*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 31 – The Italian Job

Italian Job

31: THE ITALIAN JOB: 1969. Director: Peter Collinson. UK. Comedy crime caper. Michael Caine. Noël Coward. Benny Hill. Raf Williams. Tony Beckley. Rossano Brazzi. Maggie Blye.
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009), Scottish-born film and television writer, known for his television police (1962-78) series Z-Cars, and the drama serial Edge of Darkness (1985). His filmography was from 1968 to 2004, television from 1958 to 1999. His brother Ian Kennedy Martin wrote another successful police drama series, The Sweeney, 1975-78. Edited by John Trumper. Producer: Michael Deeley. Production by Oakhurst Production. Distributors: Paramount Pictures. Music by American composer Quincy Jones (born 1933). Screen time: 99 minutes. Budget: $3million. Box office: £113,867. It was not popular in the USA, apparently due to a bad publicity campaign, and not much loved by the critics at the time, but has since evolved into almost cult status, not least for featuring Caine, Coward and Benny Hill, the car chase, and the ambiguous ending. Michael Caine played Charlie Croker, reappraising his small-time Cockney crook, who is taking on a heist a bit above and beyond his league. Thus Croker is a bit like Harry Dean in Gambit (1966). Noël Coward (1899-1973), playwright, composer, singer and character actor, played the criminal mastermind, Mr Bridger. Because Coward was a tax exile (his English patriotism didn’t extend to contributing to our well-being), he couldn’t film in the UK, so his interior prison scenes were filmed at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Benny Hill (1924-1992), comedian, actor, singer, writer, played quirky computer expert, Professor Simon Peach. Hill was best known for his long-running television series, The Benny Hill Show (1955-1989), a mixture of old-time slapstick, mime, parody, scantily-clad girl-chasing and double entendre. The Peach character, with his purchase for pinching girls’ bottoms, fits into this persona perfectly. Other cast include Raf Vallone as the mafia boss Altabani; Tony Beckley as Camp Freddie; American actress Maggie Blye (1942-2006) as Charlie’s girlfriend Lorna; Rossano Brazzo as Roger Beckerman, who originally dreamed up the heist; John Le Mesurier (1912-1983) as the prison governor; Irene Handl (1901-1987) as Miss Peach; Fred Emney (1900-1980), British comedy character actor, as Birkinshaw; Stanley Caine (1935-2013, Michael’s brother) as Coco. He also played alongside Michael in minor parts in Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Play Dirty (1968). Another minor cast member was Radio DJ Simon Dee (1935-2009), real name Cyril Nicholas Hentry-Dodd.
On location, we have already noted Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, but the prison exterior is HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Du Cane Road, London W12, a favourite exterior film location. Charlie’s home is Denbigh Close, Notting Hill, W11. Other scenes are at Lancaster Hotel, Bayswater, and Crystal Palace Sports Centre at Upper Norwood, south London. The Turin traffic control building was actually Apex House, Hanworth, then the head office of the television rental chain (long since defunct) Domestic Electric Retails (DER). This was a distinctive three-sided 1960s modernist office block on Hampton Road West, at the junction/roundabout of Twickenham Road, Hampton Road, Staines Road and the Great Chertsey Road (before the M3 flyover sliced through in the 1970s), and which I passed countless times on the bus when I worked at nearby Feltham, from 1966 to 1983. It was demolished in 1994. The various locations in and around Turin include the Villa Della Regina; the Piazza di Citta (scene of the robbery); the Palazzo Carignano; the steps of the Gran Magre di Dio; the roof of the Palazzo a Vela, built for the Italia Expo 1961. Permission to film here was refused, but Peter Collinson reputedly told the crew to go ahead anyway, then made himself scarce! Likewise the Fiat factory Lingotto building rooftop stunt (by ‘stunt king’ Rémy Julienne) was so potentially dangerous that producer Michael Deeley had a ‘getaway’ car on standby. In the event of an accident he planned to get to the airport and fly out straightway, figuring better to be back in England than in an Italian jail! Another dangerous stunt was driving across the weir on the River Po (just down from the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele I in central Turin) – the current was strong and there was moss on the river bed. Julienne used tyres with spikes for grip. However, the sewer tunnel exit was Sowe Valley, near Coventry. Other scenes were filmed at the St. Bernard Pass and Cagnes, in the south of France. The final ‘cliff-hanger’ scene was filmed near Ivrea, Piedmont, the Via Lago Agnel, leading to the Nivolet Pass, which actually does not lead to either France or Switzerland, being a dead end. Two concrete barriers were removed for the coach to dangled on the edge, and apparently were still where they were left at least up until the 1990s. However, again the coach interior shots were at Twickenham Studio, back in England.
Producer Michael Deeley was apparently not satisfied with the various options for the film’s ending, and the abrupt, but literal, cliff-hanger many found rather disconcerting, although potentially it was a good set-up for a sequel; which, however, was never made. Michael Caine also disliked the ending, and even later suggested how Charlie Croker might have up-righted the coach, by running the engine for four hours until the petrol was used up. The gang members would get out, but the gold went over the precipice. In 2008 the Royal Society of Chemistry suggested another alternative. Deflate the front tyres, smash the heavy window glass and drain the fuel tank to change the weight ratio, then place rocks at the front of the bus. Once it was stable again, unload the gold, before hijacking a passing vehicle to escape. The end was certainly unexpected, but has since helped make the film into a cult classic, whilst being spoofed and parodied even since, even in The Simpsons. In 2012, the artist Richard Wilson exhibited Hang On A Minute, Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea (the final Michael Caine/Charlie Croker quote), with a replica bus teetering on the rooftop of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.
Which brings us to the other ‘stars’ of the movie – the vehicles. With the exception of addition vehicles acquired in Switzerland and Italy, the vehicles were all driven over from the UK to Italy, and (those that survived) back again. The coach used in the Alpine adventure was a Harrington Legionnaire Bedford VAL 14, registration ALR 453B. After filming it was sold and returned to being a school bus in School, after which – sadly, with no thought to its cinematic heritage – it was scrapped in 1990. In a 2019 BBC TV Top Gear programme, one of the English stunt drivers, David Salamone, recounted how his mother drove one of the ‘E’ type Jaguars, and his then girlfriend one of the Mini Coopers, from England to Turin. Later, he, Barry Cox and Richard Essame – all young 20-year-olds – drove the surviving Minis (there were at least ten originally) back from Italy. In the UK, however, Cox was stopped for speeding, in a car with a fake registration plate and tax disc, and apparently a boot full of gold bars. Naturally unaware of the film in process, he was straightway arrested! Such were the stunts being planned in Kennedy Martin’s script, that top European stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team were brought in – as Salamone confessed, they were “in a different league”. Although the Minis were stripped down, they had standard engines, and were “fun and manoeuvrable” – “like go-karts”, but had “dodgy handbrakes” – a feature I can confirm the time my first wife hired a brand-new Mini to drive from West London to Scotland and back. After driving along what was supposed to be an ‘A’ road coming back south from Fort William, but roadworks and torrential rain had turned into driving through a muddy field, we pulled up onto the sloping driveway of a B&B stopover, she applied the handbrake, and it just rolled backwards – the brake cable had snapped! Kennedy Martin chose Minis because they were both quintessential British and then the symbol of the 1960s. Ironically manufacturer British Leyland was only prepared to offer six Mini Coopers at trade price, whereas their Italian arch rivals supplied the stunt drivers, allowed access to the Fiat rooftop test track at Lingotto, and put up $50,000 to the production costs. Which company had the better PR? Not all the vehicles survived, of course, including the 1954 ex-Post Office Morris van filmed at Crystal Palace Park, that inspired the famous Michael Caine line, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Yet again, the actual explosion really was greater than anticipated, breaking a number of windows nearby. Apparently the film crew promptly did a runner! Another casualty was the Austin Martin DB4 which was supposed to explode after being pushed over the cliff. Instead it blew up prematurely, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. Eventually, with the filming schedule looming, a Lancia Flaminia 36 was acquired, stripped down and mocked up to look similar to a DB4, and that went over the cliff instead – only for the wreckage to have vanished the following day, presumably scavenged by the locals. The two ‘E’ types, one 1961, the coupé from 1962, were originally purchased for £900 each. Both were later restored and the coupé is said to be in a private collection. One of the Fiat Dino Coupés used in the film by the ‘mafia top brass’, was later purchased by director Michael Collinson. As an example of movie licence, it has since been calculated that, with the 1968 cost of gold being $38.69 per troy ounce, $4milllion of gold would be the equivalent of 3,200kg or 7,000lbs. Therefore, to transport by the Mini Coopers, that would mean 1,070kg (2,300lbs) each, plus the additional weight of the driver and passenger. The weight of the 1968 cars being used was 630kg (1,400lbs), so each Mini would be carrying one and a half times its own weight in gold alone! By the physics it’s just not doable!
Again, The Italian Job is not included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although the editor finds room for Planet of the Apes, The Producers, and even If…., all 1968 – how many people now remember, or want to watch, the Lindsay Anderson movie? Paul Taylor, in a later review for the Time Out Film Guide, is brief, but comparatively complimentary: “The planning and execution of a Turin bullion heist take, for once, a back seat to the stunt-riddled getaway (subsequently pastiched, after numerous TV screenings of the film, by at least one car commercial). As a modest fun movie, it works, much helped by deep casting contrasts and a nice sense of absurd proportions from scriptwriter (and Z Cars originator) Troy Kennedy Martin.”
And, for me, this is its enduring quality. It is one of those 1960s, very British, comedy caper movies, whose humour is often incomprehensible to many non-Brits, including Americans, rather in the original The Ladykillers mode – a gang of criminal incompetents who almost pull it off. It is light-hearted, silly, but entertaining and fun, as well as again now being a window onto that period – clothes, cars, interiors, exteriors, pre-mobile phones or the worldwide web. Latterly, post-2016, the film has become revised as something of a jingoistic, flag-waving, Brexit favourite – not helped by Brexit supporter Michael Caine, with his idiotic “Better to be poor, but free!” nonsense, from a now elderly movie actor whose own wealth or freedom has never been under threat – unlike the rest of us, who have helped make him rich and successful. Certainly there does exist an uncomfortable underlying subplot of ‘we bashed Johnny Foreigner’: English criminal gangs vs. the Italian mafia, bumbling incompetent Italian cops outsmarted by Charlie Croker’s gang of young hoodlums. But at the time Fiat were more cooperative than British Leyland, and bizarrely, in the clips where Mr Bridger celebrates the successful heist in prison, the prison inmates are Southern Irish extras shouting “England! England!” in a former prison (closed in 1924) where Irish Republican Nationalist martyrs were once executed by the British.
In his article celebrating the film’s fiftieth anniversary, in the May 23rd/29th 2019 edition of The New European, Roger Domeneghetti attempted to rebalance this post-Brexit, anti-European interpretation. He points out that, at the time of its release, it “was just one in a long line of heist movies produced in that era. The popular and profitable sub-genre included films such as Topkapi [1964, with Peter Ustinov], How to Steal a Million [1966, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole] and even The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery, whose title aped the real life robbery in 1963 that captured the imagination of the public and film makers alike.” However, he concedes, “The Italian Job has risen above its contemporaries and has repeatedly been voted one of the best, if not the best, British film of all time.” He attributes this lofty accolade to be “Thanks to its bright paisley colour pallet and kitsch iconography [so] the film has come to epitomise the Swinging Sixties, or at least an idealised version of the decade.” The first change to the original concept came when Ian Kennedy Martin tried to interest the BBC in the idea of a television play, set in London. When they showed little interest, he sold the rights to older brother Troy, who saw the better potential as a movie, and moved the main action to Turin. Domeneghetti takes up his persuasive counter-argument: “As Troy Kennedy Martin was starting work on the new film script, British identity was in flux. That identity had long been defined in contrast to Europe. An imperial world view that often treated its continental neighbours with aloofness, even belligerence, was only reinforced by that empire’s solitary resistance to the Nazis in the early days of the Second World War. By the late 1960s, the empire was dissolving into the Commonwealth and Britain’s economic and political status was on the wane. By contrast, the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union, was on the up and as Britain made several, initially rejected, attempts to join, the country was starting to have to think of itself not on the edge but as part of Europe. It was a change of mindset that would not come easily and one that is seemingly resisted in The Italian Job. The soundtrack speaks of ‘the Self Preservation Society’ suggesting of a nation determined to remain independent, while the ship that takes the gang across the Channel is called The Free Enterprise. Most obviously the getaway cars were iconically British Minis painted red, white and blue, which the film producer, Michael Deeley, said ‘obviously made a statement about “us” and “them”’. Some 30 years later, when lamenting that a 2003 remake was to be set in Los Angeles, Deeley went further, arguing: ‘It misses the entire point of the 1969 film, which was about us kicking the European ass. It was the first Eurosceptic film.’
“But that is not how it was originally conceived by Kennedy Martin when he was building on his younger brother’s idea. Heavily involved in left-wing politics, he saw the story as both a satire on Britain’s relationship with the Common Market and a hard-edged political and social commentary. ‘Europe was kind of in flames in 1968,’ he would later say, ‘Revolution was happening everywhere especially among young people like myself.’ That this more subversive side to The Italian Job has long been overlooked is down to Peter Collinson’s light-touch direction, which obscured the more biting satire of British chauvinism in the script, allowing the film to instead become a celebration of British superiority. Thus, to fully understand The Italian Job the creative tension of Kennedy Martin’s and Collinson’s competing visions must be considered. It reflected the antagonism between the Europhile and Eurosceptic approaches to Britain’s relationship with the EEC in the years immediately before membership, antagonism that continued through to the 2016 referendum campaign and has only become more stark since. And while Leavers…might claim the film for their side of the argument, you don’t need to scratch too much below the surface to detect Kennedy Martin’s critique. Look beyond Collinson’s focus on capering and it becomes a somewhat different film. Mr Bridger, the criminal godfather played by Noël Coward who ultimately bankrolls the robbery, is a patriotic isolationist distrustful of Johnny Foreigner. Strains of Rule Britannia! can be heard whenever he is on screen, his cell is decorated with photographs of the Queen and he expresses displeasure that some of the younger prisoners are not standing for the national anthem. Yet he spends the whole film behind bars. He is imprisoned, isolated from the outside world. Croker, unlike Bridger, is not motivated by xenophobic patriotism. On the contrary, he wants to break free of the rigid class-based strictures of British society any way he can. Indeed, when he appeal for backing is initially rebuffed by Bridger, Croker considers taking his plan to the Americans who, he says, ‘recognise young talent and give it a chance.’ The plan for the robbery is not Croker’s. Instead it is the brainchild of an Italian criminal, Roger Beckermann, who is murdered by the Mafia in the opening minutes. Croker has no qualms in fully embracing his European colleague’s plans. Ultimately Croker exploits Bridger’s bluff xenophobic Euroscepticism to gain his support. He offers him the chance to take back control by imploring: ‘This is important; four million dollars, Europe, the Common Market, Italy, the Fiat car factory!’ Furthermore, the film’s production belies the notion of the independent ‘self-preservation society’. Far from a wholly British endeavour, it was actually the result of a union of European talent. The Minis were designed by Greek born émigré Alec Issigonis and were driven by Belgian stunt team L’Equipe Rémy Julienne. While the cars’ manufacturers, the British Motor Company, offered no support, backing from Turin-based Fiat was fulsome. Kennedy Martin’s original ending had the gang making it to Switzerland only to find the Mafia waiting for them. However, Deeley conceived the cliffhanger to cut costs and facilitate a sequel which was ultimately never mind. In doing so, he had unwittingly created an denouement which is a perfect metaphor for the current [2019] state of the Brexit process.
“As the camera pans away and the credit music kicks in, Croker and his gang are left teetering on a cliff edge with no Plan B and the gold tantalisingly beyond their grasp. If they get out of the vehicle and return to safety, they will lose their prize. However, the more they reach for it, the more likely they are to go tumbling with it into the abyss.”
Alas – as remarked above – in 2003, it was yet another great classic non-American movie to be remade and murdered by uncomprehending Hollywood – director F. Gary Gray, starring Mark Wahiberg and Charlize Theron, with the action moved to L.A. and Venice. It would appear to be more bloodthirsty, no humour, with killings, so just another US crime action thriller… Yawn. Only the Charlie Croker and Bridger name survived the transaction. 110 minutes long, the budget was $60million, and box office was $176.1million, so American audiences – ignorant of, or uncomprehending, the original – obviously loved it. It was described as “two hours of mindless escapism”, but why not just write a completely new mindless story with a different title? Why even bother? But it was part of the revivalist trend of the time to take good 1960s-era movies (with great actors) and ‘reboot’ them, as the expression goes, into basically dull-witted, inferior ‘team film’ remakes – example: The Thomas Crown Affair (remade 1999, original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, 1968); and Oceans Eleven, remake 2001, original with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr., 1960.
Finally, in February 2021, Paramount are proposing a television sequel series of Crocker’s grandchildren presumably trying to find where the gold is hidden. Again, yawn. Oh, do we really care?

Edge of Darkness: e06 – Fusion

And so it’s over, and for all the fuss and bother and effort, in the tradition of Blake’s 7, the good guys lost. Craven and Jedburgh died, Grogan got the plutonium, and if anyone were to save the planet, we were left with the impression that it would have to be the planet, and likely in a manner that would be more destructive than anything Man could muster and which would preserve everything – except Man.

That was what Emma Craven believed, in her last and extended appearance to her father, dying of radiation exposure with at most two weeks remaining, warning him away from revenge, a warning that Craven ultimately took to heart. He was last seen on a Scottish mountainside, screaming her name. His death took place offscreen. It had the makings of a legend, the Sleeping Hero syndrome. He is not seen to die, therefore he has not died, but sleeps in a cave somewhere, to return when he is most needed. Troy Kennedy Martin wanted him to turn into a tree, in accordance with his original vision, but everybody revolted against that, so we had to imagine it afterwards.

If the Sleeping Hero bit sounds fanciful then there was more than a hint of fanciful in Edge of Darkness‘s final episode. Kennedy Martin has played with structure to great effect in the back half of the series. The invasion of Northmoor, the descent into literal darkness, was the obvious climax, the big ending the show was inevitably building up to, but that was dealt with in the penultimate episode, leaving us with a rare opportunity to see aftermaths, and to end upon a dying fade that echoed the extremely limited futures for both Ronnie Craven and Darius Jedburgh.

We began with Ronnie, waking from the gas attack in an American Air-base Hospital where he lay alone, until woken by Pendleton with the one thing on anybody’s minds now: where is the plutonium? With Jedburgh. Where’s Jedburgh? Don’t know.

Jedburgh has plans, and they are dramatic in the extreme. He’s in Scotland, looking and feeling worse than Craven, so much so that it nearly spoils his game of golf – and at Gleneagles too! But Darius is there in his capacity of Colonel, a panellist at a NATO Conference on ‘The High Frontier’, or the future of nuclear energy. It’s the opportunity for a face to face confrontation with Jerry Grogan, who’s the first speaker. Grogan spins his vision of the future with the light of fanaticism shining like a beacon from his eyes: it’s an SF dream of rocket flight and colonisation of the Solar System that totally ignores such practical realities as the inability to travel FTL (faster than light) or to actually live on any of the other eight planets in our system (this is before Pluto’s demotion).

Jedburgh will naturally speak against this but he wastes no time on philosophical differences. Instead, in the true dramatic climax of the series, no more than halfway through the final episode, he denounces Grogan’s ‘vision’ as a direct route towards subjugation, dictatorship and the creation of an unshakable hierarchy built upon plutonium. And to general consternation, he opens his case and turns to face the assembled gathering with a bar of plutonium in each hand.

It’s one of the most extraordinary scenes filmed in the whole of the decade, and it beats out most things filmed since. There’s panic, terror, all these staunchly clapping puppets suddenly possessed of the urge to scramble all over each other to get out, as Jedburgh roars at them, unheeded. You’d think the stuff was dangerous or something, the way they carry on. Only Grogan sits there unmoving, perhaps because Jedburgh is between him and the door. The irony is that he is the one, after our Colonel, who knows best the effects of plutonium, and especially the criticality if you bring two bars close enough together. The way Jedburgh does. In Jerry Grogan’s face.

Yet from here all we have is failure, defeat and death: the dying fall. Craven has run from the hospital, with the aid of Clemmy. There is one last, astonishing scene, as they part. Clemmy has become very fond of Ronnie. She wants to help him further. But Ronnie knows there is literally no future in things. She has done so much for him, but she mustn’t follow. And Zoe Wannamaker sits there with the camera tight to her face, and without moving a muscle simply radiates fear, concern, and regret.

Because Craven’s out to find Jedburgh, who’s disappeared again – who’s going to stand in the way of a man with a bar of plutonium in each hand? Everybody’s happy to let him do the detecting, and of course the dogged, undemonstrative Detective Inspector does the business and finds Jedburgh holed up in a remote cottage somewhere out in glorious Scottish hill-country. The final conversation: Craven’s worked it out. Grogan expected the vote over buying out IIF to go against him so pulled strings in Washington to have Jedburgh to get the plutonium by less acknowledged methods. He’s played Jedburgh for a fool. The Colonel grins that ol’ shit-kicking grin and asks if Craven thinks he hasn’t worked that out for himself, but we can tell.

So where is the plutonium? It’s sunk, well-packed, in Loch Leddoch, near the dam, with a detonator. All that is required to set it off is a plutonium bullet, fired from a high velocity rifle. Boris Johnson would approve since detonation would blow a dirty great hole through the middle of Scotland: what price the SNP then?

Craven can’t allow it. He phones the Smugness Boys. An attack force approaches. Jedburgh rises from his chair, gun in hand, determined to take as many of them with him as he can, but Craven just sits there with his whisky: what’s the point? The point is that Jedburgh gets at least half a dozen before he is shot and killed. That is his self-valediction, his dogs to be laid at his feet in the burning ship that will take him out to sea, his Viking funeral. Craven sits at the kitchen table, guns pointed at him from point-nlank range. At last he screams, “Doooo it!” but they won’t: Ronnie is on their side. His last words, this dour, self-contained, down-to-earth Yorkshireman, are in a scream of anger. I am not on your side. In the end, both Jedburgh and Craven ally themselves with GAIA.

There’s very little left and it’s told in a voiceover by Harcourt to Clemmy. The plutonium is safely recovered. Jerry Grogan gets it after all, not that he’ll have much time to enjoy it, not after Jedburgh at Gleneagles. We can only hope that Jerry is the the ‘visionary’ fundamental to his projected wonder future. And Craven on the mountainside, looking on.

If I were to be at all critical, I would say that the show left loose ends all over the places, figures who simply dropped away, unseen and unheard of in this episode, but that was the nature of the series. The prospect of Death concentrates the mind and the peripherals ceased to matter in these last few days. Ross, Godbolt, even Clemmy once she and Ronnie parted. They are part of a future that now belongs to Jerry Grogan, much good may it do him. Neither Ronnie nor Darius had a place there, even if they hadn’t removed themselves from the playing field by their own actions. So I am not critical at all.

Of course you couldn’t make something like this any more. The BBC wouldn’t dare, no matter how much ‘balance’ you introduced, and besides that day is done. Some things can only produced out of the background that preoccupies. Nuclear energy was a subject of great debate and action in the Eighties. Making something about it now would be just as much old hat as making a drama about Flying Saucers. But I am very glad they made it when they did and that we still have it to refer to.

And a word for Bob Peck, who didn’t last as long as he deserved, thanks to that bastard killer, cancer. This is not a bad legacy, however.

Edge of Darkness: e05 – Northmoor

They could just as easily have called this episode ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ because that’s where we were: underground, in the dark, queasily unaware of exactly what was going on. In the shadows, but not penetrating them.

This is the episode that most firmly took me back to the times in which Edge of Darkness was made, a world still very much under the threat of nuclear destruction, a visible, voluable anti-nuclear movement trying desperately to keep the world on track to actually reach the Twenty-First Century. Where has all that energy gone? The nukes haven’t gone away, nor the waste, nor the plutonium. Just us.

Episode 5 saw Craven and Jedburgh, led up to a point by Godbolt, going underground, following the GAIA team’s route of approach, going towards Northmoor. The episode was deliberate in its early approach, long slow shots of Jedburgh snoring, of him shaving, wandering around in his pajamas. Deliberate mundanity, deliberate nothing-to-see-here. Then the build up, heading for the access shaft to the mines. They’re not the only ones on the move. Northmoor knows they’re coming (how? Someone tipped them off. Who? Unexplained, intentionally. On Deep Space Nine, which came after this, I’d have complained of lazy writing, but here it’s of a piece with the series: all over the place, people know things). Four jeeps of semi-military men, set not to repel boarders but to extinguish them.

It’s going to be the same as before. Alternating with the underground scenes we have the Committee meeting. Bennet gives lengthy evidence, admitting to the raid, admitting to the plutonium, admitting to the deliberate decision to flood the lower levels and kill the terrorists to prevent them getting out with the plutonium. Admitting to not telling anyone they should have about this, but only telling the Ministry of Defence. It’s their plutonium.

The coldness of it, the indifference. Though the clearly Conservative member of the Committee was all gung-ho for progress and privatisation (oh yes, those days). If you weren’t already spooked by Ronnie and Darius’s almost-surreal journey underground, you were getting the indelible impression that the Nuclear Industry was One Bad Thing, if it needed people like this to run it.

And the underground journey pinned you to your seat, pressed your shoulders to the chairback, and defied you to look away. From the moment the darkness crowded in, through long tunnels with little more than the pair’s headtorches and the ones in their hands, illuminating nothing, we were in the middle of it, possessed by the conviction that what we were partially seeing, the light at the end of the tunnel, was something unclean, something to instinctively shy away from. Just by having to be carried out in conditions like this, the Nuclear Industry became a thing to revolt from.

Of course, it was being done by smoke and mirrors, but you could know that and still come to the rapid conclusion that this was Wrong, that this was more than just unwise and dangerous but that it was something not to be touched by anyone with sanity in their head and heart. A gift to the anti-nuclear movement, as I said.

But Northmoor was partially crippled. They can’t fully flood the lower levels – with irradiated water, it was not directly pointed out – because there wasn’t enough water, not without exposing the plutonium rods. Thus villainy frustrated itself, as villainy oft does.

Craven and Jedburgh got to the Hot Cell, and here their paths diverged. They joined on this expedition with mixed motives, and now those motives broke things up. Whilst Ronnie holds up the armed men – ridiculously, he with Emma’s revolver kills two men who are firing high-speed machine guns that miss him completely: horribly weak cliche about a thousand levels below the rest of the episode – Jedburgh suits up to steal the plutonium. One for Ronnie, the rest for him, for his superiors, and if Ronnie doesn’t like it, Darius will take his one bar back, off his corpse.

So the alliance, which was never more than two travellers going the same way for a short time – is over. Jedburgh disappears, Craven distracts. Distracts himself into an office of absurdly old telephones, with no exit, as gas pours in like the credits to The Prisoner. A desperate Ronnie finds the one phone that’s still connected, to a disused office in Downing Street. He demands Pendleton…

Next week pays for all. One thing however has been made clear in this episode. Ronnie Craven isn’t just obsessed with finding out what happened to his daughter, Emma (this is the only episode in which Joanne Whalley doesn’t appear). Ronnie is going to his death, knowingly and dispassionately. He’s already absorbed enough radiation to kill him. Ronnie has had a death wish since Emma was murdered in front of him, hell-bent, and I use that term deliberately, on following her. Those early scenes, those slightly disturbing moments, the kissing of the vibrator have now to be seen in a different light. To find out what took Emma away from him, Ronnie must repeat her steps. All the way until he catches up with her.

Think on that until next week.

Edge of Darkness: e04 – Breakthrough

Spend enough time writing stories, and enough time writing about others’ stories, and you start to understand story structure, the forms and techniques that go to building a story. You can recognise the building blocks, the beats, the stages a strongly-constructed story goes through to make itself effective. Sometimes, such things are cliches, lazy writing, substitutes for creativity, but they are part of the better works so it’s better to think of, and refer to them, as tropes.

Episode 4 of Edge of Darkness had me musing on this point early on. Rather like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies it started with a leftover piece of the previous film/episode, Craven’s confrontation with the ex-IRA bruiser McCroon, who intended to kill him. It was played slowly, almost drawn out, as Ronnie points out the flaws in the theory that McCroon killed Emma in mistake for him out of revenge for Northern Ireland and is close to coaxing out of him who hired him, and then McCroon’s head explodes thanks to the Police Marksman Superintendant Ross had not withdrawn as promised.

And there it was: the false ending. The neat wrap-up for the rest of the world, the simple answer that they use to close the case, sorry about the loose endings. It’s there to turn the hero loose, free him for the individual pursuit, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-deranged-obsessive phase that will lead him and us to the truth.

On top of this first step, writer Troy Kennedy Martin, a professional to his boots, built a slow-moving, for a while almost static, episode. Craven, in shock and horror, is removed to a hospital where he undergoes psychiatric examination that produces the usual distorted outcome (Craven relates a late conversation with Emma in which she said that she saw him as a tree, which he didn’t like, which immediately gets translated into Ronnie having a tree fixation, an arboreal complex, that renders him unusable as a witness to a Parliamentary Committee on the Nuclear industry: it’s funny, you’d almost think it was engineered that way to discredit him).

Mind you, on one level you might not find it that hard to discredit Ronnie. He’s back from the Hospital (not till later do we learn he’s discharged himself) and he’s seeing and hearing Emma again, and having conversations. This is one point I disagreed with. First the ten year old Emma, then the Joanne Whalley version appear, the former leading Craven to a piece of paper concealed in one of Emma’s cookbooks, with a list of Tube Stations. This step is a contrivance that sits ill with the rest of the series. It’s rationalistic, it’s solid. And Ronnie finding this paper, even suspecting to look for it, is magic, it’s leftfield. There is nothing on any rational basis to lead him to this crucial discovery, and that’s a cheat.

Re-enter Jedburgh, back from El Salvador. Jedburgh perks things up, builds a degree of momentum that leads through to the end. He tells the story of how, under (President) Carter, he came to assemble GAIA, warns Ronnie about the tunnels under Northmoor and the need to get a 3D map.

And suddenly the pace is jacked up and information floods in. With the aid of a couple of contacts, Craven invades an MI5 base, accesses its computers, extracts information about GAIA and Northmoor (including the aforementioned 3D map) and runs off, just ahead of the enthuisastically pursuing coppers. The Berwicks run clear, Ronnie runs into the arms of Clemmy, who’s assigned to look after him (she will do so on the divan, and later in his bed, the episode’s sole and unworthy drop into cliche). Of course the Smug Boys, Pendleton and Harcourt, know all that’s going on and seem content to let it develop. They bring Craven to Parliament to this Committee that he won’t address but that puts him next to Godbolt, who relates to him the story of how he was bought and sold as a Union man, that Ronnie was targetted because the Northmoor security boys figured he had to lead the fatal GAIA incursion, when it was Godbolt himself who did it: not entirely owned.

So: Ronnie has the map. He’s going in, with Jedburgh alongside him. Pendleton advises him if trouble starts to shoot Jedburgh who, being American, isn’t on our side. And this is where the structural case is blown apart, because this ending is a penultimate episode ending, as indeed is all the build-up to it, and this is not the penultimate episode. Martin is building to something more than a dramatic climax. All tropes are flung wide. We shall see what we shall see.

Edge of Darkness: 03 – Burden of Proof

Classical serial structure. First half questions, second half answers. That should mean that we are now at the fulcrum, that we should shortly be seeing a shape emerge and go on to be defined. Some features are slowly becoming detectable, like an iceberg emerging from fog, but like an iceberg much of it is still buried.

The third episode began with a Police raid, 7.00am, block of flats, more men than surely necessary, several cars, police marksmen all converging to take Low, the man believed to be behind Emma Craven’s death. It’s overkill, surely, for one man. One man, who manages to break free and ‘jump’ six storeys to his eventual death. How much of that does Ronnie Craven buy? Bob Peck is still not letting us behind his watchful eyes but he’s giving the impression of subscribing to the cock-up theory of history, which is more than the audience is currently doing.

As if by provocation, Kennedy Martin introduces our Trade Union friend Godbolt, discussing religion on TV with two vicars, and going out of the way to tell millions (?) of people that his friend Ronnie’s barking up the wrong tree if he thinks there’s some kind of conspiracy knocking around over Emma’s death. Superintendent Ross is of the same mind: Ronnie’s going off his head with grief. It’s simple: Low wanted revenge. So did his partner, the ex-Provo gunman McCroon. That’s all. Nothing more. Methinks he doth protest too much.

There’s only one dissenting voice and that’s Jedburgh. He’s still got this fixed idea Emma was a terrorist, terrorist here being defined as someone concerned about the lethal effects of plutonium, who puts trees and the earth ahead of people (as if there’s a distinction). These people have no humanity.

But there is more going on, a pot still bubbling, whether or not it is being stirred. Emma’s last boyfriend, Terry Shields, comes to Craven, mentions something called a ‘hot spot’. Emma thought there was one in Northmoor, she was hot for it (weak pun). What’s a ‘hot spot’? Terry doesn’t know, Jedburgh doesn’t answer, but he and Pendleton are very shortly at Terry’s place, where the watcher in the van has had his head bashed in and Terry’s in a cold running bath, lovingly clutching a shorted out toaster: it’s not the only thing that’s shorted out.

Pendleton and Harcourt, the Happiness Boys, Smugness Incorporated, want Craven at the House of Commons for 10.00am. A closed Committee is about to go into session. It’s interviewing Jerry Grogan, CEO of the Fusion Corporation of Kansas, who want to buy International Irratiated Fuels: IIF own Northmoor. Their CEO, Robert Bennett, will stay in charge. Craven’s there to be seen and to fluster (and to give devastating but perjured evidence if he wants to co-operate) Grogan, who’s identified by Harcourt as the man they suspect of having Emma killed.

Enter a new player, Clemmy, played by Zoe Wanamaker, a cool, attractive enigma of a woman, a ‘friend’ of Jedburgh whose role in all this is completely unexplained. She appears to be connected to GAIA. So is Jedburgh, according to her: he helped found it.

Questions, all questions. All we know so far is where the questions lead to, where they led Emma and her colleagues to. The biggest question of them all is not what answers lie in Northmoor but, who let them in?

Edge of Darkness: e02 – Into the Shadows

We’re still stumbling into the dark, but the second episode is classic thriller series construction: the lone hero, keeping it all inside makes his first contact with the flambuoyant maverick and the outside edges of the picture are revealed and it’s not a pretty one.

I’m going to be honest and say immediately that I have a serious problem with several characters in this story. Not Ronnie Craven, and certainly not with the ghost of his daughter, still accompanying him at significant moments. Bob Peck is one of the most self-composed characters there has ever been on TV, and even when he is mystified at what the series is growing into, and becoming very much aware that this has dimensions he has never even dreamt of, Craven is a still point, completely focussed.

But we are delving deeply into the secret world, and what’s more the secret world of the dangerous Eighties, when Nuclear War was expected, when dirtiness and a callous regard for we mere people was never far below any surface you touched, when the rightwards swing of politics was gathering momentum and the infamous Spycatcher, evidence of the ferociously Right Wing hardline of the Intelligence services, was waiting to be exposed.

Christ, I hate those bastards! The ones who think that any move towards treating ordinary people decently and fairly, and as human beings, is Communism of the deepest red. And they’re all over Edge of Darkness. Pendleton introduces Craven to his partner, Henry Harcourt (Ian MacNeice), who’s even more smug and intolerable than Pendleton – these boys always act so superior, as if their depths of knowledge create an inbuilt sneer openly directed at everyone for being so much more ignorant than them.
To them, anyone who shows the slightest shade of liberal opinion is a terrorist and a subversive.

The same goes for their ally, Darius Jedburgh, Joe Don Baker unleashed to be as Ugly American as he possibly can, the walking anti-Commie, the Better Dead than Red that instinctively makes me want to turn Communist myself. Baker is unrestrained. he’s more human than Pendleton and Harcourt, redeemed by his openness and general lack of the snidery that runs through Harcourt especially, but both of them, like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

At least the Snide Boys aren’t being presented as anything other as enemies, though of what stripe we’re yet to see, but in his own way, the I-am-right-and-nothing-else-is way, Jedburgh, though a potential ally to Craven, is the same under the skin, and I so do hate these figures.

As for the burgeoning plot, the Police are still treating Emma’s death as an accident, and they think they’ve identified the man responsible, seeking revenge on Ronnie for being put away ten years ago. The episode starts with a powerful scene, men in a room, silent, thoughtful, concentrating utterly on the tape of Ronnie’s interview, as he tries to be as precise as he can as to the events of Emma’s death. From there we go to the unsalubrious lodgings of Terry ‘Tel’ Shields (a young, pre-Blackadder Tim McInnerny), a scruffy, nervous, defensive activist, contemptuous of the Police and Craven, but nevertheless signalling silently that he’s an informer.

This was Emma’s lover. Ronnie’s somewhat incredulous, and he’s certainly contemptuous of Emma’s ghost’s protestations that she loved him – there’s another of those disturbing moments when he repeats Terry’s claim that the relationship was physical in disgusted tones and Emma’s ghost claims he’s just jealous – but he has a point. It’s not just that Terry’s an informer, without even the weaselly courage of his supposedly deep Socialist belief, but that he lives in the middle of a world of surveillance. Every word, every gasp, every grunt, every bedspring squeaked has been listened to. Emma’s sex-life has been without privacy, and what’s more Ronnie realises she will have known this.

But as we move forward, the parameters begin to be established. The name Northmoor surfaces, a secret, private, extremely dangerous nuclear reprocessing plant. Radioactive materials leaked into a Yorkshire reservoir that had to be closed. An enquiry headed by a scientist who dies in a motorway traffic accident. Jedburgh’s file that makes it plain that GAIA sent a team to invade Northmoor, headed by Emma, that was contaminated – deliberately? – whilst in there, and of whom all six have either died or disappeared. And the line that states it is impossible to believe Ronnie didn’t know all about it, and why didn’t he stop his daughter?

This is already a very dirty story, on more levels than we could have imagined last week. It will go deeper.

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.