Blu-Ray Review: Edge of Darkness
Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) is a widowed policeman, close to his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley). Emma is involved in environmental causes. One night, as they return home, a gunman appears. Emma is shot dead. Craven assumes that he was the real target, likely for someone he convicted, but he soon discovers that the plot and Emma’s involvement goes far deeper than he ever suspected.
Edge of Darkness was broadcast on BBC2 on Monday nights at 9.30pm, beginning on 4th November 1985. By the time the sixth and final episode was broadcast on th December, the serial was a hit, and it was gifted the shortest repeat on record, as three double-length episodes over three consecutive nights, from 19th to 21st December. It tapped into current concerns about nuclear power, about ecology (James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, that the Earth is a single living organism that regulates itself to preserve its life, and may one day regulate the human race out of existence), in the guise of a paranoid thriller. Watching it now, much of it hasn’t dated at all and is still current, possibly even more so in parts, other than the usual missing signifiers of today (no mobile phones, no Internet nor social media).
Scottish-born Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009) had written for television since 1958, and was best known as the co-creator of the long-running Z Cars, first broadcast in 1964 and notable for its grittier and more realistic view of the police, rather unlike its cosier contemporary Dixon of Dock Green. In the early 1980s, influenced by the political climate of the time, with Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street and Ronald Reagan in the White House, he began working on an drama serial he originally called Magnox. Kennedy Martin was frustrated by the lack of political dimensions in television – especially BBC – drama, rather unlike the Wednesday Plays and Plays for Today of the previous two decades. He wasn’t confident that overtly political drama would actually get made, and indeed his idea was turned down until the BBC’s new Head of Drama Series and Serials, Jonathan Powell, accepted it in 1983. Michael Wearing produced the serial, which was directed throughout by New Zealand-born Martin Campbell.
With his previous directing credits including softcore sex comedies of the type which had been much of the UK’s big-screen output in the 1970s, Campbell’s previous experience on the small screen had comprised episodes of The Professionals, Minder and Shoestring, among others. Edge of Darkness was a film shoot, 16mm throughout, and Campbell’s direction gives the proceedings a definite cinematic feel, even though it was a show designed to be watched on television sets much smaller than those we have today. Another departure from televisual norms was the music score, the work of Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen, with Clapton’s electric guitar featuring heavily. The use of diegetic music is also striking, in particular Willie Nelson’s “The Time of the Preacher”, which features significantly three times.
Although Kennedy Martin’s previous work was notable for its realism, in reality he was unhappy with naturalism in drama. So while everything in the story could really happen, and procedural details (as far as I’m aware) are accurate, and we see Margaret Thatcher and Robin Day on television sets and television presenter Sue Cook, newsreader Kenneth Kendall, BBC weatherman Bill Giles and Labour MP Michael Meacher playing themselves, at the centre of the story is a ghost.
This was an early leading role for Joanne Whalley. While Emma is killed early in the first episode, she continues to appear in five out of the six, visible only apparently to her father, confiding in him, consoling him and pointing him to find out the things he does. While it’s a suspense thriller and a mystery, at its heart Edge of Darkness is a story of grief, that of a father for his daughter, and a story of his search for her, both present and past, and that’s what we end with. There are also more than a few incestuous overtones between father and daughter, particularly as you sense she’s partly had to look after him from quite a young age after her mother and his wife died. These overtones come to the fore early on: see the scene where Craven looks through Emma’s bedroom after her death, while “Time of the Preacher” plays on the soundtrack for the first time. Kennedy Martin’s original script ended with Craven turning into a tree, but this was vetoed by Campbell and Peck.
Peck had been acting on television since the early 1970s, including an episode of Z Cars in 1974, a decade and more of solid work, valued within the industry as a character actor but not likely to be known to the wider public. Edge of Darkness was a lead role and a breakthrough for him. Yorkshire-born and playing a Yorkshireman, Peck’s everyman quality grounds the drama. Soon after, Peck was in demand on screens large and small, in Hollywood as well as in England. He died in 1999 of cancer, aged fifty-three. In the other lead role as CIA operative Darius Jedburgh, the production imported Texan actor Joe Don Baker, who had played a memorable villain in the 1970s in Charley Varrick and had starred in the hit revenge thriller Walking Tall. His Jedburgh is among his best work, with subtlety and shadings belying his bluff and larger-than-life (and physicially imposing, at a big-built 6’3”) character. Further down the cast are stalwarts of British film and TV, Charles Kay, Ian McNeice, John Woodvine, Zoe Wanamaker, Jack Watson and others.
Following that quick repeat (which was the first time I saw the serial), Edge of Darkness won the BAFTA Award for Best Drama Series/Serial, along with acting awards for Peck (Baker also nominated) for the music score and for its photography, editing and sound. In 2010 Edge of Darkness became a film, also directed by Campbell and set in the USA, switching the nationalities of Craven and Jedburgh (played by Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone respectively). Meanwhile, the original series was repeated again on BBC2 in 1992 and on BBC4 in 2003. It received a DVD release in 2001 but is one of the BBC’s programmes now receiving a Blu-ray release.
The BBC’s Blu-ray release of Edge of Darkness comprises two discs, three episodes plus extras on each. For its VHS release in 1987, Edge of Darkness was given a 15 certificate, and it retains that, the reason being “strong violence”. The series dates from a time when strong language was normally not used in scripted BBC television drama, so there is none.
Edge of Darkness was made before the widescreen television era, so the aspect ratio of the Blu-ray transfer is the original 1.33:1. The serial was shot on 16mm film throughout, and this Blu-ray transfer is derived from the original elements. As the episodes were shot at 25 frames per second for viewing on a PAL television service (rather than the big-screen rate of 24 fps) the Blu-ray transfer is 1080i50, even if it does say 1080p on the back cover. Given that some recent Blu-rays of BBC productions are upscaled 625-line PAL (with film inserts in some cases), when it’s an all-film shoot the results speak for themselves. Colours are solid, and grain is natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0. No complaints here: it’s the product of BBC expertise and is clear and well-balanced, with the music (not just the Clapton/Kamen score but the diegetic music too) sounding as it should. The score is available isolated on a different track, and English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The extras are carried over from the previous DVD release and begin on Disc One with various archival items: footage of the 1986 BAFTA Awards (7:32) and the 1986 Broadcasting Guild Awards (6:04). As well as the prizegivings, both of these include short interviews: with Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker, and with Michael Wearing and Bob Peck, respectively. Also on the disc is an interview with Bob Peck from BBC Breakfast Time (6:48). Finally, Did You See...? was a long-running BBC show which reviewed current television, presented mostly by Ludovic Kennedy. It had a similar format to the later BBC series variously called Late Review, Newsnight Review, Review and The Review Show, with the presenter and guests discussing each item roundtable fashion. Here, in 1985 (8:05) they discuss Edge of Darkness, and it's a thumbs up from them.
On to the second disc, and Magnox: The Secrets of Edge of Darkness (34:57). This featurette was made for the previous DVD release so has the advantage of being able to interview those no longer with us, especially Troy Kennedy Martin. As well as cast and crew, we also hear from the serial’s technical advisor Walt Patterson, who vouches for the show’s accuracy about the effects of radiation. Special effects deviser Mat Irvine reveals that one of the biggest effects in the serial was the rainfall as Yorkshire was suffering a drought at the time. He also describes how Joanne Whalley’s shooting was achieved. There are some absentees, Whalley being one of them, and we hear from Michael Kamen but not Eric Clapton. Bob Peck, who had died by then, features in an archive interview. This is a very solid piece that covers all the bases it needs to, though don’t watch it until after the serial as there are many spoilers.
Finally on the second disc is what is billed as an alternative ending (2:24). The difference is really in some of the shots, including the one the end credits play over. This appears to be the credit sequence for the omnibus repeat as the cast list combines those from both Episode Five and Six.