Be Strong, Like A Tree: The Making of ‘Edge of Darkness’

❉ Andrew Screen charts the creation of the most ambitious and progressive drama of the 1980s.

When Edge of Darkness was given a DVD release courtesy of the BBC it was, in some ways, sad to see the amiable, slightly nervy, but gracious figure of Bob Peck (1945 – 1999) being interviewed in archive material. He chatted about the series’ success and his recent award at the BAFTAs without a smidge of ego. Peck’s performance in the series is perhaps one of the finest ever seen on British TV – his shock and sustained grief at the death of his daughter is one of the most profoundly moving performances ever transmitted on terrestrial British TV. I’m certain audiences would not have stuck with what is a depressing, murky and multi-layered political thriller with mystical overtones if it had not been for Peck’s towering performance. This man knew his craft. Bob Peck looked like a normal everyday bloke – in fact he looked like my mate’s Dad – but today we’d probably have whatever flavour of the month ex-soap star was kicking around being cast. Edge of Darkness owes a tremendous amount to Bob Peck. On his death from cancer in April 1999, at the age of only fifty three, Edge of Darkness was not only one of the most ambitious British television productions, but also the most critically acclaimed and successful ratings grabbers the BBC ever produced. It was Bob Peck’s finest performance and it propelled him to household name status.

Peck was thirty nine when he undertook the role of Ronnie Craven. He was not the first choice for the role of Craven by the production crew and it was director Martin Campbell who wanted to cast an unknown to avoid associations with other programmes. Once cast Peck prepared for the role by discussing the effects of grief with his local GP and reading up on Gaia philosophy and theories which underpinned the philosophical and political agenda of the story.

The production was written by Troy Kennedy Martin (1932 – 2009) who had been contributing scripts to BBC plays since 1958 and created his first series, Storyboard, an anthology of one off dramas in 1961. Aside from creating Z Cars Kennedy Martin’s most famous script is for the film The Italian Job (1969). Following Edge of Darkness he co-wrote, alongside director Walter Hill, the film Red Heat (1988), a vehicle for the acting talents of Arnold Schwarzeneger and made his final foray into TV with an adaptation of Bravo Two Zero for BBC 1 in 1999. He died on 15th September, 2009 at the age of seventy seven from cancer. His younger brother Ian would also became a scriptwriter and is probably most famous for creating the series The Sweeney.

The origins of Edge of Darkness date back, in part, to 1964 when Troy Kennedy Martin published an article in the theatre magazine Encore, entitled ‘Nats Go Home’, arguing for a new form of TV drama. He wanted to go beyond the ‘talking heads’ and the staged theatre feel of then current drama and free the dramatic structure of scripts to create more complex fusions of sight and sound to exploit what he coined “the total objectivity of the camera.” He suggested the need for reducing dialogue, moving the plot along at a faster pace and the need for a fresh approach achieved through more precise editing with the director taking a more visual based approach. Despite pushing towards this new form with Z Cars he still felt constricted by the naturalistic format of TV and left the programme early on in its long run due to this constricting influence. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he was finally able to begin to explore non-naturalistic television drama with his free ranging adaptation of Angus Wilson’s The Old Men in the Zoo for BBC Two. This was followed by Edge of Darkness, a project that would fuse both his personal fears, ethical beliefs and philosophies as well as his passion for a new wider ranging presentation of TV drama. Kennedy Martin had drafted the first episode in 1981, under the title Magnox (Magnesium Alloy Graphite Moderated Gas Cooled Uranium Oxide Reactor) after the nuclear power stations built in the UK between the 1950s and 1970s, and had been encouraged by Jonathan Powell, Head of BBC Drama, to develop the series in whatever direction he felt necessary. Kennedy Martin’s agent, Elaine Steel, recalled in his obituary that “With Edge of Darkness the BBC didn’t know what they were getting.” (The Guardian, 16th September 2009).

The 1980s was not the most cheery of decades. Politically the UK was in the grip of Thatcherism and the US had Ronald Reagan as President. The Cold War was the major issue and dominated World politics along with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and power. So it was against this backdrop of anxiety and intrigue that Edge of Darkness was conceived, created and transmitted, subtlety tapping into the fears and suspicions of the viewing public. The series made several prescient predictions with mentions of a war in the Gulf and the Tory party declaring nuclear power a green initiative as it did not add to greenhouse gases and global warming.

Radio Times magazine – Edge of Darkness cover (2-8 November 1985)

The landscape of broadcasting was changing. The BBC’s Play for Today strand had ended in August 1984, giving way to the made-for-television film, as demonstrated with the advent of Screen One, and the long form drama serial. Edge of Darkness was an early example of this long form serial and also marked a departure from realism and naturalism in drama towards a more wide ranging narrative approach that embraced epic narrative, symbolism and, as Kennedy Martin had explained, “the total objectivity of the camera.” In other words it used the techniques and visual grammar that had been evolved by cinema and deployed them in the TV series format.  With a two million pound budget, of which £400,000 was contributed by the American production company Lionheart Television International, shooting began on 9th July 1984 and wrapped five months later on Wednesday 5th December 1984.

Throughout the shoot the production was called Magnox and was briefly retitled Dark Forces before the series was finally titled Edge of Darkness in 1985. This production title is referenced in the speech given by Michael Meecher in the first episode. Special effects for the series ranged from practical set ups through to prosthetics and model work supervised by Mat Irvine. His first task was to provide the sheets of rain for the opening sequences which had to overcome the hurdle of the Yorkshire location being under a drought order. For the sequence of the body being recovered from a reservoir a full sized decomposed body was manufactured by Irvine and his assistant Sinclair Brebner.  The pair donned wet suits to cameo as frogmen in the rubber dinghy who recover the corpse. The cooling ponds seen from the reactor control room was a miniature designed and built by Paul Penn-Sayers. The miniature incorporated working hoists as well as underwater lighting and was filmed on 35mm film. It was then projected onto a screen on location so it appeared outside the window of the Northmoor control room. Other effects were far less obvious and subtle and included adapting a caterer’s bread tray to serve as platform on which the recovered plutonium bars are winched away by helicopter. The black flowers seen in the closing moments of the production were not real but were fabricated using black silk for the petals.

Cover of the original 2003 BBC DVD release.

The finished programme has to be seen as being shaped and moulded by the cast and crew. The original script was steeped in much more symbolism which included an ending where Craven turns into a tree which was vetoed by both Peck, producer Michael Weaving and director Campbell. One, possibly apocryphal, story regarding the original ending has Bob Peck responding to having read the final episode script with “I’m not turning into a fucking tree!” Another story recounted by Kennedy Martin was when he informed colleagues he was writing about a detective who turns into a tree he would usually get the response “Is this for Channel Four?” Instead the symbol of the black flowers replaced the tree sequence which, too be honest, would have probably looked terrible given the technology and resources available to the BBC at the time and may have ended the series on an unintentional comedic moment. There are still traces of this resolution in the transmitted programme – in episode three Emma’s presence urges Craven to be “strong, like a tree” as he descends underground. Kennedy Martin drew upon his own experiences for this plot element. During a bitter divorce his daughter had written letters to him telling him to be strong and comparing him to a tree.

As a compromise Kennedy Martin introduced the concept of the black flowers which signal the end of humanity which are seen over the end credits of the final episode. These were inspired by James Lovelock’s theory of how dark coloured grasses had spread across the globe in the past when the Earth was further from the sun. This darker plant life trapped the sunlight and heat and therefore enabled life to thrive. Martin Campbell also clashed with Kennedy Martin over several more plot threads including the fact that Craven was already aware of Emma’s involvement in GAIA from the outset. The scriptwriter eventually relented. By all accounts it was a protracted and arduous scriptwriting process. Kennedy Martin has admitted in interviews that he didn’t know the ending or the full plot as he wrote the episodes, partly due to the writing process he employed. Most scripts are assembled with a rough framework in place to help with the plotting. This technique is usually called ‘bullet pointing’ or producing a ‘step treatment’ and allows the writer to plan out a plot in advance and then write scenes to fit the plan. Kennedy Martin instead used a free form technique where he would roughly write a scene without a rigid frame for the plot. He would then ‘scope’ scenes and overlay one on top of another to see if they could join up. The writer does not know how a scene will work out and where it will take the plot. A majority of the time ‘scoping’ scenes simply does not work which prompts further rewrites and this can be extremely labour and time intensive. It was by this writing process that the back story – Gaia’s break in to Northmoor and the subsequent drowning of the team – actually emerged and altered the course of narrative as it did so.

Director Martin Campbell’s first directing credits were all in the British sexploitation field with his debut The Sex Thief  (1973) followed by Three For All (1975) and Eskimo Nell (1975). As the British film industry entered a production slump he gravitated towards TV and found work directing episodes of The Professionals, Minder and Shoestring. He first met Troy Kennedy Martin when he worked on five episodes of Reilly Ace of Spies in 1983 which Kennedy Martin had scripted. Following his BAFTA award for his work on Edge of Darkness Campbell was courted by Hollywood and returned to directing for cinema including the 1989 thriller Criminal Law and the action sci-fi No Escape (1994). The James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) helped to elevate him to the next level of Hollywood blockbusters where he undertook directing duties on The Mask of Zorro (1998), Vertical Limit (2000) and The Legend of Zorro (2005). He returned to the James Bond universe when he directed the revitalised secret agent in Casino Royale (2006). His next project was the film version of Edge of Darkness (which we will discuss later) followed by execrable superhero flick Green Lantern (2011).

BBC producer Michael Wearing was born in 1939 and worked as a theatre director before joining the BBC as a script editor in 1976.  He worked for five years as both a producer and script editor on the long running Play for Today strand for which he had produced Alan Bleasdale’s The Black Stuff (1978). The success of this drama resulted in Wearing and Bleasdale producing a spin off series, Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Wearing was familiar with the conspiracy genre having produced the thriller Birds of Prey (1982) before undertaking his role on Darkness. He was appointed Head of Serials at the BBC, a post he held from 1989 until 1998, and was responsible for such memorable TV output as Our Friends in the North (1996) and the final two plays from Dennis Potter; Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (both 1996). In 1997 he was awarded the Alan Clark Award by BAFTA for his outstanding creative achievement in television. He left the BBC in 1998 although he has worked for them on an intermittent freelance basis in various capacities since including acting as executive producer on Gormenghast (2000) and Nature Boy (2000). He also served as an executive producer on the 2010 film version of Edge of Darkness.

Emma Craven and her spectral depiction within the series is an important and integral character to both the storyline and the demonstration of her father’s extreme grieving. After her death Craven hears only her speaking, but gradually she is introduced as a physical presence, one that only Craven can see. Is she a spiritual guide? Or a manifestation of Craven’s grief enabling him to overcome his depression and focus on the solving the mystery in hand – why did she die? On one hand this is a handy tool to keep the narrative ticking, for example Craven instructing his daughter what the code word Azure stands for after visiting her boyfriend’s flat. On the other hand she is a participant in solving the mystery of her own death and urging her dying father on until the final credits. Whilst she does not explicitly explain plot details by the end of the series she is actively instructing her father with information that he could not have obtained elsewhere, for example Gaia and the self-regulating capacity of the planet in the form of the black flowers.

Joanne Whalley as Emma Craven.

Cast as the ill-fated daughter Emma was Salford born Joanne Whalley who had been an actor since she was a child with appearances in Coronation Street, Emmerdale Farm and the educational series How We Used To Live. Prior to appearing in Edge of Darkness she had a steady flow of guest roles in Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch and Bergerac and had a major role in the 1982 Granada TV adaptation of A Kind of Loving. It was her appearance in an episode of Reilly Ace of Spies – The Visiting Fireman (14th September 1983), scripted by Kennedy Martin and directed by Campbell, which led to her casting as Emma Craven. Post-Darkness she continued to make an impact in prestige drama with the memorable role of Nurse Mills in The Singing Detective. She appeared as Sorsha in the Hollywood blockbuster Willow (1988) where she met her future husband Val Kilmer. Following their marriage in 1988 and she took only a few acting roles each year as she concentrated on bringing up their two children. They divorced in July 1995. Her American TV work includes playing Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in a 2000 CBS TV movie and more recently she has returned to UK TV production with her role as Catherine of Aragon in the costume drama Wolf Hall (2015).

Joe Don Baker was cast as the flamboyant CIA agent Darius Jedburgh. Baker was apparently so impressed with the script that he agreed to undertake the role for less than his usual fee[1]. Born on 12th February 1936, in Texas, the 6’3’’ Baker was regularly cast in westerns on both TV and in film and  had appeared in the Paul Newman starring vehicle Cool Hand Luke (1967). Director Martin Campbell would later cast Baker as CIA agent Jack Wade in the James Bond films GoldenEye (1995) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) perhaps as a nod to his role in Edge of Darkness. Baker’s more vibrant and flamboyant performance style was an ideal contrast to the classical approach of the supporting British actors.

Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh

And what a supporting cast it was! Burly, rugged character actor Jack Watson, an ex-physical training instructor for the Royal Marines and the very epitome of the phrase craggy faced, played the union leader Godbolt in his last major TV role before his death in 1999 aged eighty four. Veteran actor Charles Kay, fresh from appearing as Count Orsini-Rosenberg in the film Amadeus, portrayed Pendleton alongside Ian McNeice appearing as Harcourt. Edge of Darkness was McNeice’s breakthrough role having toiled mainly in theatre and making a scattering of guest roles on TV. McNeice is now familiar to modern TV audiences for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Doctor Who. Distinguished and velvety voiced actor John Woodvine appeared as Craven’s boss Ross.. South Shields born Woodvine had also made a career of playing policemen on TV starting with a regular role as Detective Inspector Witty in Z Cars in 1967. He appeared in the Tom Baker era Doctor Who story The Armageddon Factor, bringing a distinctly Shakespearian portrayal to his role as the Marshall. Other notable TV roles include Tripods, Knights of God and playing Frank Gallagher’s father in Shameless.

Ian McNeice and Charles Kay as lawyer Harcourt and PM official Pendleton

Cast as Terry Shields, boyfriend of Emma Craven, was the gangly and then fresh-faced Tim McInnery more famed for his roles in the various iterations of Black Adder. Though still early in his career McInnery was already starting to carve a healthy career playing nervy oddballs. His film career includes playing the sociopath John Morgan in the under rated British thriller Wetherby (1985), medieval set British horror Black Death (2008) and most feel good biographical movie Eddie The Eagle (2016). His more recent TV appearance include prestige drama such as Doctor Who, Utopia, Sherlock and Game of Thrones.

The Machiavellian Bennett was portrayed by Hugh Fraser who, as a member of the folk band Telltale, had co-written and performed the theme music to the iconic children’s television series Rainbow! Frequently cast as upper class or aristocratic figures Fraser had first come to the public’s attention playing the Prime Minister Anthony Eden in the 1978 series Edward and Mrs Simpson. He is perhaps best known for playing Captain Arthur Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot opposite David Suchet as the titular detective.

O Captain, my Captain! Hugh Fraser interviewed

The first episode of Edge of Darkness is a master class in the small screen cinematic presentation that Kennedy Martin had long strived for. All the visual and audio components work in complete synergy to produce an engrossing viewing experience. What strikes me when rewatching these episodes, over thirty years since they were first broadcast, is just how modern they still look – they must have looked positively revolutionary when first transmitted. All prime time TV dramas are now made to the standard established by the series. It has become the norm and the expected level of presentation. The script and the intense direction by Martin Campbell tapped into the key fears of the time; nuclear proliferation, government secrecy, the effects of Thatcherism and Reaganism and the very future of the planet. On viewing the series again in preparation for this overview I was struck by how the series does not really look typically 80s. The production design and costume design aimed for a restrained classic look and avoided featuring voguish interior design or clothing. However the production still manages to envelope the viewer with an intangible feeling how the decade felt. Writer John Caughie in his book on the making of the series describes this feeling much more succinctly: “The political experiences and emotional memory of the 1980s still resonate today, and Edge of Darkness is keyed like a tuning fork to that resonance.” (BFI TV Classic – Edge of Darkness, 2007, page 3)

The series had a first run on BBC 2, which gained an average of four million viewers. The series was then rapidly repeated on BBC 1, doubling viewers to eight million, and went onto scoop six BAFTA awards including Best Drama. Kennedy Martin had at last achieved a lifelong ambition and helped to create the most ambitious and progressive drama of the 1980s. In a 2000 poll of BFI members the series was voted an impressive fifteenth best ever television programme. In 2007 Channel 4 polled 120 leading television practitioners for their Fifty Greatest TV Dramas list programme transmitted on 3rd March. Edge of Darkness came third, behind Boys from the Blackstuff in second place and The Sopranos in pole position, and ahead of The Singing Detective at four and Cathy Come Home in fifth placing.

Writing in Kennedy Martin’s obituary for The Guardian John Caughie captured just what is was that made the programme such an iconic series: “Edge of Darkness embodies an avant-garde sensibility in a popular thriller, stretching the conventions without quite breaking them, and pushing on the boundaries of what popular television can do.” (The Guardian, 16th September 2009). Caughie also revealed that shortly before his death Kennedy Martin had delivered four feature length scripts entitled Broken Light, a global warming thriller inspired by James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. The scripts remain unproduced.

However, the story does not quite end there. In 2010 Warner Brothers released a cinema version of Edge of Darkness. Martin Campbell, having campaigned long and hard for a big screen version, was once again in the director’s chair overseeing a sixty million dollar production starring Mel Gibson in the central role as Craven – though his Christian name had changed from Donald to Thomas, or Tom for short. Other changes in the film version include remodelling the character of Jedburgh into the less ostentatious and distinctly Cockney iteration portrayed by Ray Winstone. The film also completely jettisons all of the Gaia and mythology references and in the process any subtlety. Instead the plot is stripped back to a standard Mel Gibson-is-a-guy-out-for-revenge thriller. It’s competently, and often slickly made, but it is distinctly average and forgettable and without the deleted elements it loses all that made the TV series so memorable.

Edge of Darkness is a pinnacle of the long form of TV drama and has been highly influential on modern long form drama. It is rightly seen as a classic, but is only really recalled by the generation that saw it on first transmission. It should be seen more widely. Kennedy Martin summed up why in his afterword to the BFI TV Classic book on the programme: “Edge of Darkness looks back to the Cold War, to a period which was already becoming history, but Emma’s speech about Lovelock’s Gaia presaged what was to come. The first meeting on climate change took place at Villach in Switzerland two months before Edge of Darkness was first transmitted…A serial which seemed to be heading for an honourable retirement has suddenly grown new meaning.”

❉ Originally broadcast in 1985,‘Edge of Darkness’ was fully remastered from the original 16mm film and released on BBC DVD and Blu-ray on 4 November 2019.

❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Twitter: @aneercs

Image credits: © BBC Studios/Radio Times Photo Archive.

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  1. Despite being an adolescent at the time the series was simply spellbinding. Alongside, Dennis Potter’s contemporaneous work including the Singing Detective, it was next level British TV entertainment.

    As a Doctor Who fan, Jonathan Powell is meant to be persona non grata, but his lack of faith in the show was entirely justifiable considering the slate of quality entertainment the drama department was quickly racking up.

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