Edge of Darkness (BBC4 Monday, 10pm) doesn’t need any help from me. And it didn’t need any help from the continuity announcer either, who casually sauntered over the drama’s first big shock (so prepare to look away, because I’m going to quote what she said) before fading up the show: “When a policeman’s daughter is shot dead in front of him, he vows to find her killer. Politics, conspiracy and some violent scenes now on BBC4, in classic BBC drama from the 1980s, The Edge of Darkness.” Yes, with an erroneous ‘The’ tagged onto the title too. Edge of Darkness didn’t need that either. It is, already, definitive.
But it’s been a while since I watched it. First time around was, I think, a repeat showing some time in the early 1990s wherein it was as thrilling and as bleak and clever as I’d heard it was. Then again on video, on DVD… until I got rid of all my videos and DVDs figuring everything comes around again. And I’m so glad to see it. Shot in beautiful shades of blue on ageless film stock, we’re far enough away from the 1980s for its world to feel, less like the past, but a whole other reality. It’s a beautifully drawn place where an impassioned Michael Meacher stands at the fulcrum of a group of dynamic and politically motivated students and the CND logo has a fearfully weighty relevance. It’s also a place where our leading man – Ronnie Craven – owns an AGA, but remains one of the proletariat, eating ratatouille from a can.
It’s all so good, in fact, it now nearly feels like cliche. Take the character of Pendleton played by Charles Kay. He’s the epitome of what so many political dramas try for, a charming but oblique civil servant who portends danger. We’ve seen his type so many times since. Meanwhile, Martin Kennedy directs with a real swash; roaming cameras and tons of crane shots. From thereon in, that’s how everyone’s tried to do it. And the music by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen sounds so hungry for the drama, today it borders on parody. When the urgent piano riff kicks in at the end, and a container train leaves London, it still works like an endorphin rush. You almost bodily know you’ve seen something brilliant.
But there’s one element that hasn’t ever been replicated – Bob Peck’s performance. He brings a stillness and a real certainty to Craven. And it’s unfancy, Peck forging on straight ahead through every scene. His hawkish face and the slight whistle on his ‘s’ sounds makes him seem almost predatory.
Let’s leave it there before I embarrass all of us with this florid praise. And, good grief, we’re still yet to properly meet Darius Jedburgh.
I’ll make small potatoes out of the fact that, earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to go along to the Monty Python thing at the O2. But it does give context to what follows. And that’s Imagine… (BBC1 Sunday, 10.35pm) in which Alan Yentob – because it was he – met up with the performers as they readied for their 10-night farewell comeback (if that makes any sense). Perhaps minded the BBC hadn’t won the rights to televise the Python’s last stand (Gold Sunday 20th, everyone), this documentary seemed adamant to dull the appetite for the revival, opening with 1999 clips of the Pythons variously talking about how embarrassing it would be if these old farts tried to get it together again. Cut from that to Eric idle and John Cleese napping on a sofa. Cut to a PR counseling them in the green room of Loose Women that they’re really excited to be back together. “I’m not entirely sure they can pull this off,” fretted Yentob in voiceover, never getting around to actually putting his worries to any of the participants.
Actually, that was probably because Yentob was too busy going in search of himself. Trying to leaven more Alan into the documentary, as if this was a subject that could only hold interest when refracted through his prism of Alan-ness. He might say he’d authored this piece. But it was more like a protracted bout of photobombing.
And then there was another type of artillery, John Cleese – who has has become quite the worst spokesperson for the group – bazook-ing any goodwill by banging on about his alimony, the press (“Treacherous British newspapers”, as if he’s owed some kind of loyalty) and even bad-mouthing the canon. “Oh sketches that I’m excited about doing? Hmm. None.”
Ignore that. Against all reasonable expectation, at least as far as I’m concerned, the Monty Python stage show is triumphant. I even felt emotional. Alan and John, say no more.
Last month I moaned that The Complainers on Channel 4 was based on a spurious pretext. One might be tempted to level the same accusation at 1964 (PBS America Wednesday, 9pm), a feature-length documentary by Stephen Ives, predicated on the fact it’s, well, 50 years since 1964. But that’s undue flippancy on my part. As Ives effectively lays out, this was a coming of age year for American politics, pivoting on Lyndon B Johnson bulldozing the Civil Rights Act into existence. Compiling a piece like this, of course you’re only going to pull upon elements that feed into the central narrative, but it was still an utterly compelling thesis. This was the year the Beatles met Cassius Clay (“Who were those sissies?” he asked when they left), The Feminine Mystique became a best-seller, there were riots in Harlem, the KKK killed three Freedom Summer campaigners and Sam Cooke sung A Change is Gonna Come. Ives calmly talks us through each, a reasoned voice in a storm of activity.
It’s a sad story too. LBJ, the most progressive and liberal president the country had seen, signs a memo to commit American troops to Vietnam, and commits himself to ignominy in history. But that’s more the story of 1968. I’ll happily be there for that come the anniversary.
The Secret Life of Students (Channel 4 Thursday, 10pm) follows freshers at Leicester University, cleverly mapping their social media interactions into the story. It’s very neat, texts, tweets and Facebook updates bobbing up into the picture, following the slant of a kerb, meshing with the environment. “I went home crying xxx” says one, appearing like a passing street sign. That’s the good bit. What I wasn’t so sure of was the way the programme baits you into sitting in judgement on the participants. I don’t want to do that. Not the ones who give their drinking game “a Nazi twist”. Not, Aiden who “loves his banter” and tells us he “loves pushing the boundaries on Facebook and Twitter” as if there’s some worth in that. I don’t want to feel a subsequent secret prickly pleasure when he’s diagnosed with an STD. He texts his pals, trying to turn the situation into capital for his boundary-pushing persona: “Got chlamydia banter”. Tempting, but no.