Edge Of Darkness: Tree Detective

edge of darkness

The Boys From The Blackstuff, The Monocled Mutineer, Edge Of Darkness; in hindsight  it seems as if the 1980’s was a decade of politically sharp television drama. However, Troy Kennedy Martin’s long gestation of EOD (started in 1982, screened in 1985)  arose out of his despondency at the apolitical atmosphere at the BBC – he wrote it to get it out of his system, never believing it would get aired.

What started as an idea around the miner’s strike morphed into a labyrinthine conspiracy thriller. One that incorporated trade union vote rigging; illegal and secret plutonium reprocessing; Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative and eco-terrorism. All of this centred around the quest for the truth by a grieving father, beset on all sides by the iniquities of base causes.

Troy Kennedy Martin in 1985

Troy Kennedy Martin in 1985

Ronald Craven (Bob Peck), a Yorkshire detective and widower, has his life ripped apart when a terrorist face from his past in Northern Ireland intercepts him and his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), a young scientist and environmental activist, on their doorstep, blasting her  to death with a shotgun. It becomes clearer to Craven as he digs deeper while on compassionate leave that there is more to this. Jovial yet shadowy Cabinet Office troubleshooters Harcourt and Pendleton (Ian McNeice, Charles Kay) apprise him of her backgound as an eco-terrorist linked to the Gaia group, and want him to investigate. She, along with others, penetrated the secret Northmoor facility run by IIF (International Irradiated Fuels) which may be the site of a secret and illegal facility in old Government owned mines to develop weapons grade plutonium. Emma escaped with her life, the others drowned as the owners flooded the tunnels, or dead from radiation exposure – a terrible accident has occurred at the “Hot Zone” heart of darkness.

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Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson) a U.S business magnate, intends to buy IIF, the sale subject to an enquiry. Grogan is aware of the plutonium and wants it to fuel his own version of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. Gaia, it transpires, was developed by Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker), a Falstaffian CIA field agent, on the orders of President Carter in the ’70’s, concerned at nuclear proliferation. Now policy has changed, but Jedburgh’s driving motivations are out of step with his masters.

All this would be exciting and gripping in and of itself, but Troy Kennedy Martin had a deeper fascination with themes that echo down to the concerns of the world today. Edge Of Darkness’s narrative drive is wrapped around the grieving Craven’s unravelling of the mystery of who his beloved daughter really was, and an unconscious confrontation, a centuries long conflict coming to a head. One between Craven’s “green man” figure and Jedbugh’s Teutonic Knight; and Grogan, as a descendant of the Knights Templar, guardians of secret and arcane knowledge – a nuclear priesthood. In the middle, the fate of the planet, or Gaia.

As Craven examines Emma’s bedroom in the aftermath of her death, he clutches her teddy bear, and drops the needle on one of her records, Willie Nelson’s The Time Of The Preacher. He then finds a vibrator in her drawer; he raises it to his lips and kisses it with a soft, sad smile. This scene is a beautifully mature realisation of a father mourning  the loss of his child’s future womanhood. At the time, such a bold statement drew bizarre fixation from Bryan Rogers of The Sunday Times, who wrote, “Young women with vibrators are outside my experience of life,” and exasperatedly after episode two, ” There is still no explanation for the vibrator.” The establishment is no less afraid of female energy and empowerment now then when the women of Greenham Common drew the world’s attention to the nuclear precipice. 

It is when Craven next finds an automatic pistol and geiger counter which goes crazy when in contact with the irradiated lock of Emma’s hair in his pocket, that we get the iconic shot of him on her bed, clutching the contrary symbols of her life, teddy and gun, thinking, “What the hell have you got into?”  Willie Nelson’s lyrics play on with ominous foreboding:

It was the time of the preacher

In the year of 01

Now the lesson is over

And the killing’s begun.

Emma’s death is not a “fridging”, setting up a revenge mission by Craven. His ongoing interaction with her image, whether tacitly accepted as her spirit or internal dialogue, underlines a desire to understand and honour her legacy and memory, by finishing what she started – penetrating Northmoor and uncovering the truth. A more fitting and satisfying motivation that makes her a vital and important character.

Troy Kennedy Martin was deeply interested in the Gaia hypothesis, formulated by British scientist James Lovelock, and American Lyn Margulies. They believed that the planet and its surrounding atmosphere is a single living system, a self-regulating mechanism that will maintain the optimum conditions for life. Lovelock placed the earth at the centre of all things, humanity on the periphery. The scientists of Gaia are akin to religious extremists, believing in Emma’s case that they channel Gaia’s / the Earth’s will through their actions to expose the plutonium proliferation threatening to destroy a fragile balance.

He fashioned the idea of Craven as a “green man” – “unconscious of his own past, his nature concreted over by generations of urban life – a man who has lost touch with his roots, not in terms of family and place, but of ancestors and folk memory.” He saw Craven’s destiny as confronting, along with Jedburgh, “the free market forces of modern entrepreneurial capitalism, as represented by the chairman of the Fusion Corporation of Kansas, Mr Jerry Grogan.”

There were, as he saw it, three strands to the story, not all elements to the foreground. The first, Craven’s, begins with Emma’s murder, and his grief. The second, traces the events that happened before her death, and Craven’s investigation. The third, and most obscure, is the rivalry and enmity between Jedburgh and Grogan, a modern day Teutonic Knight of the Marches, recognising the danger of Grogan’s Templar ambitions.

Jedburgh and Craven’s loose friendship is a mocking and disparate pairing; although Craven dismisses Jedburgh’s belief in this aeons long enmity, Jedburgh sees Craven as a similar figure. He mocks Craven has been “freeze-dried from some earlier epoch.”

The Northmoor Hot Zone

The Northmoor Hot Zone

After Jedburgh and Craven  escape with the plutonium from Northmoor’s Hot Zone in a thrilling and tense raid, led by Godbolt, the Miner’s union leader Craven was investigating, and who had secretly assisted Emma’s group, the men are badly irradiated, living on borrowed time. Jedburgh travels to a Gleneagles NATO conference where Grogan is outlining his vision of a “High Frontier.” This Teutonic terrier confronts the “Dark Forces who would rule our planet,” causing a criticality by bringing two plutonium bricks together and signing Grogan’s death warrant by his own source of power.

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Craven, meanwhile, is enlightened by Emma about the Gaia hypothesis; she states this has all happened before,” and the earth will protect itself. (An interesting flipside to the positive message of Gaia here is True Detectives‘s subtext of The Yellow king, and Lovecraftian dreadEdge Of Darkness is the antecedent to this show).

This is the point where friction occurred between Kennedy Martin, director Martin Campbell, and star Peck. Earlier, Emma had urged Craven, on the edge of a breakdown, “You’ve got to be strong like a tree-don’t break! Please dad, don’t break!” This came from the writer’s memories of his divorce, when he felt the severing of the bond with his daughter was like a bereavement. In letters she had urged him to be strong like a tree. Kennedy Martin had envisioned Craven, at the climax, sitting by a loch (where Jedburgh had placed the booby-trapped plutonium), then being shot by a sniper’s bullet as he ran towards Emma, whereupon they would be reunited, co-transforming into a tree. VFX Supervisor Mat Ervine worked out how to do this, using stop-frame animation. However, doing it on 35mm film to match the exterior shot, would have ate up the show’s effects budget. Besides, Campbell and Peck put their feet down at this bark-ing mad transubstantiation, Peck allegedly saying, “I am not  turning into a fucking tree!”

edge of darkness synopsis

An internal BBC synopsis shows the moment just before Craven would turn into a tree (left)

Kennedy Martin came up with a powerful final image in its stead. As the dying Craven observes from a mountain side the recovery of the plutonium and the seeming victory of the “forces of darkness”, he bellows his daughter’s name into the void. The camera then closes in on the black flowers Emma had told him about.

“I derived the black flowers…from Lovelock’s description of the dark marsh grass that spread across the planet at some distant time in the past, when the earth was further from the sun than it is at present. This grass attracted sunlight, enabling life to evolve. It was one of his examples of how the planet reacts to maintain the “optimum conditions for life”. The way I used the black flowers, of course, ran counter to Lovelock’s hypothesis, for today the earth is too hot, rather than too cold. So I have to plead dramatic licence in creating these flowers with the intention of melting the ice cap; the fact that we now know this might happen without their aid is perhaps an example of life, or Gaia, imitating art.”

In 1985, the world’s climate specialists met at Villach, Austria, to discuss the Greenhouse Effect. Today, despite lip-service to Global Warming, Carbon emissions, alternative energy and so on, Government and big business continue to obfuscate in the face of the biggest challenge for the modern age.

NOTE: for further information on Edge Of Darkness, I highly recommend this site, which includes scans of an excellent appreciation in the magazine, TV Zone. A special mention should also go to Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton’s superlative, eerie and mournful score, their first collaboration. A live rendition here.

 UPDATE: I contacted VFX Supervisor Mat Irvine to see if he had any further details on the abandoned tree concept, and if there was such a thing as a storyboard for this, or concept art. He was kind enough to get back to me, and I have his reply below:

Hi Tim

re: the last – nope. Because we never progressed passed the ‘wouldn’t’
it be a good idea to…’ stage, most was done ‘in the head’ and
discussions with colleagues. I assume you got this info from the VFX
book? (Can’t think where else I’d published it?)

But there’s not really much more to add. These days it would have course
been a doddle for CGI, (OK, I’m simplifying it a bit!), but it’s what
CGI is ideal for.

I discussed with producer, Michael Wearing, (more than the Director Martin
Campbell), that it would mean shooting background plates on 35mm film –
for steadiness – the series was shot on standard 16mm – of all the
elements: background, actors – yes both – and the final tree. Then the
‘in-between’ stages of the meeting; twisting and turning into the tree
would have to probably be done with miniature sculptures, probably stop-
framed, and all mixed in. I talked with one of our specialist sculptors
– Morag McLean – in the Department about it and it was all entirely
possible, but a) would have probably cost all + more of the FX budget I
had for the whole six-parts, and b) indeed Bob wasn’t too keen on the
plan. Hence moving to the black flowers…

Sorry not much more to add…

Thanks Mat!

Originally posted 2014-04-06 16:54:10. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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