We’ve recently been watching the award-winning 1985 BBC television serial Edge of Darkness, starring Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker, and scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin. We hadn’t watched this groundbreaking programme since it was first broadcast in the turbulent times of the Thatcher administration (legend has it that the Iron Lady wanted it banned), and were interested in how it would stand up, both as an entertaining drama and as a piece of political polemic.
Troy Kennedy Martin was very well known as a television scriptwriter at the time, but Edge of Darkness is his masterpiece. He originally wanted to write a series about a number of issues affecting Britain at the time, including the Greenham Common protests, the Miners’ Strike and the Falklands War, and also had thoughts about “a detective who changes into a tree”, but influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and the secret world of the British nuclear power industry, wrote this gripping political thriller instead.
I’m not going to give away much of the plot, because it might spoil your viewing, but I’ll set the scene. Please skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t even want that…
Police detective Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) witnesses the murder of his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), who is brought down by a gunman on the steps of their home. The police think it a botched attempt by a criminal on his life, but it soon becomes clear that Emma was always the intended victim.
Craven decides on a maverick investigation into her death and finds that she was connected to an anti-nuclear group called Gaia. He finds a gun and Geiger Counter among her possessions. Pendleton (Charles Kay), a civil servant attached to the Prime Minister’s office and his associate Harcourt – a great performance by Ian McNeice, tell Craven that his daughter was a terrorist, wanted by the state.
It becomes clear that there was a considerable conflict between Gaia and the British Establishment over the nuclear issue. As is usual with the British powers-that-be, they would like the whole issue of Emma’s death to go quiet. Emma and her associates have entered a nuclear facility called Northmoor, where illegal Plutonium might be being produced. Emma’s body is found to be radioactive.
Enter the CIA who, alarmed at the prospect of illegal Plutonium on the world stage, take an interest in Craven’s plight, despatching agent Darius Jedburgh to England to take an interest in the affair…
That’s the set-up and as much of the plot as I’m going to give away, for this is the conspiracy thriller to beat all conspiracy thrillers and I commend it to you.
This is a well-written series with some great character development. Bob Peck handles Craven’s grief at the death of his daughter in a way that is deeply touching, and his quest to solve the mystery of her murder is both logically and movingly portrayed. Joe Don Baker (who loved the script so much he took a lower fee than usual to be in it) gives a scene-stealing performance as CIA agent Jedburgh, who becomes a crusader for the cause of humanity along the way.
The series was directed by Martin Campbell (also responsible for the inferior film remake starring Mel Gibson) and is probably one of the best directed and beautifully photographed series of the past forty years. There is a stunning and atmospheric musical score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen.
The acting is superb, a truly great performance by Bob Peck (who died so tragically young) and a scene-stealing act from Joe Don Baker as the CIA man Jedburgh. Even the small roles stand out – the cream of British acting talent.
As a thriller Edge of Darkness is quite stunning, not only asking the questions we should all be asking, but as with all conspiracy stories really questioning the motives of the people who are in power over us. The thrills come thick and fast, real edge of the seat stuff, particularly some beautifully shot underground sequences as Craven and Jedburgh invade the nuclear facility of Northmoor.
The series thoroughly deserved the many awards it won. It has worn well over the past thirty years and is an instructive reminder of state corruption that seems particularly relevant to the times we live in.