Monday, 3 December 2018

On a Thousand Walls #15: Edge of Darkness (1985)

(Spoilers as ever. But this is a piece of TV that's well over 30 years old, so frankly, who cares?)

One of the things that I've spent a deal of time looking at since this film and TV project became a serious thing, rather than just a movie marathon that got way out of hand, is how the conditions for cultural moments reproduce themselves, how a trope or a plot concern can be utterly of its time, and then some years later becomes really dated, and then a bit later still it looks utterly prophetic. And that feeds into this wider idea I have of folk horror as a hauntological thing, which is in short how we make movies about witches in the woods when we as a society are haunted by the feeling that history is unresolved, that the past has business with us.

And the difference between the urban wyrd (or the urban weird as I'm becoming more inclined to spell it) and folk horror is that the precise grounds for this discomfort, both literal and metaphorical, are different. The psychology of the urban landscape admits a different sort of haunting. I mean it's not even that an urban wyrd/weird story happens in a city as such: both Dead Man's Shoes and Helen, for instance, as well as Edge of Darkness, which I'm going to be looking at here, pivot on events in green spaces, but it's how the body politic intrudes on those spaces that makes for the status of the haunting.



Often the sources of the haunting are very present, very contemporary; they're post-industrial in their character, and often manifest around the bogeymen of the news media, specifically the manifestation of it as industrialised, automated folklore. In Dead Man's Shoes, horror comes from every direction from and for the socially abandoned, whether they're petty criminals or a mentally ill veteran of the Iraq War. In Ghostwatch it's the ghost of a paedophile. In Death Line, it's the relicts of the workers who helped create industrial life. In Brimstone and Treacle the Devil's wiles insinuate him into a home infected by the banal moral sickness of the National Front (whose sickness, let's not forget, would later metastasise into the BNP and, later still, would develop a newer, therapy-resistant strain in UKIP, surely the superbug of political parties).

David Southwell prefers the term “ghost soil” for this way in which human community haunts and is haunted by the landscape, and how the character of these hauntings shapes both the landscape and the community. I think it's a better term than either “folk horror”, or my own even less user friendly attempt, “pagan film”: the limitations of those labels are immediately and powerfully apparent as soon as you start to extend them, and even at times can produce misunderstandings and deep contextual problems, especially when you start looking at the folkloric landscapes of other cultures.

The thing about history, and this goes double for unresolved history, and for ghost soil, which is its setting and receptacle, is that there isn't a cut off point, there isn't a place where it stops. The new haunts us. 
Edge of Darkness, as produced by the BBC in 1985 (and ignoring the 2010 movie version, which shares little with its original other than a director) is awash in unresolved history, and most of that still lies in living memory. Detective Inspector Ronald Craven (Bob Peck), investigating corruption in a miners’ union, witnesses his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), an activist, shot dead on his doorstep by an Irish man who cries out: “Craven, you murdering bastard!”

Craven was stationed in Northern Ireland in the 70s and did some very questionable things there. He manipulated, lied, and yes, things he did led directly to people dying. It was explicitly his job to do these things, and naturally, since his name is on several hit lists, Craven's colleagues and superiors assume that it was an attempt at a hit on him carried out by a Republican paramilitary. But Craven soon begins to suspect that he was not the intended target after all.

As she dies in his arms, Emma's last words are “Don't tell.” Craven begins to find evidence that Emma's activism was rather more direct than he thought. As he delves deeper, he discovers that Emma was part of an radical environmentalist group called Gaia, and that she led a raid on Northmoor, a nuclear waste plant that was in fact manufacturing weapons grade plutonium; the plutonium is the product of a wider conspiracy that extends across the British and US intelligence services, across governments and corporate interests. He gains the interest of a CIA operative, Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker), and a pair of nebulously tasked Whitehall civil servants, Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice). These men, along with a British intelligence agent called Clemmie (Zoë Wanamaker) serve as Craven's guides into the labyrinthine depths of the conspiracy. None of them is entirely trustworthy, though, and it's never entirely clear what side anyone is on, or even what the sides are. By the end, we know as much as anyone is likely to, and while the fate of the prime mover of the conspiracy is sealed, the conspiracy itself isn't stopped.

If that was everything, it'd be a bit thin, frankly, a standard conspiracy thriller, but what makes Edge of Darkness unforgettable is the way that a persistent strangeness, a weirdness even, continually seeps into the story's cracks, so that without being science fictional or supernatural in and of itself, we understand that we are seeing a succession of hauntings, and that the story is the first act of a coming apocalypse.

The weirdness is all the more weird because the show is so very grounded in the real world – after Emma’s death, Craven appears on Crimewatch UK with Sue Cook, for example, to put out an appeal to find Emma’s killer, which makes complete sense; Harcourt and Pendleton, for all of their connections and power, work out of a run-down office and get some of their cash from the Arts Council through a funding dodge. Jedburgh makes a point about the importance of Craven’s quest in a conversation about a Willie Nelson song.
As the story progresses, Craven, although a compromised man, changes his views, even changes sides as he learns what his daughter fought for and what is at stake. He's haunted by his daughter, sometimes as a disembodied voice; sometimes she appears to him as a child; sometimes she appears as an adult. They converse. She tells him things she never told him when she was alive. There are no special effects to speak of; she's there and then she isn't.

You're not supposed to know if she's actually there or not. It's irrelevant whether she's in his imagination or is a literal ghost. All ghosts are in some way metaphorical anyway. What matters is the haunting. Craven is haunted. Emma is an unresolved history. And like all histories, big and small, she has secrets. In the first episode, “Compassionate Leave”, Craven, led by a vision of Emma as a child, goes into her room. He begins to go through her things, and quickly realises he knows less of her than he thought. He finds her teddy bear, a signifier of the daughter he knows. In a pink box file printed with clouds and stars, the sort a teenaged girl might have, he finds maps, and opaque documents, and a geiger counter, which defines a world of her interests he was never part of. He finds a vibrator, because his daughter is an adult. And then he finds a handgun. Later, Pendleton will ask Craven if he knew Emma was a terrorist.

Craven lies, and says no. He keeps saying no, first because he's lying to himself, and then because he comes to the realisation that she was right.

The scene in Emma's bedroom sets up the grounds for a haunting. If a haunting (if we start with Derrida, via Miéville) is about layers of truth, buried, which insist upon uncovering themselves, truths that assert themselves, truths that won't lie down, no matter how hard they are bullied into silence, then the gradual discovery of Emma's self through her bedroom effects is the first assault of a suddenly unresolved past on the present. The teddy bear is the signifier of the child Craven thought he knew; the vibrator is the sign of adulthood, and Craven's reaction as played by Peck here is perfect, initial surprise followed by almost immediate acceptance, because of course she was an adult. The Gaia file is itself printed with pink and white clouds, very much a kid's piece of school stationery repurposed for something more serious, and in a way itself symbolises Emma as he sees her: his daughter, who encloses secrets. And finally, darkest of all, the handgun, and it's important to underline that this is the UK here, and here if you've got an automatic handgun of your own (as opposed to on loan from your work) it means you're a criminal or a terrorist.
But what's a terrorist, anyway? In Emma's case, she was a member of Gaia, and that was prepared to take direct and decisive action for the sake of the planet. But the last action she undertook went badly; people died. Jedburgh knows this. In the 70s, the CIA sanctioned him to found Gaia as a counterintelligence operation to hinder the UK's nuclear programme. In the 80s, they tell him to shut it down, and he couldn't; now he was using them to investigate Northmoor, and his investigation coincided with Harcourt and Pendleton's.

The alliance between the CIA agent and the civil servants is shaky, but all of the alliances in the conspiracy around which Edge of Darkness is centred are. The conversations, always civil, cordial even, between men who might next week be enemies and in some cases almost certainly despise each other, are fascinating in their tone, in what is left unsaid. They are a reminder of how much store was laid in the “civility” that has drained out of political discourse in recent years, and the damage that this “civility” did, how people could sell out everything they knew for the sake of people they were polite to. I'd be mad to posit that the political culture that replaced it is better, exactly, but you know where you are nowadays, I suppose.

And all of these alliances are haunted. Gaia, a move made in an era where the pendulum of CIA/MI6 cooperation had swung toward the hostile (an era where, we discover, Clemmie and Jedburgh were on opposite sides of the civil war in Nicaragua, and here I suppose it's useful to mention that one of the particular assumptions of British conspiracy lore is that the US and UK's foreign intelligence agencies are de facto enemies, even if the governments are supposedly allies).

If you go down this line too far, you can wind up saying that any spy story is a bit hauntological, and while spy stories are often surpassingly weird, and there's a reason why “spy-fi” is a thing, obviously when you start admitting a whole massive genre of its own into the fold it'll quickly get absurd. But Edge of Darkness falls neatly into the most hauntological end of that spectrum, what John Tynes called “Badges and Secrets” (into which we might slot The X-Files as a transatlantic counterpart).

And this is largely because it frames the secrets of its story as a haunting.
Jedburgh, too, is haunted, seeing himself in a way that's almost magical, a secret combatant against the forces of darkness. It's worth remembering that John Dee, the magician, was also one of the founding fathers of what we recognise as international espionage. Jedburgh has much of the magician about him, playing the fool and the trickster as much as the initiate. And his enemies see it that way too. In his confrontation with the man at the heart of the conspiracy, American industrialist Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson), Jedburgh delivers a speech at a NATO conference where he declares that the new world order is in the hands of people like Grogan who see themselves as Teutonic Knights, mystical hoarders of knowledge and power. In the aftermath, Bennett (Hugh Fraser), Grogan's British counterpart and the man directly responsible for all that has befallen the Cravens, says that Jedburgh's rant was a load of nonsense; but Grogan knows what he is. 
Bennett: The man is completely insane. He completely misread Jerry's argument.
Grogan: Did he? I thought he put his finger right on it. 
Conspiracies of various kinds, of various levels, are a staple in the “urban weird” just as they are in “folk horror”, and just as the hauntings in the urban weird are reflective of an industrialised body politic, so too are the conspiracies. But the hauntings are still hauntings; the conspiracies are still conspiracies. The folklore of the industrialised age is still folklore. And people are still people.

Emma's matter-of-fact apparitions (apparition is a better word than ghost, I think; it's more equivocal, more vague, and vagueness is a virtue here) act as a sort of tragic chorus for the drama, and other hauntings, less explicable, intrude. A spring emerges from the ground where Emma fell. And Craven's own fate becomes itself a haunting.
(footnote: Nearly every discussion of Edge of Darkness you are ever likely to read mandatorily includes a statement like, “In the ending as originally written, Craven becomes a tree.” It's irrelevant, obviously, because it's not the ending we got, but that's never the point. Anyway, if you're the sort of person who is interested enough in a 33 year old piece of television to read this far, the chance of you knowing this fact already is much greater than zero.)

Emma's apparition explains one of the stranger parts of Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis to Craven: in order to regulate its temperature, the planet caused by some difficult to imagine process black flowers to evolve, blanketing the world and raising the world's temperature by conserving the heat of the sun. If these flowers return, it is the world itself protecting itself by wiping out the human race.
Emma: Dad, it's happened before, you know. Millions of years ago when the Earth was cold, it looked like life on the planet would cease to exist. But black flowers began to grow, multiplying across the landscape until the entire surface was covered in blooms. Slowly, the blackness of the flowers sucked in the heat of the sun and life began to evolve again. That is the power of Gaia.
Craven: It'll take more than a black flower to save us this time.
Emma: This time when it comes, it will melt the polar ice cap. Millions will die. The planet will protect itself. It's important to realise that. If man is the enemy, it will destroy him.

In material terms, Craven and Jedburgh achieve very little. The bad guys win, essentially: Jedburgh and Craven are dead or dying, the conspiracy has lost nothing and those representatives of the establishment who assisted Craven and Jedburgh are brought into line (since the job of a civil servant is literally to serve the state, and it was only when they were under the misapprehension that the conspiracy opposed the state that they were able to offer assistance). If Grogan is also doomed by a fatal dose of radiation, it matters little because there's the real sense that the conspiracy will get along just fine without him. But Craven knows the truth now, about Emma and himself.
Emma always imagined her father as a tree, a being rooted in the world. And although he's compromised in ways that he could never tell her, just as every man in the drama is (arguably Emma is the only character who isn't), he's nonetheless purified by his ordeal, even as he, like the planet, experiences a slow death. His final act in this drama is to scream his daughter's name, a cry of rage and frustration, as the forces of government retrieve their plutonium from the lake below.

And then he is gone, and in his place grows a field of black poppies. His rage is the rage of the planet, his cry its cry. Craven's journey into truth is, we are led to infer, the grounds for the earth's grievance and the beginning of the extinction of the human race: if we don't do for ourselves, the planet will do for us first. In a sense this embodies one of the central themes of “ghost soil”, regardless of whether we define it as “folk horror” or “urban weird”: the truth doesn't set you free, it only informs you of the inevitable.


Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!




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