'Edge of Darkness': Martin Campbell reveals how he made the game-changing British miniseries
It had no stars – its leads were a stage performer who’d done basically no telly, an American character actor and a young girl who would go on to feature in George Lucas flop Willow. It was directed by a talented Kiwi BBC staffer who only found out it was coming on telly when he read about it in Time Out.
But despite its anonymous beginnings, 1985 BBC miniseries Edge of Darkness is now recognised as a classic, the kind of must-watch prestige TV drama we associate with Bodyguard and The Night Manager.
Set against the messy backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, it follows policeman Ronald Craven (Bob Peck, best known as the “clever girl” hunter who gets chomped by raptors in the original Jurassic Park) as he searches for the people behind the death of his anti-nuclear activist daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley), a world full of duplicitous civil servants, government cover-ups and a strong eco message.
Its esteemed legacy is funny considering most of the execs at the time were more focused on another more celeb-fuelled production that year.
“I remember the star production that year was a Kenneth Branagh one, Tender is the Night,” remembers director Martin Campbell, who went on to reboot Bond not once but twice with GoldenEye and Casino Royale.
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“You’d be amazed – the BBC just let you get on with it… Even during filming, you’d just disappear for months and I never heard from them! We went to the Midlands, went to Scotland, to Wales, back to London – not a word. That’s how it worked in those days.”
In fact, Campbell quietly went on to his next small screen job and kind of forgot about Edge until months later.
“I opened Time Out and read a two-page spread about the series before realising it was the thing I’d done!,” he recalls. “That was my first inkling that the thing was going out.”
But that lack of pressure and interference proved an accidental masterstroke. Peck is utterly convincing as an everyman (the actor sadly died of cancer in 1999 aged just 53), surrounded by fantastic character actors, while many of the decisions were based on the paltry fees set by the Beeb.
Campbell was keen for roots music legend Ry Cooder to do the score, but the composer balked at the four grand the channel agreed for six hours of music. “So we went to Eric Clapton who did it for £4,000,” laughs the director.
It was a good decision by the Layla songwriter – he scooped a BAFTA (with co-writer Michael Kamen) for Best Original Television Music, one of the six the series won, including Best Drama Series and Best Actor.
So successful was it that the director eventually turned the series into a 2010 feature film starring Mel Gibson as Craven. Unfortunately, it wasn’t such a success, something that even Campbell himself admits.
“The problem with that was 120 minutes can’t give you what six hours gives you,” he says. “It’s kind of reduced to a basic thriller.”
Mind you, it wasn’t helped by the fact it starred Gibson as he tried to rebuild his career in the wake of his infamous Malibu arrest.
“He came off that shenanigans in L.A., so there was that. Yes, it was a little bit difficult with him.”
In fact, the failure of the movie version is part of the reason you shouldn’t expect to see a Campbell-directed Edge of Darkness reboot on a streaming platform any time soon, even if it was one of the progenitors of what we might now call peak TV.
“Generally, remakes are disappointing, like my Edge of Darkness as a movie,” he says. “Frankly they never quite work.”
Plus there’s the fact that with Donald and Boris, politics just isn’t the same.
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“The political landscape of the Eighties, which really lent itself to the type of Edge of Darkness thriller just doesn’t do that now,” says Campbell.
“It’s beyond parody. There’s a sense of chaos about it.”
Edge of Darkness is on Blu-ray for the first time now. The series has been remastered from the original 16mm film, allowing fans to enjoy the show as never before.