Edge of Darkness: e01 – Compassionate Leave

I’ve known for a long time now what TV series I wanted to go onto after Lou Grant – another multi-season affair but not something that will commit me for more than two years. That, however, can go on hold for a short time. The idea behind my current Sunday Watch series, like the Film series that went before it, was that there would be something different more or less every week. It would therefore have made sense to start watching The Singing Detective in this slot, but I didn’t think of that in time. But with socrates7’s enthusiastic embrace of the idea of my commenting on Edge of Darkness as inspiration, here we go.

Edge of Darkness was made by the BBC in 1985, written by Troy Kennedy Martin, a veteran writer from the Z-Cars days, and starring Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker, not to mention the lovely Joanne Whalley in a small but crucial role. I didn’t watch it when it was broadcast, I don’t know why, but I remember the acclaim it received. I didn’t get to watch it for the first time until the last decade, so this is only my second time around.

It felt somehow old-fashioned when I did get to see it, as well it might for something now thirty-five years old. Watching the opening episode made me feel old, in a way that Lou Grant, despite being further back than Edge of Darkness never did. The reason is obvious: Lou Grant dealt with issues that affected its country and Edge of Darkness, despite the universal story it will expand into, is steeped in the affairs of my country, in an era I experienced at first hand, an era that did much to sharpen my own political viewpoints. There is television footage of Margaret Thatcher being interviewed about Britain’s nuclear deterrent late in the episode which brought a lot back.

As an opening episode, ‘Compassionate Leave’ followed a fairly conventional structure, leavening it initially by a compelling if stoic performance by Peck – an unknown up to this point – as Detective Inspector Ronald Craven, and then stirring into the brew some odd and unexpected elements that to this point, hint at the shapeless outline of something deeper.

We start with what seems like a red herring, something for Craven to be doing as the story waits to start. Craven, a Yorkshireman in a Northern constabulary that’s played as being not-Yorkshire but which still feels like it’s set in Leeds, is investigating ballot-rigging in a Union election. That solidly roots the series in a distant time. Ronnie’s under open pressure, by the successful Union Secretary James Godbolt (Jack Watson) and the more silent complaisance of his Superintendant, Ross (John Woodvine) to hold off for two weeks during Conference in Blackpool, so as not to set off (more) political grief. This is a land, and a time, of Industrial Strife

Ronnie assents, silently. A man of few words is our Ronnie, and the vast masjority of them quiet, slow but decisive. Peck uses the minimum dialogue to establish Ronnie Craven as, on the surface, colourless but, not very far below, rock-solid, determined and also very right.

Ronnie has a daughter at College, Emma (Whalley). She’s a activist, attached to left wing and ecological causes. There’s great enthusiasm, passion, an urge to make the future better in Emma and her contemporaries: oh jesus, this is like time travel! It’s pissing it down, to use Ronnie’s words, and it is, and it’s night, and dark, and half the time you can’t see properly, and sometimes the dialogue’s mixed lower than Eric Clapton’s guitar soundtrack, which is entirely deliberate because when Ronnie picks her up, gets her home, has ratatouille ready, some rain-slick, hooded and bearded bastard brandishing a shotgun and screaming something about bloody murdering bastards steps out in front of them and points. Emma rushes in front of her Dad. He lets flies. She is literally blown off her feet and dies more or less instantly.

A police procedural. The death of a young woman. Probably an intended revenge killing, meant for Ronnie. Ronnie silent, in shock, determined that he’s alright, he’s not affected, that he’s fully functioning over the death of his only child, his only family, his wife dead ten years, of cancer, within a year of moving onto this patch. Officially, Ronnie has nothing to do with this investigation. He’s sent on two week’s compassionate leave. But he’s all right. He’s a Yorkshireman.

But that’s not all it is. We started in the dark, with uniformed men patrolling chain-metal fences, with a train moving at night, carrying odd-shaped sealed containers, so we know there’s something in the background. There’s a man named Pendleton (Charles Kay) who’s in London, calling the Chief Constable on his direct line to talk about the unintended murder of a 21 year old College student. There’s a tall, burly American in a stetson hat, giving his name as Darius Jedburgh (Baker) back from Texas and bringing Pendleton aerial shots of something called Northmoor.

And there’s a disquieting scene where the still damp Ronnie wanders round Emma’s bedroom, half sinking into the suddenly-terminated life his daughter had that was her as Emma not her as daughter, and half searching the place like any trained Policeman. He looks at old toys, clothes, wallposters. What we were back then. In a bedside cabinet drawer he finds a pink boxfile with only the word GAIA written on it. Inside there are papers, and a map he doesn’t look at. Ronnie finds a vibrator, a plain, basic white one. Then, disturbing it is, and this was Peck’s spur of the moment improvisation, he kisses it. His daughter’s vibrator. We are in the land of the seriously weird here.

Then he finds a gun. A black, metal gun (sorry, I don’t know gun species). His daughter had a gun. Ronnie sinks back on the bed, brain whirring, a gun in one hand, a tattered but loved teddy bear in the other. Strange scenes.

There was one other thing in the boxfile that I didn’t mention just now. It was something black, shaped like a mobile phone that was bulky even for the times. Though I’m not sure how clearly we were expected to recognise it then, I knew it as a Geiger Counter. After he’s formally identified his daughter’s body at the morgue, and raised his voice for the only, startling time to stop them covering her face, it’s not until he goes home again that Ronnie uses the Geiger Counter. It crackles over the things in the boxfile. It’s louder over the gun. And it goes positively electro over the lock of Emma’s hair Ronnie has kept.

Ronnie’s going to spend his leave in London, where the Met put him up in a decent hotel. London’s where the killers will have come from. He gets a call from Pendleton to meet in the car park. They’ll use Pendleton’s car because Ronnie’s is bugged. Is Pendleton 6 (MI6)? No, but he’s part of a unit attached to the Prime Minister and they’re going to the BBC, where she was just seen being interviewed. Pendleton casually describes Emma as a terrorist (that part at least has not dated). He suggests that it was not Ronnie but Emma who was the target.

And he leaves Ronnie to walk back when the PM’s route to Downing Street is varied. Or is that the real reason? He’s left Ronnie near a railway line. under the bridge a train emerges, a goods train, carrying oddly-shaped sealed containers.

Professionally, an object lesson in writing an opening episode to get you hooked, suggesting but not defining possibilities. What those possibilities are, we shall soon get to see. I should have watched this in 1985.

4 thoughts on “Edge of Darkness: e01 – Compassionate Leave

  1. Still one of my all time favorites, as well. I have a region 2 DVD to play when the mood strikes. Even though I live in the US, I knew of and supported the anti-nuclear movement and we were sometimes shown newsreels on PBS after 11:00 PM

    1. It really is a time capsule. The Britain of then was a seriously different country to the one I live in now, and though I wouldn’t ever want to give up the internet, for all its fears, woes, troubles and Margaret Bloody Thatcher, I would go back to it now. Even though it would only mean exchanging one kind of darkness for another.

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