1970s BBC BBC drama BBC English Regions Drama BBC Pebble Mill Billy Smart Gangsters Philip Martin Philip Saville Play For Today Tom May

Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part One: Philip Martin on Gangsters (BBC Play for Today, 1975, and series, 1976-78)

Philip Martin on OPEN UNIVERSITY – POPULAR CULTURE – 3 – Pleasure, BBC2, 22-06-1983

Philip Martin, who died last December, was the author of two Play for Todays – Gangsters (1975, which subsequently spun off into two BBC series, 1976-78) and The Remainder Man (1982). Forgotten Television Drama pays tribute by publishing an article in three parts, drawn from extensive interviews with Martin conducted by Tom May last year. In this first part, Martin talks about his memories of Gangsters. Part Two will be the interview with Martin discussing the rest of his career, while Part Three forms a tribute with contributions from Peter Ansorge, David Edgar and David Rudkin.

(Text taken from two Zoom interviews with Philip Martin by Tom May, 17 June and 1 July 2020. Transcribed by Juliette Jones and edited by Billy Smart.)

Philip Martin: Gangsters is the one that has survived the years, really. The media guys really loved the second series – it was on Open University for about five years under Popular Culture.

Tom May: Can you explain the process of Gangsters being commissioned by the BBC?

PM: It was very different from the other Play For Todays. David Rose was the producer, he was actually the head of English Regions drama. He had a little fiefdom in Birmingham with a production crew and everything set up, a proper department. And he attended a meeting in London and he’d had a couple of hours to kill and he’d gone to see The French Connection and he’d enjoyed it but on his way back, as the train came back into London it sort of came back into Birmingham, the sun was catching on the high-rise blocks and he thought to himself, ‘why has there never been a thriller set in Birmingham’? Which there hadn’t, because Birmingham was sort of there but nobody ever paid much attention to it. So he spoke to his producer, Barry Hanson, and said, ‘we’ve got an open script editorship here. I wonder if it’s worth talking to a writer about researching the crime scene in Birmingham because nobody knows anything about it?’ And Barry said well, I know this writer who writes crime stuff, it’s Philip Martin so why don’t we go and talk to him? I’d written for Z-Cars and I’d been an actor in crime series. I think I ended up doing about six Z-Cars. There were Thirty-Minute Theatres as well and I was also writing for what was then lunchtime theatre.

 I had no idea what it was about and I’d never been to Birmingham, really, so I went and they proposed that they would pay me script editor’s money, give me director’s expenses, and I would live in Birmingham for three months and research the crime scene there and they said if there’s a story here, great, if there isn’t, well, you’ve had three months holiday in Birmingham, you know.

 So I accepted. It was a great opportunity although it was a bit scary because I didn’t know the city. I was given an office in Pebble Mill and I thought to myself, sitting in an office isn’t going to find any stories, really. So I left the office, went downstairs, got a bus and it happened to end up in New Street station and I went into New Street station and I was just looking at the train board, and I glanced and there was an Asian guy about six feet away from me and he saw me look at him. Now, normally, I would just look away but I thought to myself, that’s the sort of guy I should be talking to, really, and he took this as being a recognition. So he said, “oh, hi, hi, hi”, so I said ‘hi’ and we got talking. He said, “I’m really pissed off, I’ve just been fined 200 quid for an affray and I haven’t got the money and I’ve got to pay it by Wednesday. So I said, “do you want a coffee and a burger?”, “yeah, sure”. So we went to this Wimpy bar and I ordered two coffees and a burger and we sat down and we were chatting, and then the order arrived and the guy said, “a burger and two coffees”, and this Brummie down the road said, “here’” and Ali said “no no, here, that’s my order’, and the Brummie said “no, just wait a minute, that’s my order as well”. I was just about to say, “look, let’s cool this down” when he said to me, “don’t worry, I’ve got a knife, you know”. That was literally within an hour and a half. And I began the process of research.

 I did the three months and I met crooks and Irishmen and blacks and drug squad and everything. I kept coming across a name that was the Mr. Big of the city and I began to use that name to get more and more information.

 He was actually the character I ended up playing, although I didn’t intend to play him. There was an actors’ strike and Philip Saville, the director, heard me reading some changes and messing around and doing accents and things, and he offered me the part. I’m a trained actor but I hadn’t acted for about ten years. So I said “well, I’ll do it, but if we start it and you don’t think I’m right for it just say, I really don’t mind”. So when we did the read-through to prove to myself really, I began to act the part. Normally at read-throughs you get mumbles and it’s all a laugh there, but because I was acting everybody else thought, oh Christ, he’s acting! So everybody had to act. It was a really swinging film reading. Barry had never had a meeting like that before. That’s how we launched into making the film.

 Because it was all film we had more budget than we would have had normally. I think the budget was £117,000 which was, you know [high for 1974]!

TM: Were there any important contextual or news events that influenced your writing of Gangsters?

PM: I was attending the courts and I was following the newspapers and I talked to everybody and somebody told me all about illegal immigration, and somebody told me about the drugs. When I finished the three months research I wrote a long, rambling first draft and it was fine but there was something missing. I talked to Tara Prem, who was the script editor, not on Gangsters but she was the script editor there at BBC Birmingham. We talked about it and they said ‘this is fine, as it is but there’s something missing’. Of course, it was all based on documented fact. I said, ‘what if there’s a fictional element that goes right through it that links all the research together into a proper thriller story?’ They liked that idea, of somebody who wants some money and to get out of town and everybody wants to not give him money and kill him, which was John Kline. When the film was shown, all the Birmingham city hierarchy, the mayor, the Bishop and everything, all pooh-poohed it and said I’d made it all up: that there was no factual basis in what I was saying was going on. And the same week there were fifteen illegal immigrants caught in the Bristol Channel on the way to Birmingham and the Scratchwood Services which had a two million pound heroin heist picked up by the police. So we just said, ‘well, read the papers. We don’t need to justify ourselves.’ In that case, it happened after rather than while we were doing it because everything was underground. Everybody kept saying to me: ‘oh, not in Birmingham, not in Birmingham…’ It was crazy, but that’s what they kept saying and I had to dig below that to find the story.

 The original Gangsters play is of its time. It’s really quite shocking, particularly the racist jokes and things that were in it, although it’s everything I heard on the street or in the clubs.

TM: How did you regard the casting and production of the Play for Today, Gangsters?

PM: Well, Philip Saville who was a pretty hotshot director at that time, you know, big long very impressive CV, had never done anything like this before. He said, ‘what I want to do is I want to have faces that aren’t linked to anywhere else, any other programme, anything’, so I was consulted about the casting. The main problem was John Kline. Maurice Colbourne hadn’t done any television at all – he’d run a socialist theatre, the Half Moon. When he came in he was interested, but he wasn’t really knocked out like all the other actors, and this attracted Philip and he cast Maurice and other parts.  We tried to have as many new faces as possible.

TM: What do you recall about how Gangsters was received by the viewing public?

PM: You can always remember your bad reviews. It was pretty well damned once it was shown. When I opened the Guardian in the morning, Nancy Banks-Smith had said, ‘I don’t often use the word “stunning”’ – I thought ‘oh, that’s nice’ – ‘but in this case I felt I’d been hit over the head with a baseball bat for an hour and fifty minutes’.

TM: ‘Gangsters is a crime’, I think, is the last line of it.

PM: Oh no, the last line was, ‘the villain wrote the script’ because I played the villain… There were a few that were okay, but nothing special. Then about six weeks later I got a call from Barry Hanson saying, ‘go out and get New Society’. A very, almost revered, critic, Albert Hunt, had written eight pages about it and it was everything we’d ever wanted, and at the same time we saw the ratings. Nowadays it’s more or less instant and overnight, but then it took weeks for the actual ratings to come in, and they were the highest ratings that Play for Today ever had [this claim is not strictly accurate, but the BBC viewing barometer figure of 7.32 million was far above the average 4.93 million for Play for Today’s 1974/75 run]. So they began to think maybe there was something in this. So, the BBC phoned me and asked ‘would I be interested in a series continuing the story of the film?’ and I said ‘of course, yes’.

TM: Do you think the original Play for Today version was better received than the series?

PM: The series did very well. It was getting 12 million at a certain point and people, you know, people liked it. The first series is naturalistic and it continues the story of the film It was violent but it had an audience and the critics gradually came onto it and praised it. So it did very well, really…

TM: Do you remember encountering any of the higher-up managerial people at the BBC who watched it?

PM: Not me personally, but I’d written it and I’d been in it and it was made and it was edited and then the hierarchy in London, the really top brass, Alasdair Milne and Aubrey Singer saw it. Bryan Cowgill was a fan of the programme. He increased the budget and loved it and brought the series back. I had to write it very quickly because he wanted it for his autumn [1976] schedule. But there was a meeting where Barry and Philip Saville sat outside while they viewed the film and Aubrey Singer came out and said ‘no, I like it, I think I can sell it in America, you know, go ahead, we want one cut’. There was a cut where they put electrical wires around the black girl’s nipples and they said ‘oh, we don’t want that’ and they cut it. But that made it worse, actually! But they gave it the go ahead and that was fine but it could have been stopped at the eleventh hour.

TM: Did they try and sell it abroad much?

PM: No, they didn’t because again it clashed with London and London I guess had the say so of what sold so it’s never been sold abroad. It was shown on UK Gold in the 1990s but that’s it. A BBC company called 2Entertain brought out a limited run of it in DVD. It sold out immediately and then the company went bust so there was never any second release of it so they became collector’s items.

TM: They go for about £80 at the moment.

PM: I also wrote novelisations of the film and series one, and I’ve recently written a novelisation of the second series, which wasn’t easy, with a company called Candy Jar. But what I wanted to do is if people asked me about it and they said: ‘where can I see it?’ And I said ‘well, I can’t tell you, so I thought I’d make the book for somebody who wanted a flavour of what that second series was like… it’s in the book, you know’.

TM: Which do you prefer as a medium out of film or theatre?

PM: Well, I’ve written for both, I’ve had a play at the National Theatre. Film, I think you have to say film, just because of the audience you reach, where a lot of the theatres are rather stuffy and middle class or you write on the fringe with five people watching something. I love theatre but in terms of preference, I prefer film slightly more.

TM: So what are your views on the relative benefits of TV drama being made on video in the studio as compared with film on location?

PM: Well, there’s a good example in the first series of Gangsters. The Play for Today [Gangsters] is all film, but when it became a series we had to use studio and a certain amount of telecine film which had to be geared to the studio way. I think the budget was £28,000 where it had been £117,000 for the film, although the film was twice as long as any episode

TM: A quarter of the budget.

PM: But we had a stroke of good fortune which was the director, Alastair Reid, had discovered the hand-held camera and it was virtually the first time it had ever been used. It was a big unwieldy thing and he shot it on the floor and he attended on the floor like a film, and also the Maverick Club is rather garish anyway so you’re not going from outside reality to inside reality which is usually where it jars; you usually think, oh, we’re in the studio now, are we? And he smoothed all that away. So, in a way, we got away… I mean, I prefer film, who wouldn’t? But there we are…

TM: So you think that was a lot better than it being multi-camera in the studio?

PM: It was still multi-camera, but there were certain aspects of it where the camera was following the actors through the floor of the studio and giving it a sort of documentary immediacy feel. And again, that hadn’t been seen, you know, that hadn’t been seen in television. It was Alastair’s innovation, really, that we were lucky to have.

 TM: In series two you had Kuldip [played by Paul Satvendar] teaching a language class in prison.

PM: Both Alistair Reid and myself loved Kuldip and I think it was a stray remark, maybe by Alistair, that he’s in prison and we sort of laughed together and said, yeah, maybe he can be teaching a remedial English class and we just laughed. It was just a funny idea that we would have Kuldip teaching a group of prisoners who didn’t want to be taught anyway, in fractured English with bits of Fowler’s English Usage that he’d cribbed from the books they teach, you know. I thought it was amusing!

TM: There seemed to be a lot more – or even more – heavy synthesiser in Dave Greenslade’s incidental music in series two. Was that entirely his call or was it the director or yourself?

PM: It wasn’t me. It was the director and Dave. He would orchestrate the music once the episodes were made. It was fairly novel to get a synthesiser doing music on a television programme at that time.

TM: Why did you have a folk musician playing guitar in most scenes at the Nirvana restaurant?

PM: I wanted music in the background and I wanted somebody there. That was the director of casting, really. I ultimately wanted a pianist playing ‘As Time Goes By’. I think I’d indicated there would be music and maybe a musician in that, but I left it to them who that would be.

TM: When you were researching series two you were watching sort of Kung Fu movies. Do you remember which ones?

PM: Enter the Dragon [1973] was very much the main one and there were a couple of other with names that I can’t remember now. And I went back to the Fu Manchu novels [written by Birmingham born Arthur Henry Ward as ‘Sax Rohmer’] and some of the early stuff in the 30s I think it was. I watched some of those as well as background.

TM: Why did you select W.C. Fields as the figure whose style the White Devil takes on?

PM: It’s very odd, really! I was writing the second series and I’d written three or four of them and I was at home. I was taking my then year-old daughter for a walk at midday, trying to get her to sleep. She fell asleep and I was walking back towards the cottage that I lived in. It was a very country… Very pretty valley that I lived in at that time, and I suddenly got a voice into my head saying “death”, because I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to do any more after the second series and that I was going to kill Kline off, and then I suddenly had in my head a voice saying: death comes to Birmingham disguised as W.C. Fields. And I thought, what on earth is that? What on earth is that? And I thought about it and I thought about it and I went with it, I just went with my gut or wherever that feeling came from.

 I had no intention of playing W.C. Fields, or W.D. Fields as he’s known in the script. Les Dawson was going to play it and agreed to play it, but the BBC brought two of his shows together and he couldn’t. And I’d been going around Birmingham cracking W.C. Fields jokes in a W.C. Fields voice because I’d been listening to all his routines, you know. Films like The Bank Dick [1940], and then Alistair [Reid] phoned me up and said, ‘you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it’. And I said, ‘what have I got to do, Alistair?’ And he said, ‘play W.C. Fields and I thought: wow, okay, because I’d already played Rawlinson in the first episode, and there seemed something rather elegant about the fact that me as the author eventually killed Kline literally playing W.C. Fields to complete the thing. Not that I thought of that at the time, but I thought about it later. I had great fun with that.

TM: What was your intention in citing the Rudyard Kipling poems in series two?

PM: It was linked to India because, although Khan is Pakistani, and Jaffrey’s Indian [Saeed Jaffrey, born in the northern Punjab region, played Aslam Rafiq], there were the Indian and Pakistani populations in Birmingham. And he was just, I liked Khan’s father having this dual thing of a fantasy of what England used to be which was almost Kiplingesque, so it was logical that he would enjoy and almost revere Kipling because it fitted his fantasy of what modern England was like and so yeah, that’s why the Kipling thing was in it.

TM: The stylisation and the surrealism works especially well because there’s a grounded truth to it, between Anne and Kline, say: their relationship. You’ve commented before that the racist attack on Khan Sr. by the football hooligans in the last episode was based on a real incident.

PM: It was more like real incidents because there was a lot of football hooliganism at that time and I wanted to show how rough and tough and uncaring British society was at that time but particularly in Birmingham. Football hooliganism was a big thing at that time. There’s a football crowd shouting “we are the gangsters, we are the gangsters”. I thought that the only way to shatter old man Khan’s illusionswas to have him meet the worst of British society. As he says at one point, ‘I can’t believe the blood of England runs in the veins such as you’. And he couldn’t, but even then when he goes home and the boy says ‘how’s England?’ he can’t give up the fantasy and he says ‘it was great, it was wonderful, wonderful’, so even that hasn’t shattered his belief that there’s a wonderful mother country somewhere, even though it’s a complete illusion.

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