They're still out to get you

The Thatcher/Reagan Eighties were a fertile time for paranoid political thrillers such as Edge of Darkness; in our post-11 September world, says Gerard Gilbert, conspiracy drama is set to make a comeback
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The news is that Channel 4 is to ditch its Top Ten evenings. In the unlikely event that they are ever reinstated, however – and the even more unlikely occurrence that an entire soirée is dedicated to my Top Ten television programmes of all time – then up there with Fawlty Towers, Pennies from Heaven and Emma Peel-eraAvengers (I could go on), one would find Edge of Darkness.

Scripted by the former Z Cars and The Sweeney writer Troy Kennedy-Martin, and screened in 1985, Edge of Darkness told of a Yorkshire police detective (played by the late Bob Peck) searching for the real cause of the violent murder of his scientist daughter (played by Joanne Whalley, as she was then). His hunt turns into a frightening odyssey into the dark heart of the nuclear state. Funny (in a scary Joe Don Baker sort of way), tender (the scene where a grieving Peck caresses his daughter's vibrator is the one most often quoted in this context) and politically clued-up, the question ever since is why nobody else has tried writing a new series of this order.

Well, now somebody has – and not just anybody. The Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger, along with the journalist and screenwriter Ronan Bennett, has written Fields of Gold, a two-part thriller about GM crops and government collusion with big business in the dodgier dealings of the biotech industry. Anna Friel – the Joanne Whalley de nos jours, one might say – plays a press photographer who finds herself investigating strange happenings down on the farm.

Fields of Gold joins The West Wing, 24 (one the most cultish hits since Twin Peaks) and a new British drama about MI5, Spooks, in a new wave of TV drama imbued with both political intelligence and paranoia. Has television rediscovered its own edge of darkness?

Ronan Bennett, the co-writer of Fields of Gold, is sceptical. A screenwriter – he wrote the BBC's controversial IRA drama Rebel Heart – and a Guardian journalist, Bennett doesn't think political thrillers are cyclical. "Does it go in waves? I'm not sure that it does. This particular project appealed, but we didn't simply think that what television needed now was another political thriller. There is, however, an existing paranoia that political thrillers tap into."

Mischievous rival newspaper diarists have suggested that Rusbridger's interest in genetically modified crops was personal and "nimbyish", because there was a GM test site near his country home. The truth is that Fields of Gold grew out of a series of Guardian articles on so-called Frankenstein foods.

"The nuclear thing has passed to a large extent," says Bennett. "Alan's idea was that GM crops are what people are concerned with now. If you look at the ramifications, they are even more serious than the nuclear threat of the 1980s."

I wondered if Troy Kennedy-Martin thought the "nuclear thing" had passed. His Edge of Darkness is what Bennett calls "the standard we all have to live up to" (Fields of Gold doesn't, needless to say, but it's a fair stab). Would he make the nuclear state the central issue of a political thriller if he were writing it now?

The question is not just academic. Martin Campbell, the New Zealander who directed Edge of Darkness for the BBC, has optioned the story to be remade in an American context. Kennedy-Martin declined to be the author of the new screenplay. "It would be difficult to transplant it to America in the current climate, although I'm all for the project," he told me. "There is enough paranoia in America after 11 September without adding to it. Also, I think that trying to re-tell a story is quite difficult. There is so much to disentangle."

But does he think Edge of Darkness's nuclear concerns are still relevant? "Things have shifted. What's interesting is [President] Bush and the agenda behind the terrorist thing, and where that's leading to."

Rather excitingly for fans of Edge of Darkness, Kennedy-Martin says he's working on a political thriller, although he won't go into specifics, except to say that it's set in America. He did start writing a series in the early 1990s about global warming, called simply The Warming, but couldn't finish it. "The environment is a huge area, but it's very difficult one to encompass in a script," he says. "There still hasn't been a really good environmental movie – one that really shakes people up – although Silkwood [the 1984 movie starring Meryl Streep as the one-woman nuclear protester Karen Silkwood] was quite good.

"The problem with political thrillers is you really have to get your timing right to be on the cusp," he says. "Sometimes you get too far out in front."

Now with George W Bush in the White House, the Kyoto Agreement in tatters and the United States and the coal lobby in charge behind the scenes, Kennedy-Martin's time might have come. Only any new Edge of Darkness would probably be not commissioned by the BBC. "The BBC has always wanted me to write a similar story, but I found it difficult to come up with anything during the John Birt era," he says. "The bureaucracy of corporate life was something I was interested in – I'd seen it in the American film industry – and I started to write something. But by the time I was halfway though, that was exactly what had happened to the BBC.

"There's no money and no inclination to write these political pieces now. Everything is focused on casting and marketing. I like the wit of The West Wing, for example, but there is no ambition in this country to make anything similar."

Kennedy-Martin also likes aspects of 24, the American import making Sunday-night television worth bothering with. It stars Kiefer Sutherland, an actor long presumed, if not dead exactly, then possibly working in Slovakian-Mexican co-productions, as an FBI agent trying to free his kidnapped wife and daughter as well as prevent the assassination of a black Californian politician.

"They make brilliant use of computers and the internet and all that sort of stuff," says Kennedy-Martin. "24 is also the first drama that really uses mobile phones. They're usually just an addition, but here they're absolutely central. I also like the way they use split-screen. It's not just a gimmick for once; it really does work."

BBC1's new MI5 drama Spooks also uses split-screen techniques at key moments. Spooks, which starts on Monday, is also concerned with the secret state, but comes from a somewhat different direction. Co-written by David Wolstencroft, the creator of Channel 4's Psychos, and the playwright Howard Brenton, it has a classy cast that includes Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Jenny Agutter and Peter Firth.

Spooks is a series about MI5, but this isn't the MI5 of David Shayler, of dirty tricks against democratically elected politicians, or of a failure to predict and prevent the attacks of 11 September. This is MI5 as it possibly sees itself, or would want to be seen in the post-Cold War world (the line on the programme trailers – "not nine-to-five, but MI5" – sounds like a recruiting slogan).

That said, it's an interesting, well-written overview of the contemporary concerns of the agency, researched with the help of retired agents. Each week, our young spies save the nation from pro-lifers, racist terrorists, anti-globalisers, Kurdish embassy sieges and so on.

Unlike a similar American drama about the CIA, The Agency, which had the bad fortune to screen three weeks after 11 September, Spooks was able to assimilate the events of that day, and there was enough time to add an episode in which the IRA approaches MI5 with news that al-Qa'ida plans to blow up a nuclear power station.

Although this week's news that three Real IRA terrorists had been jailed for 30 years after an elaborate sting involving MI5 officers dressed as Iraqi arms dealers lends credence to its storylines, Spooks is hardly a classical political thriller.

So what does make a political thriller? "Paranoia," say Bennett and Kennedy-Martin. "Darkness," they add. And, says Kennedy-Martin, "Scotland."

Scotland? "It goes back to The Thirty-Nine Steps," he says. "You should always have a sequence in Scotland. In Edge of Darkness we all went to Scotland because I prevailed on the need to have a homage to John Buchan. The BBC wouldn't wear that now."

'Spooks' starts on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm; 'Fields of Gold' is on BBC1 next month