"Edge of Darkness - Interpreting Topical Trash"
© Fred Inglis, 2000
Edge of Darkness was made by the BBC and shown in 1985. I take it to be one of the most remarkable works of art made for British television. It is what Vladimir Nabokov once called 'topical trash'. That is to say, its subject matter is the most everyday and urgent of fears. It exudes what at first looks like pious concern for superstitious environmentalism. It is very specific about real events: its action includes the very NATO commanders' conference held at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland in 1985, hard by the venerable golf links, at which Reagan's negotiating policy for Reykjavik was prepared.
Television is nothing if not topical. But in addition, Edge of Darkness settles viewers into the cold war frame of feeling and onto the edge of their seats by hanging out all the usual thriller signs - the smell of duplicity, the secret-service paraphernalia. Then it simply walks away from them, and viewers on the edge of their seats are left there, looking for the wrong climax.
The beloved daughter of Ronnie Craven, a widower policeman, is inexplicably murdered as he brings her home in the rain after a student political meeting. She is blasted away with a shotgun as they walk toward their village house in Yorkshire. (Near the end of the five-hour-long series we learn quite casually that on the spot where she died a spring gushed out where no spring had ever been before). Craven discovers that she had been an active member of a secret green group that has penetrated hidden underground vaults where nuclear waste is stored and uncovered deals being done between US and British corporations in weapons-grade plutonium.
Through the action runs the leitmotif of a mysterious freight train carrying a squat ovenful of millions of years of radioactive sludge, trundling and clanking over points, moving as such trains do around us every day.
The police know who the killer is; a hit man from Northern Ireland, where Craven, the mute and anguished hero, was a crack interrogator. Craven baits the killer to his house, again in torrential rain. At the moment when the killer, a shotgun poking into Craven's neck, is about to tell him why he shot the girl, he is shot himself by watcher-police above the house. The girl, a beautiful, big-eyed, cheerful Yorkshire lass, helps her father as a ghost. Sometimes a little girl, sometimes eerie, more often a reassuring presence as well as a keen blade of loss, she is ghostly in the way the dead are to those who loved them and to whom they were as familiar as breathing or loved music. She disappears only when something in her father's feeling goes wrong.
Craven is joined in his pursuit of the truth by a devil-may-care CIA man, Col. Darius Jedburgh, who is under enigmatic orders to 'break into the ball park and steal the ball'. Jedburgh has already infiltrated the greens and helped them get into the plutonium store so that he can report to US intelligence the records of their plutonium which the British keep so dark. But now something cheerful and attractive and anarchic breaks out in him, the duplicity in which he thrives subsides, and Jedburgh speaks as simply as Deerslayer of the war between good and evil, the future of the planet. His English ally in this special relationship, rationalist and empirical and domestic to the soles of his caving boots, wants knowledge, not revenge. But in this case, knowledge would be as good as revenge.
They enter the labyrinthine plutonium store together, guided by an old acquaintance of Craven's, a leader of the National Union of Miners who has both secret responsibilities for the underground store and charges of ballot-rigging pending against him. The elderly miner helps them out because, as he says, he 'hasn't sold out completely'. The trio silhouette a new political alliance ranged against the reckless new freebooters of an economy run wild who will take any risks with the future of the world for the sake of the profits and a thin line of advantage. They are the most fearsome soldiers guarding the new world order that will replace the cold war. They are the strategists of what Raymond Williams , a couple of years before Edge of Darkness was shown, called 'Plan X':
Plan X is sharp politics and high-risk politics. It is easily presented as a version of masculinity. Plan X is a mode of assessing odds and of determining a game plan... To emerge as dominant it has to rid itself, in practice, whatever covering phrases may be retained, of still powerful feelings and habits of mutual concern and responsibility... At the levels at which Plan X is already being played, in nuclear arms strategy, in high-capital advanced technologies, in world-market investment policies, and in anti-union strategies, the mere habits of struggling and competing individuals and families, the mere entertainment of ordinary gambling, the simplicities of local and national loyalties ... are in quite another world. Plan X, that is to say, is by its nature not for everybody. It is the emerging rationality of self-conscious elites ...[and] it is its emergence as the open common sense of high-level politics which is really serious. As distinct from mere greedy muddle, and from shuffling day-to-day management, it is a way – a limited but powerful way – of grasping and attempting to control the future. (1983: 248)
Plan X in Edge of Darkness is enacted by an insolent Tory minister, a cold, hard, youthful English businessman who owns the mines and drowns all trespassers, and a neat, boyish, middle-aged American who is an evangelical of the space-travelling future and the vizier of the plutonium bazaar.
The two heroes find the hot cell by way of tunnels and vaulted rooms hollowed out by miners' hands more than a hundred years before – 'Victorian values, Mr Craven'. (They also find a nuclear war retreat and museum store built just after the Cuban crisis, sheltering a whole vintage of chateau-bottled St Julien and the best concert LPs of the day). After breaking into the cell, they shoot their way out and, fatally irradiated, steal two blocks of plutonium in a green Harrods bag, and escape to break the news.
Driven by their different recklessnesses, each is now doomed to die. Jedburgh goes off to Gleneagles, leaving a trail of CIA corpses behind him. At the hotel, in an effort to push the story out into the public domain and thereby to save it, he clashes his two plutonium pieces together in the face of his evangelical enemy. The generals, admirals and technocrats pile out of the conference hall in undignified terror.
No news escapes. Jedburgh primes his deadly stuff into a crude but serviceable atom bomb. ('Plutonium may not be user-friendly but as a means of restoring one's self-respect it has a lot going for it'). Craven tracks him down and, for Scotland's sake, reports his whereabouts. Craven's ghost-daughter visits him and leaves him a flower of the hardy black alpine perennial that she loved and which lives above the snow line of the unreceded ice age. Jedburgh chooses death in a bloody shoot-out; Craven sits it out with whisky in the kitchen. In the last shots, the plutonium in its improvised bomb is safely winched from the loch while the dying man watches alone from the top of a rock face. The wind whistles thinly through clumps of the black flower as the credits roll.
Maybe some improbabilities are too much; the news of Jedburgh's conjuring with plutonium would certainly have leaked out. The underground gun battle would not have been quite so crass. The Greenpeace environmentalism is a bit kitsch, and Jedburgh is too much altogether. (In one exquisite touch, we learn that his passion besides golf is watching TV ballroom dancing). But these faults are trifles in a narrative that so masterfully gathers up the themes of Plan X and connects them with the ordinary details of British political life. Edge of Darkness ties together the commonplace murderousness of Northern Ireland, the arrogance of a party then too long in power, the always faltering nature of an economy whose leaders will try anything for the sake of profitability, and the lived concerns of a new, intelligent generation convinced that the rich world must revere the authority of the planet before that authority exacts the obedience that is due.
Williams, R. (1983), Towards 2000, London, Chatto and Windus.
© Fred Inglis, 2000