"When it said 'Touching Evil,' written by Paul Abbott, I said, 'Yes, please.' " Although his television work has tended toward romance and humor, British actor Robson Green felt safe switching to hard-edged police drama for "Touching Evil," a five-part, six-hour series premiering on PBS' "Mystery!" at 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1, on Channel 17.
And apparently he was right, because the dark, moody tale was a massive hit with British viewers when it started airing in 1997. "We were all shocked," says Green, talking from the set of his new movie, "Grafters," "and the press were really pleased. But in the end, it's the appreciation of good writing. I knew I had a safety net around me, and that was Paul. You know you're on a good, even keel with Paul's writing."
Green, a native and resident of the coal-mining city of Newcastle, and Abbott had come together before, for "Reckless," a romantic drama that aired as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." There he played an upstart surgeon carrying on an affair with the wife of his his boss. Green can also be seen this fall on "Masterpiece," in "The Prince of Hearts," playing a wordly wise bodyguard offering romantic advice at Cambridge University to the naive heir to the British throne.
With his dark good looks and piercing blue eyes, Green is a certified heartthrob in Britain. He also had a singing career as part of the duo Robson & Jerome (with fellow actor Jerome Flynn). Although he had played serious characters on stage, "Touching Evil" represented a surprise for his fans and a challenge for Green.
In "Touching Evil," Green plays Detective Inspector Dave Creegan, the newest member of the Organized and Serial Crime Unit, a blend of police officers and psychiatrists dedicated to understanding complex crimes.
"The unit that is set up in 'Touching Evil,' the OSC, is now happening," says Green. "It was fiction, but now it's fact."
Creegan has returned to police work after recovering from being shot in the head while on duty, and having a near-death experience. His wife (played by Saskia Downes, the real-life Mrs. Abbott) has a new man in her life, but Creegan still clings to her and their children. He's an enigma to his new partner, D.I. Susan Taylor (Nicola Walker), taciturn, brooding and explosive.
"I liked the idea of a man who's been shot in the head," says Green. "He's gone through the whole white-light scenario, is saved, and then comes back to a world where people can't talk on his level because his whole perspective has changed because of what's happened to him. One minute he was normal, then he was a patient. That's pretty interesting.
"A lot of people hide their feelings, so they make it difficult for themselves and they become insular."
Over his right eye, Creegan bears a scar, a reminder of his brush with death. It mirrors the scar worn by Paul Abbott, who also wrote and produced some of the early episodes of "Cracker." "Did you know Paul was attacked when he was young?" says Green. "He bears a terrible scar on his face. They left him for dead. So Paul has sort of gone through all that."
Did they catch the attackers?
"They didn't, so that doesn't help. I think it's displayed in Paul's writing. The world, I guess, to anyone who's suffered trauma, becomes an incredibly scary place."
To understand Creegan's world, Green talked to his wife, a former social worker who dealt with people who were traumatized, and to Abbott. "I just talked briefly about Paul's accident, what he felt. So he harbors that -- one minute you're just walking along, and four guys jump you and you're knifed. Your world changes like that. And that's what happens to Creegan. We must realize that trauma isn't something that happens to somebody else. Until it happens to you, you don't understand."
In the two-hour opener, Creegan's intense desire to protect his children turns into obsession as the team fails to nail down the case against a clever pedophile (Ian McDiarmud) who has abducted young boys. "It deals with many things," says Green, "but the main thing it deals with is this rogue cop actually taking the law into his own hands, like you, yourself, or any human being, given the circumstances, would do. I guess the show is about retribution."
But Creegan's retribution never happens, at least not by his hand, and the mystery of that carries through the show's next four hours, culminating in a heartbreaking revelation. The next two hours, airing Oct. 8 and 15, pit Creegan against a self-proclaimed mercy killer who knows all about his near-death experience.
"He understands why she's doing it," says Green, "so I guess 'Touching Evil' is not a case of who, when and what, it's always why."
The final two hours, airing Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, deal with a group of college students inspired to murder by an on-line role playing game. It's up to Creegan to draw parallels between their crimes and a case that happened 15 years earlier.
There are another six "Touching Evil" hours, which may air in this country, and at least one stand-alone story, to be shot later this year. Despite the show's success so far, Green doesn't plan to make a career out of playing a cop.
"No, no, no, no. No, no. I have a gun in my hand and go, 'Robson, you've got a gun, I don't believe a word of it.' There's a sequence where I go around trying to blast the guy away, and if any real cops saw it, they'd burst out laughing. There's something about that genre, that formulaic drama and cop thing, that I wouldn't like to revisit. I'm very much into diverse characters, full of life and celebratory of any part of Great Britain. I'd like to examine those."