Regularly cited by critics as one of the best TV dramas of all time, and a launchpad for many careers, the celebrated BBC thriller Edge of Darkness is released on Blu-ray for the first time, on its 34th anniversary.
An intense, brooding drama, its story of a detective’s hunt for his daughter’s killer escalating into a battle for the planet is more on trend than ever in our world of Extinction Rebellion and anti-government demonstrations. And a hundred series that followed bore its thematic and stylistic DNA – everything from State of Play in 2003 to this year’s The Capture.
So to what does the director Martin Campbell attribute the drama’s success? “Bob Peck has a hell of a lot to do with it, he really does. He’s wonderful, and he also has a very dry sense of humour in it. Working with Bob was terrific. He just sort of had a hook on it.”
As for Edge of Darkness’s longevity – it regularly scores highly on lists of best-ever dramas – perhaps the anti-establishment dimension helps? “It’s always difficult to know quite why these things are so successful,” Campbell tells RT. “Whether the politics of the time still echo today… they probably do given the terrible things that are going on now, the amount of corruption and deceit and lies…”
Edge of Darkness certainly grips from the get-go: on a stormy night, off-duty inspector Ronald Craven (Peck) collects his daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley) from a student’s union meeting at teacher training college. As they dash through the rain from their car to the house, a gunman calls out his name, Emma dashes forward and he fires both barrels into her chest. She dies in his arms.
Reeling with shock and grief, Craven nevertheless skips compassionate leave to make his own inquiries into Emma’s murder. It’s a trail that leads him from memories of his stint in Northern Ireland to the shadowy corridors of government and the cramped mines of an underground reprocessing plant.
Double life: the grief-stricken Craven (Bob Peck) finding both a teddy bear and a 9mm Firebird pistol in his daughter’s room came to symbolise the series’ complexity
Casting is always key to a successful drama, but any mystique surrounding this is quickly blown away by Campbell: “The producer, Michael Wearing, and I sat down together and we literally leafed through Spotlight. That’s how we did it.”
As for their understated yet charismatic lead, “I wanted the common man, I didn’t want any sort of star… and I think it was [BBC head of drama] Jonathan Powell who said, ‘You need someone who’s going to stand out on screen.’ It was he who suggested Bob Peck.”
An established stage actor having put in the hours with the RSC, Peck had done very little television prior to his big break. Which makes his contained, everything-in-miniature performance all the more miraculous. In short, the appointment was a masterstroke.
Another exception to the Spotlight rule was Joe Don Baker, an American actor chosen to play the rogue CIA operative Darius Jedburgh, the perfect foil to Craven in the course of his investigations. “Baker was my idea,” says Campbell, “simply because I’d seen him in a Don Siegel film that I really liked.”
A career-best performance from Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, a conspicuous CIA man and energy attaché whose motives we are unsure of until the very end
As any fan will tell you, Edge of Darkness contains one fantastic moment after another. Off the top of the head, there’s Ronnie hacking the MI5 computer as the police close in on his terminal; Ronnie doing the walk and talk with a “ghost” Emma along a London street (ingeniously shot and staged); an “end of the world” cordon bleu meal in a bunker crammed with objets d’art; Jedburgh’s Doctor Apocalypse big reveal at a nuclear conference…
But which is Campbell’s favourite? “In episode two, when Darius and Craven meet for the first time in that restaurant, and they’re kind of singing to each other, which was not in the script, we just sort of improvised. That was absolutely my favourite scene. Anything between Craven and Darius I thought worked extremely well.”
Having said that, Campbell alludes to Peck’s difficulty with Baker hogging all the juiciest cuts of dialogue: “I think it was after episode five, Bob came to me and he said, ‘Look, basically, I can’t do this any more because Joe has all these great lines.’ I said, ‘Bob, you have to hold, you cannot break,’ and of course he won the best actor, and quite deservedly so. But there was a moment between them both, if you know what I mean.”
Peck’s Bafta was among a haul of six for the programme, the others being best drama series, music (Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton), cameraman (Andrew Dunn), editor and sound.
The colourful, well-rounded characters go deeper than the mine shafts of Northmoor, but two more that leap out are the sinister government types who contrive to both aid and hamper Craven’s inquiries. “I love the sort of Greek chorus with Harcourt and Pendleton, which always made me laugh. They’re Tweedledum and Tweedledee!”
Men from the ministry: Ian McNeice and Charles Kay as lawyer Harcourt and PM official Pendleton – or Frick and Frack as Jedburgh disparagingly refers to them
And though it’s a male-heavy cast, two of its brightest lights are female. Apart from the feisty intelligence agent Clementine, or Clemmie, as played by Zoë Wanamaker, there of course is the bright-eyed, idealistic young scientist Emma Craven (Joanne Whalley), whose brutal killing so traumatises her father that she becomes a projection of his grief. Or so we first believe.
But when Whalley and Peck are both in two-shot, we realise that she is actually a ghost, counselling her floundering dad from beyond the grave. “Her influence on the show is great,” as Campbell puts it.
A haunting presence: Joanne Whalley as Emma Craven. A year later The Singing Detective confirmed her star quality, and by 1988 she was in the George Lucas fantasy Willow
Emma’s closeness to Ronnie has always been a subject of conjecture down the years, so can Campbell shed any light on that? “I always thought it was emotionally slightly incestuous, if you see what I mean. I don’t think it was intended but I always thought it slightly touched on that without ever saying it.”
Prior to his date with destiny, New Zealand-born Campbell, now 76, worked on other television favourites Shoestring, Minder, The Professionals, Bergerac and Reilly: Ace of Spies.
But how did his involvement in Edge of Darkness come about? “I’d done a series for Central TV called Charlie in 1984 and I got a call from Michael Wearing, the producer, who said, ‘Would you read these two scripts?’ So these two dog-eared scripts came round for what was then called Magnox – Magnox I think being the name of the nuclear fuel rod.
“So I read them, I didn’t understand them that much [laughs] but I couldn’t put them down. I was on my editing machine, I gave up editing and literally turned the pages, read both episodes one and two, called Michael and said, ‘I’ll do it.'”
Campbell chuckles as he recalls working with scriptwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, who started out in television with Z Cars before branching out into films (The Italian Job, Kelly’s Heroes). “He was a frustratingly slow but brilliant writer. A lovely man, sort of slightly eccentric and out of left field… The humour he got into the series was fantastic.” Kennedy Martin died in 2009, aged 77.
How Radio Times promoted the drama on its front cover in November 1985, with an imaginary scene featuring Ronnie (Bob Peck) and Emma Craven (Joanne Whalley)
Edge of Darkness proved to be a gruelling shoot, with location filming in London, Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales. “It was intense, it was a very busy shoot and we had a lot of big scenes, particularly towards the end. We covered a lot of ground.”
Two scenes stand out in Campbell’s mind, the first for reasons that were both amusing and hair-raising. It involves Craven running or his life from the security personnel of Northmoor radioactive waste facility.
“Oh, God yes!” he laughs. “Bob always used to ask his motivation for everything. I remember him saying to me, ‘Now, these Land-Rovers are following me, you know, why am I doing this?’ I said, ‘Because you’ll be killed if it runs over you… this is what you f***ing do!
“Anyway in this particular instance the Land-Rovers were thundering up behind him and he fell. But luckily there were stunt guys in the Land-Rovers so they stopped. It could have been dangerous, a little bit hair-raising, but it was all fine.
Bob Peck filmed the Northmoor scenes at mines in Bonttdu and Manod in north Wales
And Campbell filmed the pivotal Nato conference at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. “I hadn’t heard from the BBC – this was after two months of shooting – and I was about to start shooting that scene with 150 extras and someone said, ‘You’re wanted on the phone.’
“So I picked up the phone and it was Jonathan Powell, and he said, ‘I hear you need 150 extras?’ and I said yes, and he said, ‘You can only have 100.’ I said, ‘OK I’ll have 100,’ and I was staring out into the auditorium where we had 150 and then I hung up and just went and shot this thing!”
So successful was the six-part series on its first BBC2 broadcast that within ten days of its conclusion, the series was shown again in three parts on BBC1, doubling its audience to eight million.
Afterwards, a number of careers went stratospheric.
Peck came to the attention of Hollywood. He appeared in the 1989 science-fiction drama Slipstream alongside Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton, before really marking his card in the 1993 global smash Jurassic Park as gamekeeper Muldoon (Clever girl!”). Sadly, he died of cancer in 1999 at just 53. Ian McNeice (Harcourt in Edge of Darkness) read a eulogy at his funeral service.
Whalley went on to secure another memorable TV role in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective the following year; she then starred in a string of high-profile films including the George Lucas fantasy Willow (1988) and the 60s-set drama Scandal (1989), in which she played Christine Keeler.
Edge of Darkness was good for Campbell, too, though he says that in Hollywood, “You meet a lot of mid-range executives who say they’ve seen it and you know they haven’t!” He adds, however, “I think Spielberg really loved it.”
Such was Campbell’s reputation that he was entrusted with overseeing two Bond reboots (GoldenEye for Pierce Brosnan in 1995 and Casino Royale in 2006 for current incumbent Daniel Craig), the fabulous Zorro romps Mask and Legend, and even the DC Comics adaptation Green Lantern (2011).
Calling the shots: Edge of Darkness was the springboard for Martin Campbell’s Hollywood success. He went on to helm two Bonds, two Zorros and a DC Comics adaptation, and is still sought after at 76
The Bond gig he puts down to good fortune: “I’d done a film called No Escape in Australia with Ray Liotta, a kind of futuristic prison drama, which was pretty basic. It was not highly reviewed and it didn’t make any money. However John Calley who was the head of United Artists saw it and rang me one day and asked me to come in and I did and he said do you want to direct Bond? So that’s luck. Well, luck to that point but hard work I think is the rest of it.”
Campbell is candid about the film version of Edge of Darkness that he directed, starring Mel Gibson, in 2010. “You can’t do what you did for six hours in 120 minutes. There’s none of the political spine to the story, the intrigue, all of that labyrinthine stuff, so you’re really reduced to ‘Daughter killed; who did it?'”
But at 76, Campbell is still hard at work. “I’m doing a movie with Michael Keaton and maybe Samuel Jackson. I start the beginning of January. I then go on to a film with Liam Neeson. So I’ve got enough to get on with!”
But one final word on Edge of Darkness. Certain aspects of the production may anchor it in the 80s: the dial telephones and slow computers, as well as the soundtrack’s fondness for the Kurzweil synthesiser. But the themes remain universal – even if its haunting, ecologically friendly finale was at one point very different. In fact, as Campbell reveals, Troy Kennedy Martin wrote 15 possible endings…
“Originally the idea was that Craven and Emma kind of meet and they embrace and they turn into a tree. I remember Troy telling us this and all of us looking aghast! But it wasn’t so mad because of the Gaia thing [a hypothesis referred to in the show that was put forward by scientist James Lovelock] – basically the planet will heal itself no matter what, it will always come back and get the better of man.
“Troy knew what he was trying to say and to do. Yes, he did write 15 endings, but they were all variations on the same thing.”
The Blu-ray of Edge of Darkness is available to buy from 4th November