Saturday, June 27, 2015

Edge of Darkness (BBC Drama)

You can take the boy out of the hood, but you can't take the desire to escape the hood that was in the boy in the first place. That's why I decided to get my Monocle-Time by watching a revered BBC drama/sci-fi/political thriller, Edge of Darkness.

I discovered this movie because I was doing research on Jurassic Park, specifically Bob "Clever Girl" Peck, who played the hunter/gamekeeper. Peck died far too young, in 1999 of cancer (f--k you again, cancer). As I went through Wikipedia entries, I caught notice of Edge of Darkness, a BBC 2 miniseries with a stupendous amount of acclaim. Since the program was so lauded, and listed as a great influence on all the shows that came after it, I felt that I had to give it a spin.

I could not have made a smarter choice.

Edge of Darkness begins with DCI Ronald Craven questioning a man. Craven is looking into voter fraud for a mining union in Yorkshire, not far from London; it's a relatively trivial matter, and the subject, James Godbolt, asks Ronald to do him a favor and proceed slowly, gently. From that meeting, Ronnie goes to meet his daughter, Emma (Joanne Whalley), a physicist at a local university. She participates in a group, GAIA, one dedicated to environmental causes. You can tell that he doesn't share her views, and yet enjoys seeing his child be so active and vital.

So you can imagine that he doesn't take it well when they get home, a man comes out of the shadows cursing Ronnie's name, and Emma steps in front of a double-barreled shotgun blast for her pop. Cradled by her father, Emma mutters a few words before she breathes her last. And this is how BBC 2 kicked off six hours of one of the most acclaimed political thrillers ever made.

EoD was billed by Wikipedia as a drama/political thriller/sci-fi effort. While it may not belong in that last category, it's the epitome of the former two genres. Peck's unofficial investigation of the murder takes him to London, where he's soon contacted by city cops, in addition to a bevvy of unexpected figures who have some information relating to, or stakes in, his work. The more that Ronnie tugs at the threads that will help him find the killer, the more he becomes entangled in politics, big business, and matters of the highest national security. And it's all because of what DCI Craven finds in his daughter's bedside dresser.

Few series have ever done such a good job of portraying a man who is wracked by grief and yet simultaneously in control of himself. Modern TV and film would show the lead acting cruelly, self-destructively, or unhinged - because anti heroes are naturally "dramatic" and engaging, since they do both bad and good. While some works of entertainment have handled that dynamic quite nicely, it's facile and immature in the wrong hands.

This guy saw his daughter, his only remaining family, die - and she died to save his life. The pain in his eyes is palpable, an ache that will never go away. And yet his detective's mind is inspired by this, keeping him on-mission. Craven's only goal is to discover what happened and why, and to mete justice onto the parties responsible; he's willing to behave however he must to achieve that end.

So, our stalwart DCI proceeds as best as he can, even though he's like a determined runner with a mid-marathon injury. The clearest sign of his trauma comes in the form of visions of his daughter (or is it her ghost?), who chides him to learn more and uncover the truth. These hallucinatory figures have been made commonplace by series like House, Farscape, and the new Battlestar Galactica, but in 1985 it must have felt so fresh for viewers. Better still, it's a great way to develop the parent-child relationship at the story's heart, and to keep Joanne Whalley on the show. But Edge of Darkness never kids the viewer by suggesting that Craven can be restored to what he once was...

Much like Ronnie, the audience has little time to wallow in grief or sadness. Craven's arrival in London unveils many people who are on the periphery of what appears to be a simple act of revenge. Two British men, Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice), pick him up to determine whatever he knows; they seem benevolent enough, although they hold "unofficial" positions that are surreptitiously sanctioned by the government. Eventually, a sympathetic yet cantankerous American, Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker), contacts Ron in order to pass along CIA files relating to the murder. And our detective can't just ignore Terry Shields (Tim McInnerny), Emma's boyfriend and environmental comrade-in-arms.

No matter which side of the TV screen you're on, it becomes hard to differentiate between what's relevant and what's irrelevant, just as you'll never know if one of the killers was roughed up by angry cops, tried to commit suicide, or was executed on orders...

I fear that some new viewers, folks too young to take this with a sense of perspective and to appreciate its historical context, will be unimpressed. Similarly, there are many moments of great camera work, but others are... let's just say that parts of this are filmed in a clearly "made for TV" way. None of it undercuts the immediacy and emotionality of the plots, but it's the sole thing here that has, at times, aged badly. Again: it's good to remember that this served as an inspiration for many works that followed it, and you should try to approach it that way.

In a smart and careful manner, series creator Troy Kennedy Martin and series director Martin Campbell unspool all the ugly, cold details that fill in the gaps. The people and interests at play are fascinating, and should play very well to modern audiences that are used to this particular kind of political thriller. It's a wonder that in this day and age where I'm supposed to give even half a s--t about Kevin Spacey in the remake of BBC's seminal programme, House of Cards, that a televisual-anglophile like myself never even heard of Edge of Darkness... Or that it was remade by Campbell himself as a two-hour Mel Gibson movie set in 2010 America, which made the mistake of opening the same week as James Cameron's Avatar.

Above all, EoD may be best remembered for its cynical and realistic take on political matters. Writer/Creator Troy Kennedy Martin was inspired partly by the absence of political commentary in the Beeb's dramatic shows. You should keep in mind that, at this time, Margaret Thatcher instated a poll tax that resulted in riots at Trafalgar Square (four years after this series, mind you, but still), waged war over the Falkland Islands, and was entrenched in the nuclear arms race aspect of the Cold War.

So when you watch this series and realize how major players can illegally cause death and destruction in the name of national security, and yet still retain their powers and social status, Kennedy Martin's work must have been a slap in the face. This show is a reminder of how "little people" are merely pawns in a game played by folks who are almost never going to be truly accountable for their own actions...

As a final note, I should highlight the score for Edge of Darkness, which was a collaboration between Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton. I think it works terribly well, but all the little, wistful guitar instrumentals made me repeatedly say, "holy s--t, this sounds just like the Lethal Weapon soundtrack." Well, guess what, I did some more research and my ear for music was right as usual: Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton worked on the Lethal Weapon soundtrack together! It's nearly the exact same f--king score! I haven't felt like this since I first saw Aliens and wondered why it had much of the same music as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Edge of Darkness is not available on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. However, I only had to put the series' title into, um, Ou-Yay Ube-Tay, and the whole thing was made available to me. The BBC has been pretty generous to us Yanks, and there's no effort made to hide what the videos are, so I assume it's perfectly-legitimate. I suggest you check out this show whenever and however you can, as you'll be very entertained, in addition to gaining some insight into all the political series that have come after it. It's quite obvious how vast EoD's influence has been, and you should see it for yourself. In terms of quality narrative and future impact, this programme is a win-win.


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