Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TV: Edge of Darkness (1985)

For years I’ve said that Edge of Darkness was the greatest program I’d ever seen on TV. And Stateside at least, nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.

I was a high school kid when this six-part miniseries aired in the U.S. Unlike most BBC productions it didn’t run on PBS but in syndication, which may account for what I remember as a lack of fanfare. I watched it over three consecutive nights, and it left quite an impression. The score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen still drifts through my head, and several images from the closing episode are seared in my memory. I even remember the character names, for crying out loud, and sometimes utter one of them – Darius Jedburgh – to relish its sheer awesomeness.

Ronald Craven is a widowed Yorkshire detective, principled but pliable. He’s in the midst of investigating union corruption when a gunman ambushes him at his home. Craven’s student activist daughter Emma is killed. The theory is that an old adversary is seeking revenge, but Craven begins to suspect that his daughter was the actual target.

The script by Troy Kennedy Martin (Z Cars, The Italian Job, Reilly, Ace of Spies) had the foresight to look past the Cold War and say screw the Russians, we’ve got bigger problems. Corporate malfeasance, environmental radicalism, mistrust among allies and intelligence agencies. It seemed to know exactly what was coming after the glasnost era.

Earlier this month, Edge of Darkness finally became available on DVD. Revisiting it for the first time in over twenty years, I continue to be impressed.

Sure, it’s dated somewhat. In 1985, after all, you had to break into a building to gain access to a computer network. It’s deliberately paced, there are a few story issues, and the politics in the wrap-up can get a touch ... allegorical. But it remains a staggeringly prescient work; it amazes me that Martin addressed these issues directly in the 1980s. And the program’s emotional power hasn’t dimmed a bit, thanks to some dazzling acting.

Joe Don Baker is a revelation as the wily CIA officer Jedburgh, giving the role his all. What’s astonishing is that as powerful as Baker is, it’s still not the best performance in the series.

Bob Peck’s Craven is a man of guarded emotions and inappropriate intimacies – with his daughter, with men he’s interrogating. He’s both genuinely good yet strangely unreadable. Peck died of cancer far too young at age 53, leaving behind a brief but indelible filmography. There’s his turn as the great white hunter in Jurassic Park, uttering “Clever girl” with a note of admiration before he’s slain by the raptor he’s stalking. And there’s Craven in Edge of Darkness, which goes on my list of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Time for some blasphemy. Edge of Darkness has been remade as a feature film due early next year, and I think it’s a good idea. The story is as relevant as it ever was. Martin’s script has been updated to the U.S. by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (the lamentably under-seen Lantana). The roles originated by Peck and Baker are now played by Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone. And Martin Campbell, who directed the original series before rebooting the James Bond franchise not once (GoldenEye) but twice (Casino Royale), is back behind the camera.

However the movie turns out, it simply won’t have the room afforded by the mini-series format to flesh out its characters. I don’t know that I’d still call Edge of Darkness the greatest program I’ve ever seen on TV, but it is in the running. It’s certainly the finest thriller ever produced for the small screen.