Review: Edge of Darkness Episode 1: Compassionate Leave


Everything is cyclical, and nothing is more cyclical than fiction. Edge of Darkness, the 1986 BBC political thriller that still scores on those ‘Greatest Dramas Of All Time’ lists started repeats on BBC4 last night. Appropriately, it’s a story about cycles, specifically seasons and how individual lives, and civilizations, are by nature seasonal.

It’s also a thriller, science fiction, a detective story, a ghost story and a meditation on death. And, in this post-True Detective critical landscape, the time has never been better for it to be repeated.

The two shows share a lot of DNA; an overly intellectual, emotionally distant lead who suffers the crippling loss of a daughter, his perception of reality fracturing or enhancing as a result, a boorish partner, a vast conspiracy and supernatural overtones to everything. However, where True Detective is quintessential southern gothic, Edge of Darkness is Thatcherite horror. The first is brash, brutal and leisurely. The second is polite, grey and filled with repressed British rage.

That rage is what drives the first episode, ‘Compassionate Leave’. The first time we meet Ronnie Craven, he’s in a meeting that we soon realize shouldn’t be happening at all. Craven, as we find out in throwaway conversations later, is investigating Miner’s Union leader James Godbolt for voter fraud. Godbolt’s argument is it was only 300 votes of a much larger majority. Craven’s argument is silence. He simply sits at the back of a hall filled with empty chairs and listens to Godbolt play to the audience he feels he deserves not the audience he has. Craven’s response is geologically slow and glacially minimal. Crucially, it’s also unclear just what the men agree. Godbolt reacts as though he’s in the clear but, later, Craven states he’s only delayed the investigation. Someone’s lying, or wilfully misremembering and that moral ambiguity is where the entire show lives. Craven’s a doting father, a highly respected police officer and at the same time, as the series goes on, he’s revealed to be a man who is entirely too comfortable in the grey areas of his job.

That’s also where the show’s multi-genre approach lives, and the first episode’s dialogue is thick with hints as to what’s coming. Craven’s good natured banter with Emma, his daughter, falls away into lines that hang heavy with immense, mutable significance. In particular;

‘When are you going?’


That little exchange is Chekovian in its subtlety and scale. It’s a father getting ready to let his adult daughter leave, a woman who knows she’s dying saying goodbye to her father and, possibly, something much larger than both of them communicating in a way neither is quite ready to understand. Conversely, the last lines they share prior to the murder are just as significant. Hiding under a coat in the rain, Emma, who already knows what’s really going on, says ‘Ready?’. Her father doesn’t reply, they just start moving towards the first steps of Craven’s longest, and last investigation.

That investigation starts, and orbits around, Emma’s death. The actual death is equal parts realistically confusing, brutal and quintessentially 1980s. The lovingly slow-mo shot of Emma near-somersaulting backwards as her chest is blown apart is a guitar riff at a string quartet, a sledgehammer moment in a series that’s previously been needlepoint subtle. It’s necessary though, after all, this is the inciting incident for everything that follows. It’s also, like the conversation before it, redolent with different meanings. Emma’s final words power an entire plot in an upcoming episode and the impact of her fall is felt both by the land beneath her and her father for the rest of the series. Craven’s numb, silent response works in context too; a man whose life revolves around control and his daughter loses both in a second. The echo of the shots reverberates through the entire series, and through him too.

That’s why Craven is near silent for the rest of the episode. He’s numb, deaf to everything but the shot that changed his life. The late Bob Peck has, perhaps, 1000 words of dialogue in the opening episode but he’s communicating constantly. Craven’s posture, his delivery, everything speaks to a man from one of the most emotionally repressed times and locations in British history frantically pushing everything to the back of his mind. He’s barely functional, almost collapsing at one point when he knows no one’s looking and it takes nearly the entire episode for any semblance of control to return. It comes when he acknowledges the easiest emotion he’s feeling; rage. Emma’s pistol appears twice this episode and her father’s reactions to it speak volumes about his emotional progression. When he first discovers it, Craven, soaked to the skin and barely conscious of his actions, lies down on his daughter’s bed with the pistol in one hand and her teddy bear in the other. Much later, in London, he takes it with him to meet Pendleton, the British Intelligence officer who drives much of the story’s second half. A long, nervy steadycam shot follows Craven down from his hotel room to the car park where Pendleton is waiting. The sound of him cocking the pistol, concealed in his pocket, echoes almost as loudly as the shotgun blast that kills his daughter. It’s also as meaningful; Craven meeting Pendleton is his first active step in the investigation. The thematic significance of them meeting both in the basement and during one of Pendleton’s shifts covering the PM is clear; Craven is back in the underworld, back in the grey areas and at home there. Everything is cyclical and the episode proves that both with Craven’s journey and its bookend shots; radioactive material being transported by rail. That’s the secret at the heart of the story traveling in secret through the country and the story. For now.


Edge of Darkness is repeated on Mondays on BBC4 at 10pm. For reasons that defy understanding it doesn’t seem to be on iplayer.

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