Newton's laws of television

Philip Martin

An interview by Richard Amphlett & Matthew Newton

A picture of Philip Martin Philip Martin is a writer with a special place in cult television, his credits including Star Cops, two Colin Baker stories for Doctor Who and creating and writing Gangsters. He has been involved in the industry for over twenty years and much of his work is not as well known. One of his earliest writing jobs was Gunplay, a Thirty Minute Theatre from 1970.

"I remember Gunplay because I was involved with a theatre company with David Halliwell which was designed to put plays on at lunch time in the fringe in London. I said I'd write something for them, and I remember waking up one morning at about 2 o'clock and having two ideas. Like two rabbits running for separate holes, I knew that I could only catch one of them, and this became "Gunplay" - which was originally called Duel. I often wondered what the other brilliant idea was that shot down the other hole. So the play went on at a fringe theatre, with David Dixon playing a gunslinger, and it was good fun. My agent then sent it to Thirty Minute Theatre and it became a Thirty Minute Theatre called "Gunplay" because there was a film about called Duel, and it worked quite well. It's done on the BBC directors' course, so I often meet directors who say "Oh, you wrote Gunplay" because they've done it on the directors' course at the BBC. It was set in a ranch in Surrey which was quite an amusing idea. The actors loved it, being able to have gun-belts and six shooters in rehearsal."

But even before this, Martin had worked on Z-Cars. "Yes, I started on Z-Cars when I changed over from being an actor. I'd acted in Z-Cars and knew the format quite well, so I wrote a script called "The Charge of Thermal Lancers" and I sent it to the script editor, PJ Hammond, who liked it, especially the title. When I met him he said "The title's great; I love the title - the rest of it's not very good!" He worked with me on the script. I'd been out of the business for a couple of years, and it was the way back in for me. We redid the whole of the script, and when it came down to it they changed the title! It was called "Blowback" in the end. I did 4 or 5 episodes and it was a very interesting exercise and I learnt a hell of a lot from it. It was a very tough training ground, because writers have to put up with a lot on those series, so if you can survive on that you can survive anything. But it was from Z-Cars that I moved to Thirty Minute Theatre, and I wrote for radio as well, and then it ran up to Gangsters."

Philip Martin had mentioned PJ Hammond, a name familiar for his work on series such as Ace Of Wands and Sapphire And Steel. Martin found him very supportive. "I remember him coming to see one of my fringe plays and being very helpful and teaching me a lot. You got the feeling that he was on your side - on the side of the writers. I've got a lot to be grateful to PJ Hammond for."

Before going into writing Philip Martin was an actor, attending RADA in 1959. "I had a break in a play by Donald Turner called "Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring" which I had the lead in and got some very good reviews, and I had a number of other parts of the next five years and was able to make a reasonable living. But I ultimately became disenchanted with it and I just decided to move on. It had all started because I needed to break away from my apprentice job in Liverpool and I was in the right place at the right time, and I also looked younger than I was - I could play an 18 or 19 year old despite being 26 or 27, which was a very big advantage. But of course things change, and as you get older you have to move into a different category, and I thought that I was fulfilling what I wanted to do, so I left the business for a couple of years.

"When I was in a managing job in Preston, I saw the film The Thomas Crown Affair and there was that scene where Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen are playing chess and the camera wheels around the room. While that camera was rotating I thought "Hey, I want to get back into this." That's when I sent in the idea for Z-Cars and that's when the writing took over. I still do act occasionally, but I'm basically a writer."

One of these occasional acting roles was as Rawlinson in the two hour play that launched the Gangsters series. Was Gangsters engineered by David Rose as a way of giving Pebble Mill a higher profile? "Yes and no. I think he had the idea when he went to a meeting in London as Head of English Regional Drama which finished early and he went to see "The French Connection" then came back to Birmingham on the train and saw the Birmingham skyline. Now he'd been watching the New York skyline for a couple of hours previously and he just thought that very few films or series had been done in Birmingham, apart from a Cliff Richard film [Take Me High] and something called "Rainbow City". So David spoke to Barry Hanson who was then working at Pebble Mill. Barry said that he knew someone who knew about this sort of thing, so why don't we pay him - i.e. me - to live for three months in Birmingham and research the city and the underworld and if there's a story there, great, if not, well, we've had the time in Birmingham.

"So I did that and I found it very interesting because I didn't know the city and there was so much material that by the end of it I was virtually taking the phone off the hook, because it was coming in and I was going to nightclubs, discos and strip-joints and going with the drug squad and police. So I had all this material which I included in this long rambling first draft which didn't really get anywhere. Then I decided that the fictional element needed to go in, with the Kline character and I was influenced by the Warner Brothers movie style. I wanted it to be a multi-layered cake with something for everybody, but it was based on reality with a fictional strand that the viewer wouldn't want to switch off. They liked it, so they commissioned a feature film, because at that time the BBC were flirting with going into feature film production - I think Leeds United was done at that time - but they didn't have any agreement with the Unions and cinemas and consequently there were only two made, and it ultimately became the play.

"This was of course a Play For Today, but going against the Play For Todays of the time, which were left wing, social and highly realistic. Although I was putting into Gangsters the entertainment factor, there were a lot of other things as well. Because they were gangsters, their currency was violence and they used this very much to get their ways. It wasn't originally very well received by the press, but then six weeks later, a new society paper came out with five pages by a very respected critic called Albert Hunt, which praised Gangsters to the sky, which suddenly said everything which I hoped was in it, and there began to be a change about the programme. Then the BBC got their viewers' reactions back it was very high rating; in fact it was the highest rating Play For Today that there had been. Although opposed by The Two Ronnies or something, it had done very well. And so they thought perhaps we've got something here. Quite a few months later David Rose talked to me and said, what do you think about continuing the story.

"So I continued the story of the first Gangsters through the first six. Although they started to have more jokes in and to have more humour, it is a continuation of the story and based on what was happening in Birmingham. Now that did well and was pulling 10 or 11 million. But with the second series, the one about the Chinese Triads, people wouldn't accept the very strange sort of background where drugs are part of our society and the danger isn't looked upon. People dismissed what I was trying to say, in the possibility of the way in which the drug culture could develop - it was just dismissed. Also, a lot of the Chinese actors couldn't hold long speeches and convey the sense of the speeches, so by that time there was a lot of material out. So I was thrown back on myself to make something of it, so it became a trip - you're watching a television play, but you know that you're watching a television play, so why get involved? Why can't you enjoy what it is without total empathy? How it turned out was that I had virtual carte blanche to do what I liked with a big television series. Because they'd altered the transmission date by bringing it forward six months, so that when I was writing episode six, episode one was already on air."

The first series on Gangsters was criticised for its violence. Was the increased surrealism in the second series a conscious effect to remind these critic that it was only television? "Exactly - it was a reaction to the way people were reacting as if it was corrupting the youth of the nation and destroying everybody's standards. But whereas the first series was drawing ten million, when surrealism came in the ratings dropped to six million - this making demands on the audience was taking away a comforting idea of "this is reality". I was saying "this isn't reality, it's just people in a studio, yes, it's entertainment, I hope it's amusing you, but it's only a script." It's really putting television in its place. In that first series, my criteria was that if someone was hurt you've got to show something happens; teeth are broken and things happen and it hurts, whereas a lot of stylised violence doesn't show this - like The A Team later on, which doesn't have any come back. So if a kid thinks that if you point a gun at someone they do a somersault and that's it, whereas I was saying, look, guns kill, families are maimed; I was trying to say what violence is. But when you take that role you are open to misinterpretation."

The Gangsters series seems very close to its writer. What does it reveal about Philip Martin? "Well, I don't know, you can't ever look at yourself objectively. I suppose as an outsider, like a lot of writers, you have that feeling that you're outside society - you're alone in it, like Kline was alone. I suppose it says that about me. I still feel to a certain extent that I'm outside the system although to a large degree I work within in it."

One of the most interesting developments in the second series of Gangsters was the introduction of the character of the White Devil in the penultimate episode. What was the role of this WC Fields look-alike? "It was the mythical element that I wanted to get into it. We knew we wanted to kill Kline at the end of episode six, so I wondered how we were going to do it. I was reading a lot of Kung-Fu stuff at the time and I came across this character, a super assassin that almost had magical powers. Then it came to me that Death has come to kill Kline; Death has come to Birmingham and supposedly it comes in the form of WC Fields and that was really the start of it. Because we were into this Triad business where assassins have strange names like Red Stick, the name developed from there. It's very interesting that Asians who watch the programme accept this White Devil character, because it was part of their folklore, going back to demons and devils. It was the native white audience who had problems, because a lot of drama is narrowed down to very normal situations."

Another curiosity is that the White Devil is credited to Larson E Whipsnade, despite being played by Philip Martin himself. Why was this? "That was one of my jokes. We originally wanted Les Dawson to play the White Devil - WD Fields - and he agreed, he wanted to do it, but had other commitments. I'd been doing a certain amount of research into Fields and I could do a passable imitation I was persuaded to do it, because we tried others and they weren't suitable. So I spent a month listening to all the Fields tapes and I knew all the routines. Now Fields wrote a lot of his own scripts and in order to get more money out of the studios he'd invent these names, and Larson E Whipsnade was one of Fields' names, although I'm not sure if it was one of these. Because I wanted the White Devil to be something of a mystery, I didn't want myself credited on the end titles, so I called myself Larson E Whipsnade. So it's a Fields joke."

The White Devil was of course the second part played by Martin in the Gangsters saga. Was there meant to be any connection between WD Fields and Rawlinson in the play? "No, not really. Although it is this multi-layered thing, it's curious that I ended up playing the White Devil - the author killing off his main character, Kline. There are a number of endings and one can ask what actually killed Kline, and one of them was that touch; where the White Devil touched Kline and four days later he dies. This was meant to be one of the things of the great martial arts masters. But it was curious, killing my character with a touch like the stroke of a pen, like you do. It's one of those little ironies."

In the last episode there is the graveyard scene. Was it just Kline being buried here, or the series as well? "I was burying the series - it became something of a jamboree. I didn't want to go on writing it, it was very exhausting to write, very dense. We wanted to make sure everything was nailed down absolutely so there couldn't be a Gangsters 7 or something. Hence the endings - it keeps ending, then there's another scene, then it ends, and so on."

The death of Kline is actually quite ignonimous, happening relatively early in the last episode. Why was this? "I was after the conventions, nothing was sacrosanct. One of the rules was you killed off the main character at the end, so I thought let's do it in the middle. This makes the audience think that he's not really dead. With a lot of things, whatever the danger, you know the hero survives, because it is in next week's Radio Times, so I was playing with the audiences expectations, that we wouldn't dare kill him in the middle of an episode - and of course when he actually goes, be it a magic touch, a splinter in his finger, or it's just his time, he went and it was interesting to fill the other half episode and make it work as that. It was against all the conventions.

Another character in the Gangsters series is Sarah Gant, who seemed to be connected everywhere and have infinite allegiancies. What was the function of this character? "Well the thing about drugs then was that it was only the Americans who were having a stab at controlling it internationally, and it became logical that there would be an American agent in Birmingham trying to get the authorities to do something. So that was Sarah Gant."

Did Martin base his characters on real people? Was there a real Malleson or Kuldip? "Yes, but not directly. I never write directly, but I take things. They were amalgams or people who were in Birmingham at that time, certainly. The only fictional element was Kline. All the jokes in the original play, the racist jokes, were ones that I heard on the streets of Birmingham at the time."

Does Philip Martin think that he'd be allowed to do Gangsters today? "I don't think so. I think it was part of its time, and also the violence lobby would hold it down. It was an experiment. I learnt from it. If I did a Gangsters today it would be very different now because I realise that although it's nice to get the media academics and interested and be on Open University or whatever, but basically it does bother me that audience loss of four million. So I think there's ways of involving the audience and doing things differently, but keeping them with you. I don't regret doing it and it was worth doing."

So does surrealism have a place in modern television? "Yes, but you worry that when you get down to it people want it to sell and they won't take that risk, unless there's someone with a reputation behind it. It has to be given a good run, so that people get used to it, like with Monty Python and Blackadder. Gangsters didn't get much of a run - it has never been sold abroad and the series has never been repeated. The hierarchy of the media are behind this. There doesn't seem to be room for fantasy or surrealism today."

More on Gangsters at Newton's Laws Of Television

Copyright RJW Amphlett & MJ Newton 2003. All rights reserved.
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