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Why Edge of Darkness is Still Relevant

Updated: Dec 30, 2022


Actor Bob Peck as Ronny Craven in BBC drama series Edge of Darkness.
Ronny Craven (Bob Peck) is drawn into a labyrinthine mystery in Edge of Darkness.

THIRTY-seven years after BBC eco-thriller Edge of Darkness hit TV screens and earned critical acclaim, it remains enthralling, strange, powerful and depressingly relevant.


First broadcast in 1985, the drama focuses on widowed Yorkshire policeman Ronny Craven’s (Bob Peck) quest to find his daughter’s killers, after she is murdered in cold blood before his eyes. He’s inexorably pulled into a labyrinth of Westminster intrigue, spies, corporate greed and nuclear power, all while his grief-stricken mind slowly unravels. The result is one of the most lauded and powerful British TV dramas of the last 50 years; in 2000 it was ranked the 15th greatest British TV show by the BFI.


Much of the show's quality is down to the top tier talent who poured their considerable abilities to make Edge of Darkness, including screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (who penned The Italian Job, Kelly’s Heroes and Red Heat), director Martin Campbell (Golden Eye and Casino Royale) and producer Michael Wearing (Boys from the Black Stuff and Our Friends From the North). A moody and ground-breaking soundtrack by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen intensified the drama’s sense of melancholy.


Boldly, this stellar creative team decided to select an unknown actor to play the pivotal role of mild-mannered everyman Craven. Their choice was to take RSC and National Theatre stalwart Bob Peck, then aged 39, from the stage and transplant him onto the small screen. The result was spectacular. Pouring his naturalism and honesty into the role, he ensured the heartbroken detective was firmly grounded, believable and sympathetic, which allowed the audience to be swept along by the story’s sheer ambition. While he is probably most well-known for being torn apart by hungry velociraptors in Jurassic Park by a generation who grew up in the 90s, Peck should be remembered for his incredible performance as Craven. He was cited by Sir Ian McKellan as a major influence, but the acting world was made poorer when he died in 1999 of cancer.


The actor's innate decency shines in a challenging but pivotal early scene: while desperately searching his daughter’s room for clues, his finds a Geiger counter, gun and vibrator, the latter which he gives a tender fatherly kiss. Kennedy Martin, a writer with a flair for visual storytelling, used the scene to quickly establish the father’s ‘reverence’ for his lost child. Handled wrongly it could have come off as deeply creepy but to the credit of all involved and Peck’s nuanced performance, it establishes the strong bond between them. In fact, the show’s most powerful scenes are when Peck is haunted by the memory, or ghost, of Emma (Joanne Whalley). He was, however, just part of an extremely strong cast including Whalley, Ian McNiece, Tim McInnery and Zoe Wannamaker. American actor Joe Don Baker steals every scene he appears in as larger than life Texan CIA agent Darius Jedburgh. According to Kennedy Martin, Peck even asked for better lines to match the US star's charismatic dialogue, their straight man/rogue agent odd couple relationship added its own screen magic to an already potent mix.


Actor Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh in BBC drama series Edge of Darkness.
Joe Don Baker had all the best lines as Darius Jedburgh.

Ambitiously, Edge of Darkness was crammed with ideas by Kennedy Martin, who wanted to reflect mid-80s Britain. In six episodes he entwined the unions, privatisation, the Thatcher government, nuclear power, Reaganism and the star wars defence project into one dense narrative. Cleverly, he underpinned the contemporary tale with mythology. Craven is based on the age-old symbol of elemental renewal, the Green Man, and was originally supposed to turn into a tree in the final episode, before an intervention by Peck forced a change. Meanwhile, Jedburgh was inspired by ancient teutonic Knights of the Marches, who guarded the borders of Eastern Europe. He relished a longstanding ancestral feud with the series’ antagonist - the ultra-nationalist American nuclear energy entrepreneur Jerry Grogan.


Within the drama is a burgeoning sense of eco-activism, symbolised by the Gaia hypothesis. Devised by chemist James Lovelock, it theorises all life on Earth works together in a complex self-regulating system, which is also able to defend itself. At the end, Craven and Jedburgh debate the chances of humanity’s survival if nature fights back against the atomic abuse it has suffered. Even nearly four decades later, this philosophical argument resonates as humanity grapples with the impact of manmade climate change.


Actor Joanne Whalley as Emma Craven in BBC drama series Edge of Darkness.
Emma Craven (Joanne Whalley) haunted her father in Edge of Darkness's most powerful scenes.

But unlike now, where the worries of climate change are very much real, the environmental anxieties of the 80s revolved around nuclear power. Edge of Darkness examined the murky business of corporate corruption and governmental complicity within the uranium enrichment industry. Something rotten to its fissile core is discovered at Northmoor, a low-level nuclear waste facility by Craven’s daughter. Even at the best of times, nuclear fears lurk like background radiation in peoples’ minds, but at times of global crisis, such as the war in Ukraine, the terror only intensifies.


The drama was huge ratings and critical hit when it first aired on BBC2 and it was quickly repeated on BBC1 just over a week later. Viewers were gripped by the combination of excellent writing, strong performances and political intrigue. As Craven is manipulated into investigating the mystery at Northmoor by government agents Pendleton and Harcourt, the sense of the thin line between those in power and big business is acute. At the end, when Craven’s agonising odyssey reaches it’s bitter end, it’s clear that ordinary people are pawns in the Westminster game. That’s a feeling which modern audiences probably know all too well and can empathise.


Actor Bob Peck as Ronny Craven in BBC drama series Edge of Darkness.
Ronny Craven is drawn into mystery at Northmoor by government officials Harcourt and Pendleton

Compared to modern dramas, Edge of Darkness is dated by its 80s setting and largely white male cast. But its anger, vision and explosion of ideas has given it a much-deserved half-life, which still resonates with modern audiences and outlive its contemporaries. There are so many brilliant moments, most notably the remarkable use of Willie Nelson’s ‘Time of the Preacher’ throughout. In 2010, it made the rare jump from the TV to cinema screens, when Campbell remade it as a Hollywood action thriller starring Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone.


Edge of Darkness still speaks to modern audiences because, depressingly, the issues it tackles have mutated. While history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes and the burning issues we face now such as nuclear apocalypse, callous governments and environmental destruction are all notes in a classic 80s track remixed for the 2020s. Added to this, the sheer quality of the writing, production and performances means Edge of Darkness can rub shoulders with the best that modern TV has to offer.


Links


Writer Troy Kennedy Martin discusses the vibrator scene on YouTube.


A revealing interview with Troy Kennedy Martin from University of Bournemouth, where he discusses all things Edge of Darkness. This link was originally removed in 2011 but was saved by the Way Back Machine.


Joe Don Baker and Troy Kennedy Martin discuss the drama, with the former focusing on the memorably over the top Darius Jedburgh.


The Guardian's obituary for the much-missed Bob Peck.


A piece from the Radio Times, which delves into how Edge of Darkness was made.


Willie Nelson sings 'Time of the Preacher' live. It's fascinating how this track is used as foreshadowing early on but then morphs into something else as the show goes on.

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