Edge of Darkness
Seminal. Differently put: the best serial the BBC ever produced? It’s certainly in contention for the title, with very few other contenders able to stake as persuasive a claim. Edge of Darkness’ impact is down to a number of factors, not least production values that were a (relatively) foreign country to the BBC; it was a $2m co-production with US company Lionheart. Then there was the cinematic lustre later cinema – and before, if you count sex comedies – director Martin Campbell brought to the table. Most of all, though, the key to the its success was Troy Kennedy Martin’s zeitgeist-tapping teleplay: a conspiracy thriller par excellence doubling as an affecting tale of grief. Its protagonist’s despair at the loss of his daughter coalesces with the despair of the planet (mother Gaia) in the face of nuclear armageddon. And all the while, nominally at loggerheads corporate, national and political interests move the chairs around yet still sit affably at the same table, come the final shot’s augural black flowers.
Ronald Craven: It’s the most dangerous business in Britain.
As anyone following my cogitations will be aware, I’ve recently emerged from a “nuke hoax” rabbit hole, one I ran with for a couple of years; it seemed like a credible hypothesis for a number of reasons, but the most compelling was that, since we’re lied to about everything else (give or take), why not the spectre that promulgates the most fear – or did, in its heyday – among the populace? Indeed, I still subscribe to the view that the nuke threat largely is smoke and mirrors, in that the Elite(s) and those who pull(ed) the strings of the Elite would be extremely unlikely to allow/have allowed actions that would unleash such “disruption”, however precipitously close we may appear to have come – and to the players in the immediacy, absolutely did come – at various points. There was quite enough mass carnage to tidy up following the 1700 Event (which was an unplanned side effect… at least, the first time round).
The notion that nukes, whether in the capacity of projectiles or energy production, were something of an illusion was also a highly appealing one, simply because they were an immensely potent and persistent cloud hanging over anyone growing up during the ’80s (and before that, the ’50s and ’60s). When Fukushima came along, it was an unwelcome reminder, for any who had become complacent, of just how nasty such atomic business was (whatever the ins and outs of how that happened and how bad the fall out turned out to be… and whether the full extent of its potential ramifications was mitigated).
For the impressionable mind, the likes of WarGames were quite sufficient an embodiment of the threat without further subjecting oneself to terrifyingly realistic depictions in the likes of Threads or The Day After (or, in some respects even more appallingly, When the Wind Blows). It was everywhere anyway, in the news, whether it was “Green and Common Women” and concerns over nuclear safety, Chernobyl, SDI, Trident or nuclear secrets. The rekindling of Cold War sensibilities was a godsend to the spy movie and doubtless spies generally, but it did no one’s fried nerves much good.
With regard to the “manufactured threat” theory, one may wish to consider how closely the environmental movement parallels its development with the growth of the nuclear industry. While Edge of Darkness is regarded as a keenly progressive text in environmentalist terms, foregrounding as it does the themes of James Lovelock and Gaia, it also succeeds in cheekily positing that environmentalist groups – the one here, also appropriating the name Gaia, at any rate – are simply the products of the Tavistock-esque manipulation of the populace to various ends, political or economic (in the story, Joe Don Baker’s gregarious and amiably roguish CIA man Jedburgh is revealed to be one of Gaia’s founders; he was tapped to institute it during the ’70s when President Carter was cool on nukes and big on détente. Impinging the British manufacture of plutonium was a big part of this, but by the time the political tide turned and he was told to dismantle the group, “like Banquo’s ghost – it just won’t go away”. And so it went underground).
We see such manipulations in effect now, with puppet Greta pushing against traditional fuels or we’ll all soon be dead. The irony is that the environmentalist movement has come round to nuclear – well, to some degree, or elements thereof – as a lesser evil than the evil they’re told to espouse as the great evil (none of this is to advocate wanton pollution or desecration of the environment, simply to stress that none of the promoted activity in that area is “clean” or “open”).
Edge of Darkness received informed nuke advice from Walt Patterson, choosy about who he’d offers his services and subsequently a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment; Martin was slightly exasperated that Campbell had no interest in reading up on the subject, but the latter was probably right to maintain a degree of distance. Too informed, and there’s a danger you’ll be talking over the viewers’ heads. Edge of Darkness is sufficiently in-the-know to seem erudite on the subject while shrewdly providing just enough exposition to ensure we get the gist. Any more, and it might start getting bogged down in its own insights. Patterson was an environmentalist (with Friends of the Earth), so likely as not, it was Martin’s invocation of Lovelock that saw him agree to be involved.
Grogan: I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory of history.
For a contrasting take, you have Galen Windsor making himself known around the same time, claiming longstanding experience in the nuclear power industry and protesting that this stuff was incredibly safe, actually, and that the dangerous waste side was all a big scam. On certain aspects, he might be on the money – The China Syndrome as predictive programming for the Three Mile Island psyop – but the main takeaway is that, wherever you look with nukes, there are agendas, cross agendas and manipulations (the nuke-lie hoax would appear to be a deep-state fabrication, one fuelled by disinfo specialists such as Miles Mathis, but the precise reasons for disinheriting the idea of them, and further still, pushing the validity of the industry into disrepute, percolate with further murk of motivation and contrasting agendas of either side of the dark/light divide).
Ronald: What the hell is a hot cell?
As indicated several paragraphs back, the irony is that the environmentalist lobby is, these days, possessed of a significantly pro-nuclear faction. Should you darken the pages of The Guardian, you can’t move for tripping over George Monbiot touting the industry (not from that rag, but this piece makes just one reference to waste; the prospect of hundreds of years of barrelled up radioactive material was one of the chief reasons I was always against it but this nu-vironmentalists seem eager to brush that under the carpet – along with “misplaced” Fukushima jitters – or bury it at the bottom of the sea). Of course, most of them are all giddy over “climate change” concerns, which are, obviously, baloney (as a contrast, you have Elon Musk Mk II promoting nuclear while cagily denying some of climate change’s concerns relating to carbon emissions; one wonders if he’s so pro because he knows nuclear energy no longer has a nuclear component…) Nothing has changed with regard to waste – short of benign forces rendering it inert in the way they’re reported to have variously deactivated nukes in the past – simply the surrounding agendas and the politics of downplaying it.
Edge of Darkness exists in headier times, though, when the average (young) person was much more politicised, by which I mean differently indoctrinated (so more likely to say, or sympathise with those saying “comrade” than ask said comrade if they were addressing them with the correct pronouns). We were more than half a decade on from the heyday of the conspiracy genre, when the only sensible position was suspicion of an inherently corrupt government, one that would squash you like a gnat if you attempted to make waves. By 1985, the default has changed somewhat. Before, the protagonist would be tinged with the radicalism of the just-burnt-out ’60s. Now, resignedly finding the truth is invariably part of the job, while restrained by inevitably reluctant cogs of industry or chain of command. A cop (Bob Peck’s Ronald Craven) or a journalist (Gabriel Byrne’s Nick Mullen in Defence of the Realm) can be as dogged as they want, but the truth will, resignedly, not out.
As such, perhaps the most acute aspect of Edge of the Darkness is that the stakes only really count for the little people. Above a certain stratum, operations are simply business as usual, a game where the sides are relatively arbitrary. Sure, there’s the Cold War, but Martin is, essentially, concerning himself with “special relationship” nations and the glue that bonds the political and the private sectors. Craven and his daughter are just pawns. As is Jedburgh (“They made a fool of you”, Craven tells him: “No shit, sherlock?”, he replies).
Jedburgh’s solitary victory is that he has taken down one of the “dark forces” he avers he is standing against; Kenneth Nelson’s Grogan, with the willowy detachment of an Alvin Tyrell, is one of the corporate elite, whose Fusion Corporation is angling to buy IIF (which owns Northmoor, around which the action focuses) from Bennett (Hugh Fraser) and absolutely the last person who’d ever let themselves come within a sniff of personal danger. Unfortunately, he didn’t count on Jedburgh turning up at Gleneagles Hotel, as a speaker at a NATO Conference on Directed Energy Weapons – yes, the old favourite DEWs – with some bars of plutonium upon his person. Ones he provokes to criticality with Grogan within mortal distance.
Harcourt: It proves that there is a hot cell at Northmoor, built in contravention of IAEA safeguards. Northmoor was producing plutonium illegally, contrary to the Nuclear Installations Act of 1968, the NPT and every other international agreement. They are breaking every law in the nuclear rule book.
Otherwise, though, the villainy is characterised by detachment and complete absence of accountability. The investigation by Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice), “attached to the Prime Minister’s office”, which utilises Craven and Jedburgh as foot soldiers, turns out to be a ruse from above. When Harcourt presents his findings (above), the Minister (Jeremy Child) scoffs at him, that he knew about this production “by a secret laser process” all along. And then draws a line under the matter by contesting that “An experimental station with a defence component is not subject to the restrictions you’ve quoted”. Harcourt and Pendelton were utilised as “part of a deception plan… Because the Americans became suspicious” (the Americans being very puritanical over who and how produces and controls plutonium).
We subsequently see adversaries – in uncovering the truth or obscuring it – Pendleton, Harcourt, Bennett, (a sickly looking) Grogan and the Minister gathered round a table at a black-tie dinner. None of the preceding events really matter beyond the point where they mattered; ethics and morals are moveable feasts, dependent upon a certain malleability of the mind in navigating them (we earlier see this with career-inspector Ross – John Woodvine – and his recognition of the simple practicalities of the job. Jack Watson’s Goldbolt, in contrast, hostage to a nuclear industry that paid him well, is revealed as mindful of his own scruples and regretful of his weaknesses).
Emma: Millions of years ago, when the Earth was cold, it looked as if life on our planet would cease to exist. But black flowers began to grow, multiplying across its face, till the entire landscape was covered in blooms. Slowly the black flowers sucked heat of the sun life began to evolve again. That is the power of Gaia.
Ronald: It’ll take more than black flowers to save us this time.
One thing both the Gaia side and the corporate side have in common is maintaining the essential paradigm. So Gaia believes in the danger of global warming, just as the Earth is a “planet”. Emma’s ghost tells her dad how the planet will keep its own time and martial itself in its own way; in this scenario, humans are simply intruders, an irrelevance, and the Earth will even utilise warming to solve the problem of mankind to “protect itself”. She presses her father not to pursue a revenge that is in the hands of the planet/Gaia. Later, Jedburgh avers “Man will always win against nature”, to counter Craven’s “If there is a battle between the planet and mankind, the planet will win”. Ronald is now “On the side of the planet”. But that dialectic, one obviously and understandably affecting Martin, has been engineered itself. It doesn’t mean the concerns behind it aren’t real, but it does highlight that the perception of them is distorted, falsified – to some degree – and utilised for the purposes of Hegelian conflicts.
Ronald: What will you do with it?
Jedburgh: Hand it over to my superior.
Ronald: What will they do with it?
Jedburgh: Beats me, but Grogan won’t get it, and that’s what counts.
It’s notable that the black flowers story is juxtaposed with the Gleneagles conference on DEWs. You know the latter; they’re the sorts of things rumoured to ignite forests or spark similar conflagrations on a regular basis. And mysteriously melt vehicles. Specifically, as presented by Grogan, the conference is focusing on their application in aid of the then entirely topical and divisive Reagan SDI programme, which like Gaia is posited on the premise of a globe Earth whizzing through space (this is not to suggest, however, that the programme was not a front for actual tech development or that it did not have a universal application; simply that it was never going to materialise as space-based weaponry).
Grogan: What we’re trying to do at the moment is to take the plutonium bomb and explode it in a vessel no larger than the circumference of my arms, and to control the energy in there. By harnessing that energy, we can direct it, as lasers, half way across the world to shoot down enemy rockets in their silos.
Grogan utilises highly Luciferian language in extoling the benefits of reaching for the stars, telling the assembled, “We are tapping into the very source of God’s creation”. He envisions the power of God at his fingertips (“We have access to that power, but we do not control it, and that is the sole purpose of my corporation – to find a way to control it”). Power that will arm DEWs – perhaps not the most obvious means of running them, but okay – and, as a prospective contractor for SDI and beyond, crossing the “high frontier”, “I believe that fusion motors will power the great spaceships of the 21st century, which will leave the Earth in their hundreds to colonise the solar system”.
Grogan: I foresee, within the next 100 years, the beginning of Man as an interplanetary being, a celestial warrior. And furthermore, a solar empire for the United States of America and her allies. Looking at our overpopulated, over-exhausted planet, I don’t see how we can turn our backs on such a future, no matter what it costs or how long it takes.
Indeed. Gaia and Grogan are united in language regarding the malaise afflicting the Earth – accursed overpopulation; inexcusable over-exploitation of its resources – but his also favours man’s becoming, an “interplanetary being, a celestial warrior”. Doubtless transhuman man (like Tyrell in Blade Runner) would be on his agenda, were this not a DEWs-focussed conference. Whether a corporate tycoon would be quite so florid in his descriptions is beside the point. Martin, a fierce opponent of naturalism in drama, was drawing explicit mythic lines between Grogan’s standpoint and Jedburgh’s.
Ronald: Why do you hate Grogan so much?
Jedburgh: Because of who he is.
Ronald: And who is he?
Jedburgh: Part of the dark forces that would rule this planet.
Ronald: You believe all that stuff?
Jedburgh: Yeah, sure. Why not? Look at yourself. You think of yourself as a provincial detective whose daughter died in tragic circumstances. Yet where she fell, a well sprang, flowers grew. Now, what kind of power is that?
Jedburgh identifies Grogan as “Part of the dark forces that would rule this planet”, and one might suggest the only caveat to this comment is that the “would” should be removed. Martin’s use of “dark forces” is a particularly acute choice, allying it explicitly with current definitions of the satanic Elite who have been controlling this “planet” for so long. We’re told that “Grogan with his Templar thing was going to build the new Jerusalem, in the Milky Way”, while Jedburgh (“one of the kind of knights of the marches”) stood in opposition, voicing his beef as one descending through their lineages, albeit only traced back to the Civil War. It’s curious, given Martin’s specificity, that Jedburgh says “Read between the lines of a Jerry Grogan speech, you’ll find not the frontiersman but the Teutonic knight. Not democracy but a despotism”, since to my understanding (and per official doctrine), the Templars (Grogan) were older than the Teutonic knights (Jedburgh).
Craven, meanwhile, represents the Green Man – hence the infamous original Martin ending where he turns into a tree – the true course of pagan rather than Christian mythology (or of whichever brand of corruption of the same). Albeit, the figure also appears on many churches (this being an area where stolen history and the alteration of Christianity, post-1700 Event, doubtless comes into play). Martin commented “Craven was meant to represent the kind of forces of nature and the Green Man and coming out of the woods”.
Jedburgh: Don’t you want to see mankind become enslaved to this new priesthood of plutonium culture, see the earth become a desert, all its natural resources plundered to build some new Jerusalem in the Milky Way?
Producer Michael Wearing has noted “there is a mystical dimension to Troy’s imagination. His instincts are visual and non-naturalistic“, but you probably need to ignore more obvious fare like The Italian Job and Red Heat to get to it. The express believer in this is Jedburgh, espousing the confrontation between good and evil and that he is on “The side of the angels, boy. Always have been”; Craven, meanwhile, has been “Freeze dried from another epoch, waiting for all this to happen”.
Jedburgh: This is the doomsday equivalent of Harrods.
Most evocative is that Jedburgh manages to invoke the mythic while explicitly referencing it, which one would expect to dilute the waters. The marbling of this into the production is key to Edge of Darkness’ success, and Campbell’s role is every bit as important there, even if his general approach as a director is to get straight to the point and cut out the nonsense. They’re helped considerably, of course, by the moody lament of Clapton and Kamen’s melancholy score, but this is a serial consciously looking backwards as it presents an immediate concern; the scenes under Northmoor, in a nuclear bunker filled with wine and art, or the room full of dusty telephones, could almost be post-apocalyptic and are certainly feeding off such ideas.
Jedburgh: Your daughter was a terrorist, Craven. You might as well get used to it.
Emma plays a part in this, naturally. She’s the ghost looking over her grieving father’s shoulder throughout, prodding and coaxing him to do what has to be done (as Martin commented “… that first episode, in fact the whole six episodes, is about grief. It’s about him working through the grief thing”). Martin would recount the point where Emma became a ghost rather than a projection of his imagination (when Campbell had Craven and the younger Emma both touching and interacting in the same shot).
It’s notable, however, that aside from the black flowers, Emma doesn’t relate any information to her dad before he becomes aware of it (the effect being that, while I’m all for claiming her as a legitimate ghostly presence, she ultimately does seem to be his projection). She’s also an activist, but more than that, a “terrorist”, by official definitions. We’re privy to the malleability of the term here, in a foreshadowing of its use by governments to cover anyone they don’t like. Similarly to the Rebels in Star Wars, who are, indisputably, terrorists. Or the way in which a whistleblower is only righteous in exposing the secrets of a corrupt government if the government isn’t their own.
Jedburgh: “0h Jephthah, Son of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou! What treasure had he, my lord? Why, one fine daughter and no more, which he loved passing well.”
What does Jedburgh mean when he quotes Hamlet quoting The Bible’s Jephthah? The Hamlet scene sees Hamlet refer to the death of Polonius’ daughter (in the latter’s presence), while Jephthah had to sacrifice his daughter after – rather cloddingly – promising he’d offer to the Lord the first thing to step out of his house upon his return home (I mean… duh). Hamlet is alluding that Polonius unthinkingly sacrificed his daughter to his own ambitions in the way Jephthah’s unthinkingly rash oath required him to sacrifice his daughter to the Lord. But Craven didn’t sacrifice his daughter, did he? The (IRA) terrorist McCroon ostensibly killed Emma because she got in the way, but later tells him “You were both marked, both of you”. Is it because, we learn, Ronald refused to take her down to the caves (because it was illegal, because “Dad, you were on their side”, because he didn’t put her first)? Or is it because he’s the Green Man, and for him to “come out of the woods”, she has to be sacrificed to Gaia first, to awaken him from his slumber?
Some commentators have blanched at a perceived incestuous subtext to Edge of Darkness, springing principally from Craven kissing Emma’s vibrator in the first episode. DVD talk, in a partial review that scolded its “leftist” credentials and rejected many of the elements that make the serial such a classic – so is on shaky ground from the opening paragraph, but nevertheless – referenced the “unsettling” closeness between father and daughter prior to her murder, “his inexplicable desire to kiss her vibrator, in loving close-up”, the hints at the “sexualised nature” of their relationship and how he is “sexually infatuated” with her (before leaping into a dismissal of Peck’s “overrated performance”).
Emma: Who’s going to look after you when I’m gone?
Ronald: I’ll find some little number and set her up.
There’s no doubt there’s ample fodder to make that reading of the piece. But whether you see the daughter actually fulfilling the carer mother/wife/daughter role or taking that position in terms of platonic domestic closeness is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. I can quite see the latter position as one borne through hardship and loss that might seem odd to the outsider, and certainly, it seems Martin played up the reading while denying the conclusion. In the first “ghost” scene, child Emma tells Craven “I promised Mummy I’d look after you”, and Martin seems to be announcing that as the key to their arrangement. But if a projected incest subtext weighs heavily on you, nearly the next line – “I think you should sleep with me tonight, daddy” – may be an unwholesome clincher.
The scene in the car has them talking about sex (he leching after her friends: “You think of nothing but sex these days, dad”) and intimates toward the kind of thing a playful husband would say to his wife (setting up a little number when she’s gone). Later, Ronald expresses “I wanted to kiss you” of her body in the morgue, but demurred so as not to make the attendant uncomfortable (he took a lock of her hair instead). She accuses him of being “jealous” of her relationship with Tim McInnery, although such behaviour is arguably a standard-issue trope of over-protective father-daughter parenting (really, he should simply have been undone by the thought that she’d want anything from odious McInnery).
Jedburgh: Ever been to Dallas? It’s where we shoot our presidents.
The Hindsightful, evidently coming from a polar place to DVD times politically, suggested “Handled wrongly it could have come off as deeply creepy but to the credit of all involved and Peck’s nuanced performance, it establishes the strong bond between them” (it dutifully goes on to expound the woke gospel by regretfully noting its dated, “largely white male cast”). There’s Whalley in a sexy nurse’s number in the final episode too, which might have secured her The Singing Detective. For my part, I’d argue the relationship is supposed to be slightly uncomfortable, because there’s an unease there that derives from a vital missing piece to the familial unit. Just as Ronald’s recounting of his interrogation technique with Lowe is supposed to be uncomfortable (“Sometimes, I even kissed Lowe… Soon we were like lovers, and lover have no secrets”). Ronald Craven’s a shell of a man.
But maybe Martin is fibbing. One’s response when he notes there was never any contention about this element, that “No BBC authority figure picked it up later and said ‘No, you can’t put that in.’ So it was quite odd” might be, “Well, no, but Jimmy Savile was still holding sway on Saturday night primetime family viewing back then, wasn’t he?” Martin detailed his thought process for Craven finding something of Emma’s in a drawer, rejecting underwear (“But I felt that would have given the wrong thing”) and fixing on the dildo as “problem solving”: “But if he kisses it in kind of the right sort of way, then it tells you something which is a bit ambivalent but which is a kind of reverence for her really, a kind of excelsis. Anyway that seemed to be the only thing that he could do”.
One might simply object with “Well why even go there?” but that doesn’t seem remotely to have been the way Martin would have approached writing (the characters have to go the way they have to go). He acknowledges, however, that “people have got different taboos”, and I’ll leave this subject with Martin stressing incest wasn’t his intention, contrasting this with his simultaneous willingness to play with expectations and dangle them in front of those perceiving the presentation that way:
Troy Kennedy Martin: I didn’t want there to be any incest between Craven and his daughter, but I thought the moment you get this very close physical relationship, someone’s going to say “That’s incestuous”. So if you then just hint slightly that there might be a bit of incest then you’re going to get no trouble from any of those people because they kind of accept it. Although there is one mischievous line in there, when he’s been taken by Zoe Wannamaker to the theatre and he says “What’s the show about?” and she said “Incest” so it’s sort of injected… just to screw things up.
Despite the teething issues, Martin generally seemed rightly proud of the final result. I have to agree with him however, about the over-staging of (one of) the most renowned images of the series – it has adorned both the DVD and Blu-ray releases – namely “that shot of him in the chair with the gun and the teddy-bear and they just become one, a kind of arch symbol, and it’s really a bit nauseating”. Maybe I wouldn’t go as far as calling it nauseating, but it does feel like it’s been reductively composed purely for a publicity still.
Harcourt: That’s right. I have no intention of putting you in the picture. That’s what we’re paid for.
Campbell departed for Hollywood soon after the raves came in, but it would be a full decade before he scored an actual movie hit (Goldeneye). Bob Peck, a stage hound, never really made capital from this on screen (big or small), although everyone remembers Jurassic Park. Whalley made Scandal, married Val – both made Tolkien-lite, George Lucas clunker Willow – and pretty much disappeared by the mid-90s. Baker would appear in three Bond films and become an avid golfer; this might be his signature role, and its loaded with quotable lines. The double act of Pendleton and Harcourt are most memorable; McNeice would go on to the better-known career, but I rather think Kay might be the stand out; Pendelton treads a line of informed glibness that emphasises the manner in which issues of importance – the safety of the realm – are only ever relative. As for Martin, this remains his signature work, even if it’s a toss-up whether it’s this or Z Cars that gets mentioned first (his two-decades-old screenplay for Ferrari has finally been produced by Michael Mann, making for a nice posthumous testament to his abilities).
Jedburgh: I really believe that God’s a golfer.
We had Campbell helming a big-screen remake 25 years later, of course, and it’s a perfectly respectable effort in its own right. While it reproduces the sense of grief effectively – Mel does anguish like few others – it could never hope to come within a mile of the original’s cultural cachet and urgent currency. Edge of Darkness was a political event, so in that sense, yeah, maybe it stands as “leftist” – although equating the conspiracy movement with such thinking, as the literalist DVD talk does, is both defensive and largely missing the point – but its ongoing potency is quite beyond such partisan boundaries.