Monday, July 28, 2008

Edge Of Reason

After reading AA Gill’s review of Burn Up in The Sunday Times’ Culture section yesterday, where he decided that watching the “bloated, wasteful, gaseously hypocritical beached whale of a miniseries” was akin to “being manacled to the table at a Notting Hill dinner party, or being lectured by a vegan vitamin salesman”, I had a nose around to see whether the other broadsheet reviewers had been as accurate. Of course, this was once I had polished off the twin Sudoku challenge in the News Review section.

Apart from still trying to work out what the fuck Kathryn Flett was talking about – which is par for the course when it comes to the pages of The Observer – most reviews agreed it wasn’t up to much. But it was Thomas Sutcliffe, writing in The Independent, who nailed why Burn Up had been turned into a summer schedule toss off:

If you've watched any polemical thrillers at all, you'll know that they generally keep at least one wide-eyed innocent to hand, so that the sort of information that would go without saying for the main protagonists actually can get said aloud at some point. The ignorance of this character is a proxy for ours, a representative cluelessness that allows us to be told what we need to know.

Not just in “polemical thrillers”, such a practice has practically been de rigueur in most dramas where the environment or institution may not be totally familiar to the majority of the expected viewership. After all that was the point of the companions when Doctor Who was first broadcast in 1963. Since then we’ve had the likes of Tim Bayliss transferred into Baltimore’s homicide unit in the opening episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, Andrew Collin as the new junior NHS doctor in Cardiac Arrest, and medical student John Carter in ER, helping the audience find their way.

That said, in more recent cases, introductory explanations to ease the viewers in only went so far. While Carter, for instance, was shown the ropes in the emergency room, easing the viewers into the workings of the sometime chaotic environs, the experienced doctors and nurses already on staff talked amongst themselves in their professional shorthand. It may have been confusing at times, but it meant that the viewers weren’t treated like imbeciles.

Anyone who watched the recent interview with David Simon on The Culture Show would have heard him claim, “exposition sucks the life out of the story,” and in The Wire, the audience had to hit the ground running. In the first season, viewers would begin to understand how the wiretaps would bring down Avon Barksdale as the officers assigned to Daniels’ detail were schooled in electronic surveillance. But when it came to regular police work, like McNulty and Bunk’s infamous investigation of the Diedre Kresson murder, the audience was on its own.

The problem with Burn Up was there was no proper naïf to introduce us into that world. Instead the “wide-eyed innocent” who needed things explained to him, and seemed truly appalled that lobbyists would participate in dirty tricks and smear campaigns to get what they wanted, was the frigging new chairman of the oil company. Not only did he come across as a complete twat and a half, it sucked all plausibility out of the material.

One thing I did notice amongst the column inches was Mark Lawson rather erroneously compare Burn Up to Edge of Darkness. Troy Kennedy Martin’s classic thriller may certainly be the first green drama as it draws on Lovelock’s Gaia theory, but it’s in a class far and above Simon Beaufoy’s daft little eco-drama. Comparing the two, as Lawson suggested, seems utterly pointless.

So many dramas simply announce what arena they’re going to play in and that’s pretty much that. Burn Up didn’t go beyond the oil industry versus the environment while The Last Enemy’s stamping ground was government surveillance intruding on personal freedoms. With very little wiggle room the narratives tend toward the predictable.

While Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival’s The State Within and Paul Abbott’s State of Play delved into political intrigue, both dramas were distinctive enough, with numerous overlapping story strands, to keep the audience guessing right up to the end. The reason Edge of Darkness still endures, almost twenty-three years after it was first broadcast, is because of how many different layers Kennedy Martin wove into the drama, making it riveting viewing.

Written as a reaction to both the growing political pessimism and positive responses that emerged from the then heated Cold War rhetoric, Edge of Darkness started on a personal level with a Yorkshire policeman unofficially investigating the cold-blooded murder of his daughter. As the episodes progress, and new characters are gradually introduced, the drama flowers into a full-blown, labyrinthine conspiracy thriller.

Intertwining the nuclear industry with environmental politics, the drama ultimately evolves into a battle of wills between Man’s destructive technology and the ancient power of Nature. Has there been anything recently with that kind of scope? Lawson suggested that in the week Burn Up was screened, “an original use of the BBC's digital channels would have been a simultaneous repeat for Edge of Darkness.”

That’s an interesting idea, except not only would it have wiped the floor with Burn Up but every other hour of British drama on the box.


At 5:17 pm, Blogger qrter said...

We all need to let Burn up go. Yes, it probably cost a lot of money that could've been used to fund several wellwritten low-budget productions.. but we have to step away now and try to forget.

Focus on the new season of Mad Men that started on sunday, it'll make you feel better.

At 11:38 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

You're right. I wittered away three posts on that load of old nonsense. Still, it made me watch Edge of Darkness again.


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