General TV stuff

Edge of Darkness: Compassionate Leave


Stop playing by the rules, Ronnie. They don’t cover this contingency.

I was pleased to see Edge of Darkness – The Edge of Darkness according to a daft BBC4 continuity announcer – getting a welcome run out on BBC4. I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken so long but it will be interesting how see how an audience hungry for paranoid box-set television with take to this forerunner of the genre.

I was keen to see how television reviews reacted to it, but found only lazy rehashes of Wikipedia wisdom in the newspapers. I think there’s much more to say about it, so I thought I’d cover a few points that struck me as I rewatched the first episode for the first time in around ten years.

Visually, Edge of Darkness looks like little else from the BBC’s output of the day. Shot solely on film and seemingly all on location, it benefits enormously from an evocative soundtrack by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen – all soft synths rent by plaintive guitar licks. As a result it’s more akin to the best British films of the day.

Tonally it’s forbidding, doom-laden: Martin Campbell’s direction is frequently as understated as its protagonist, Yorkshire police detective Ronnie Craven. We see the latter repeatedly contrasted with the busy throb of daily life; detached, in a bubble. Troy Kennedy Martin’s script is plain, naturalistic, almost devoid of flourishes; content simply to slowly colour the characters and their motivations.

Nothing since has really rooted a serial so successfully in the era in which it was broadcast, real-life appearances by politicians and newscasters anchoring it firmly within cold-war paranoia, fear of nuclear weapons and waste, industrial disharmony. The sickly combinations – Thatcher’s government, grey anoraks and the first signs of the cosy relationship between military, political and industrial complexes we’re so familiar with today – that make the 80s look so grim in retrospect.

In the first 60 minutes we see widower Craven agree to the quiet suppression of a police investigation into electoral fraud in a miner’s union, sees his daughter blown away by an IRA terrorist and heads to London in search of answers to a gun, Geiger counter and radioactive lock of hair, all belonging to his late offspring. It has all the hallmarks of a classic revenge thriller – or a conspiracy thriller – but, as we’ll see, it’s all that and more. There are hints of what’s to come here amid a very slow, deep introduction to the narrative and, more importantly, its characters.

We’re given our first indication that this is a slow burn immediately after Emma Craven’s violent, unexpected death. The scene of Craven plodding around his house afterwards is a profound exploration of shock, loss and grief. It’s peppered with unusual but thoroughly human moments – including an infamous a scene where Craven kisses a vibrator belonging to his daughter, just one moment among a few in the first episode that have led some to posit an incestuous relationship between the two.

That the lengthy scene is conducted almost without dialogue and at a length of almost ten minutes seems unthinkable today. How many actors could carry it, conveying Craven as he rattles from mute acceptance to shock to glum detachment, surprise, despair and, finally, numb bafflement as he uncovers ever more astonishing artifacts of his only child’s hidden adult life?

It could be a set-up for an ongoing detective series for all we know; elements of the procedural, the hard-bitten tendencies of Between The Lines or the big-screen political thrillers of the 70s. But how many of them would expend so much time almost purely to establish mood, against a soundtrack by Wilie Nelson?

Peck, steeped in the best traditions of British theatre, is a still, quiet and magnetic presence on screen – a man with a face like a funeral and a voice like a groan. Craven seems an odd man before the trauma of Emma’s death; professional yet canny enough to know that he must play the game. Drily humourous, stubborn and taciturn, he’s hardly obvious hero material, yet we are drawn to him.

He has odd explosions of violence – screaming at the mortuary attendant to leave his daughter, dead on the slab, uncovered. Yet his internal monologue notes the smell of the crushed grass on her and his desire to give her a parting kiss, thwarted by the need not to embarrass the coroner. Ronnie wears his grief like a heavy coat perpetually pushing him down. He busies himself with work and tasks, occasionally sagging but only finally breaking down on the hard shoulder during his drive down to London. Poor bastard, indeed.

How spoiled are we with actors in this first episode? John Woodvine scarcely ever seems to act, so right does he seem for all of his roles, no different here. Jack Watson, lined and gravelly; bent yet likeable – a granite, bluff, clip-round-the-ear Yorkshire pitman. Joe Don Baker – a technicolour whirl among grey men; Felix Leiter in a John LeCarre novel. Charles Kay as Pendleton is at once diffident, enigmatic, superficially charming and very clearly not to be trusted – a sort of civil service and military archetype of the kind that probably would have been driving Thatcher to and from Television Centre in 1985; the only bum note that he drives a Chobham-plated Mercedes rather than a Jag.

He leaves Craven alone in the capital, overlooking a freight train containing a flask of radioactive waste – something still common on British railways, through Peckham Rye, Clapham High Street, Kensington Olympia and Highbury Islington – trying to make sense of an unfamiliar jigsaw puzzle with barely a few irradiated pieces.