Director Martin Campbell talks about revisiting his acclaimed TV series, Edge of Darkness.
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3 Feb 2010 - 4:53 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

For its fans, there's never been anything quite like Edge of Darkness. The story of a policeman who hunts the killers of his daughter only to uncover a nuclear conspiracy, the original six-part English series was first broadcast by the BBC in 1985. Shot like a movie, with a restless, creeping camera and a noir-like wash of bleached colours and murky interiors, Edge of Darkness was dark, dense, and spiked with a mordant wit; it stretched out the possibilities of the TV detective plot, embracing spirituality and mysticism with a sophisticated political dimension and an emotional resonance so intense it was heartbreaking. It was so critically acclaimed and so popular the BBC repeated the whole thing only ten days after its original broadcast.

Along with such traditional thriller tropes as chases, shoot-outs, a large body count, and cliff-hanging narrative reversals, Edge of Darkness also featured a miserable psychotic for a hero, a subplot based on Dr James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and a recurring character that may or may not have been a ghost!

“At the time we had no idea of the kind of impact it would have,” says Martin Campbell, who directed both the series and the new feature film remake with Mel Gibson. “For us it was a particularly well-written and original thriller.”

Edge of Darkness (left, starring the late Bob Peck) was immediately embraced as a masterwork of television, winning a swag of prizes and launching Campbell in Hollywood.

It remains the career highpoint for its screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, famous as the co-creator of Z Cars and his inventive scripts for The Italian Job and Kelly's Heroes. After a lifetime as a writer Kennedy Martin died at 77 last September.

Darkness' only contemporary rivals, its fans argue, could be HBO's The Sopranos, and The Wire. Still, Campbell says, it remained, outside of Britain and Australian, somewhat obscure. “It's become a classic,” adds producer Graham King (The Departed),”but by remaking it as a feature we're not cheapening the original in any way.”

Campbell and the show's original producer Michael Wearing began planning a feature version early this decade. Australian Andrew Bovell (Lantana) signed on to adapt Kennedy Martin's screenplay, which was full of specific references to the geo-politics of the 80s: Thatcher's re-armament policy and Reagan's 'Star Wars' plan to shoot down Soviet missiles from outer space, as well as the growing Green movement.

“We shot the original series in the second half of 1984, right in the middle of the miner's strike,” Campbell remembers. For the remake, which moves the action to Boston in the US, from the original's Yorkshire setting, Kennedy Martin's political framework had to be completely re-thought. “At the time there was a very Right wing attitude to nuclear policy and Edge of Darkness [commented on that],” he says. The series hung on the moral, political and ethical implications of a private company's capacity to manufacture plutonium – and what they were prepared to do to defend that right. “At the time that was a big, big issue,” he explains. “But now… everyone, seems capable of making the stuff, probably someone in their backyard is doing it, you know, so who gives a shit?”

Bovell's screenplay was re-shaped by Campbell (uncredited). The original was set in Yorkshire and London; King wanted to make the film in Boston so he brought in Oscar winning screenwriter Bill Monahan: “he can write Boston cops like no one else,” he says. The new film eliminates most of the series sub-plots, adding a post 9/11 context to the originals fear of un-regulated weaponry, while maintaining the basic point of Kennedy Martin's story: “The feature [remains] cynical about the way government gives license to these shadowy companies,” Campbell says, who are assigned to a country's security, “meanwhile their curbing civil liberties along the way.”

“We certainly didn't want to make another thriller about terrorism,” says King.

In the series, the doomed Emma Craven was an anti-nukes activist. In the movie Emma (played by Australian actor Bojana Novakovic, a corporate whistleblower. Once she's murdered, suspicion falls immediately on the security and defence company she worked for, Northmoor. Her father, detective Craven (Gibson) mad with grief, undertakes a reckless pursuit of her killers and encounters a sinister ensemble of characters in his investigation including Northmoor's boss, Bennett (Danny Huston) and a “security consultant” called Jedburgh, played by Ray Winstone, who in fact replaced Robert de Niro. “We had been shooting for a week,” King explains, “and Martin Campbell and I just felt the direction [De Niro] was taking the role wasn't right,” says King. Gibson was a fan of the series he says, but it's a complete different attitude to the character depicted in the original.

Is Gibson's 'crazy-brave' vigilante style version of Craven – so different from the quiet intensity of Bob Peck's version – a bald concession to the current vogue for active, action-oriented characters? “No,” says Campbell. “Like Kennedy Martin's Craven, our new Craven is still crazy – and they both have a death wish. Craven knows (in both series and movie) that finding out the truth about Emma will probably cost him his life.”

Still, Campbell – who directed such important and influential series like The Sweeney, The Professionals and Bergerac and is now considered a top action director, helming Goldeneye (1995) and Casino Royale (2007) – does concede that the feature of Darkness has a style that's fast and tough in amongst a labyrinthine plot. “I think there's no question that the audience has become more impatient,” he says. “If you look at the way films are edited in the 60s and 70s to today, it's completely different.”

Campbell doesn't consider the new feature as an action piece per se; but he says that what mayhem there is, is brutal and shocking, and is intended to underline the seriousness of its theme. “It's very interesting about action - an audience now can predict when action is going to happen – they get used to a build up, they get used to a rhythm,” he says, explaining his approach on Darkness, where the violence tends to be jarring and emotionally upsetting. “If you do the reverse and completely mistime it for them – that's when you've got them. The trick is to make your piece of action happen when they least expect it. Which is part of what makes it interesting.”
What makes Campbell's style here so different from directors who work similar territory is that he is careful to map the screen space with a precise and tense 'geography', so that the audience can follow the action and get involved through suspense, rather than mere sensation. “I think some people shoot their action so close you don't know what's happening. You get blurs and bangs and sound effects. Unless you have the geography you don't get any sense of [what's at stake], it's just choreography. That kind of action like Michael Bay, who does some wonderful stuff, is so sort of fast you lose the impact.”

The feature does include one of the most daring, moving and controversial aspects of Kennedy Martin's story: Craven's grief manifests itself in 'visitations' from his dead daughter and like the series, it remains somewhat ambiguous…is it in all in Craven's head, or…For a lot of critics and fans, it was this exploration of an emotional breakdown that made the series so memorable.

“We had more of the adult Emma appearing [like a ghost] originally,” says Campbell, “but because we were working in a 110-minute feature, we couldn't develop it the way we did in the series; instead, we used a lot of scenes with the young Emma and they work well as something that could be a memory…”

Campbell makes no apology for the serious, politically pessimistic nature of both the series and the new feature. “The feature is very sceptical.”

Dismissed by some as a simple 'conspiracy thriller' where the 'bad guys' were government operatives, Campbell says that this small minded interpretation undersells the series and the film since Kennedy Martin identified the real 'villain' – a blind faith in the nuclear state, with all its secrecy and its inherent danger. These kinds of stakes, suggests Campbell, put us all on the 'edge of darkness' – and that's what makes the film optimistic…it makes us all responsible for the future.