Following the death of Tony Garnett, on 12 January 2020, obituary writers and those paying tribute to him understandably focused on his hugely influential career as a radical television producer, sometimes noting that he had begun his career as an actor in series such as An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960), Emergency – Ward 10 (ATV, 1961), Z Cars (BBC, 1962) and the feature film The Boys (1962). Few mentioned that Garnett had made his television debut in Troy Kennedy Martin’s first television play, Incident at Echo Six (BBC, 9 December 1958). The play was set in Cyprus (but broadcast live from the BBC’s Lime Grove studios) and Garnett was credited as Anthony Garnett (subsequently it was always Tony Garnett) in the role of Private Brown, a soldier whose death is really the crux of the play, raising a question about the ethics of colonial intervention, where ordinary soldiers become disposable pawns on the chessboard of international events. It was a minor role, but when I interviewed Tony Garnett in March 2004, while researching a book on Troy Kennedy Martin, he provided an illuminating and entertaining anecdote about his television debut.
‘I went to the BBC to audition for Incident at Echo Six. The producer and director was Gilchrist Calder, a very nice man who was doing quite progressive work at the time at the BBC and a man who has never been given as much credit as he should have been really but breaking a bit of the ground that we tried to break later. Anyway, I went to this audition/reading and he said he might want me for the part of Driver Brown and Driver Brown I think only had a line or two but he was killed and had to be a corpse for a good part of it. It was a very small part and he said “You’ll have to have your hair cut” because I had long hair and so I said “Of course, no problem” and then he said “Can you drive?” and I said “Oh of course, no problem at all with that” because, like all actors, whatever you’re asked you say “Yes.” You know, can you sky dive? Can you ride horses? Can you swim? You always say yes because you never want to lose a job and I forgot all about it and then I got the call from the BBC bookings lady – because I didn’t have an agent and in those days what happened is a very plummy-voiced woman would come on the phone, and she would say it as though doing you an enormous favour, she said [imitating a plummy-voiced woman] “Mr Gilchrist Calder would like you to play the part of Driver Brown and we are able to offer you eleven guineas”, to which without hesitation I said thank you, yes, such was the negotiating skill I had at that time.
I met Troy at Lime Grove Studios in Shepherds Bush where I was being kitted out as Driver Brown to be driven down to Aldershot to the Parachute Regiment, I think it was, where the little bit of outside filming was to be done as an insert to the main studio action, which was going to be done later, and I travelled down in this BBC car with Troy and that’s where we began our friendship. I liked him immediately, he had such modesty and warmth and of course turned out to be a really very important writer and a very fine writer. When I arrived at Aldershot – Troy was there, he had been invited to be around with the filming and so on – Gil Calder called me over and took me to a huge army truck, I mean one of those army trucks that you look up at, and pointed to the cab and said “That’s yours” and I got into the driving seat of this army truck and he said “What we’re going to do is set up a gun there and you’re going to drive down here and we’re going to shoot you and then you’ll die”, and then he walked away to talk to the camera people and so on. And I sat there just assuming that my career was over, that I would never work again, because I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even drive an Austin 7 let alone a huge army truck. I’d never even taken a driving lesson. So I was obviously caught and that would be the end of it and I’d have to think of something else to earn a living doing.
So I sat there, the condemned man, for about an hour, just helpless and hopeless at the future. Gil Calder walked over to me and looked up into this big army cab and said “I’m most awfully sorry, I really do have to apologise to you, we are having great difficulty setting up this shot and we just really can’t make the shooting of you work with a moving vehicle, so I do apologise again, you’re going to have to cheat it, I am sorry.” So I shrugged and said “No problem Gil, no problem.” So he got some of the lads, the real soldiers, to get hidden behind the truck and push it up and down so it looked as though it was in movement and I had to pretend to be driving it and I breathed again.
And I worked again and it was many years later I saw Gil in the bar at the BBC and told him, but nobody knew, and when we did it in the studio, I had to lie dead through quite a long scene and the camera was on me and he was up in the gallery directing it and this noise came down to the PA all the time: “The corpse is breathing, stop the corpse breathing!” So it was quite a tough little part really.’
Tony Garnett proceeded to talk about working with Troy Kennedy Martin on other occasions and about other aspects of his career in an interview which I’ll make available in another post. I think I next saw him at BFI Southbank in January 2007 when Troy Kennedy Martin was interviewed onstage about his career during a season of his work which coincided with the publication of my book and I remember talking to Tony and Ken Loach in the bar beforehand, thinking ‘how great is this?!’ Two years later, at a screening of Leeds – United! (BBC, 1974), which was showing as part of a season of Radical Television Drama at BFI Southbank, I told Tony that I’d recently written a short biography on him for BFI Screenonline and he told me he was trying to write his autobiography but was finding it ‘very hard’. In 2016, when The Day the Music Died was published and it was revealed that his mother had died in a backstreet abortion when he was 5 years old and that his father had committed suicide shortly after, one of the reasons why he might have been struggling to write his memoirs became apparent.
In 2013 Tony Garnett was afforded his own season and onstage interview at BFI Southbank and I was delighted that my Screenonline biography was used for the programme notes at an event which was packed out with many of the people who had worked with Tony during an illustrious career which nearly ended before it began, with that army truck in Aldershot.