writing, direction and production but for the way in which British television, which is still great, can produce a drama serial with so much warmth, intelligence, depth and interest that it still stands up almost twenty years on.

Details and Specifications
DVD Video Review

Region: 0

Certificate: 15

Distributor:
Revelation

Running Time:
307 mins approx
Soundtracks:
English Mono

Subtitles:
None

Director:
Martin Campbell

Main cast:
Bob Peck
Joe Don Baker
Jack Watson
Charles Kay
Ian McNeice
Tim McInnerny
Zoe Wanamaker
-- more --
Ratings
Film
9
Video
6
Audio
6
Extras
6
8