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1980s BBC Billy Smart Philip Martin Play For Today The Remainder Man The Unborn Tom May

Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Two: Philip Martin on The Remainder Man (BBC Play for Today, 1982) and The Unborn (1980)

Philip Martin in Playhouse: The Unborn (BBC 1980)

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 Part One Martin talked about his memories of Gangsters. In this second part Martin discusses The Remainder Man and The Unborn (1980), 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.)

PM: I was born in Liverpool. My education was pretty rudimentary. I left school at 15, I was a secondary modern kid, and I served an engineering apprenticeship until I was 21 and then I went to RADA and was acting in amateur things. While I was at RADA I got a lead in a BBC Television Play Of The Week called Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring (1961) which did very well.

I looked quite young for my age so although I was about 23 I looked about 17, but eventually my looks began to catch up with my age and I had to think about almost starting a second acting career. At that time I’d drifted away from being an actor and I began to write.

TM: How did you find RADA as place to work and learn the trade?

PM: It was a big change On Friday, I was wearing overalls in a factory and on Monday I was wearing tights and Mickey Mouse shoes and doing an acting class at RADA. Big, strange thing. I was lucky in fact that the times were changing because Tom Courtenay [and] Albert Finney had changed the atmosphere of being an actor and working class people and because of The Beatles where I came from was the big thing. I was in a wonderful film, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner playing a good supporting part. I wasn’t credited, but I was the head of the Borstal before Tom Courtenay arrived. So I did okay as an actor. I was fine, but eventually I went into writing.

TM: Did they sort of build the Received Pronunciation accent into you when you were there at RADA?

PM: Very much. There was a voice teacher and there was a voice remedial teacher. When I did it with the main voice teacher who was a great old boy called Clifford Turner, you had to read a piece out. He listened to me and pulled a face and said ‘oh, we’re going to have to do something about your Liverpool accent’. I said [strong Liverpool accent]: ‘what Liverpool accent?’ because I didn’t think I had one particularly because I was different to some degree from the usual Liverpool. But I did remedials and within a year you read the same piece again and it was chalk and cheese, not just me but the other people in the class, New Zealanders, you know… That’s why I’ve got this strange sort of accent that nobody can quite place is because of that.

TM: What was your experience like of working on Z-Cars as an actor?

PM: Z-Cars? Well, Z-Cars was a big deal because as I say I was from Liverpool and it was set in Liverpool or Newtown as it was called. I was in the third episode and it made a huge impression. You were recognised in the street and asked for autographs. It was a big deal. Z-Cars was actually very pivotal in my writing career because I think I’d been in four Z-Cars as an actor and I knew the format, I knew the scripts. So when I began to write I wrote a spec script, a Z-Cars script which they liked and eventually it was produced, and I learnt a lot from that.

TM: Was that when David Rose was working on it?

PM: David Rose was the producer and for an actor when he used to come in for the producer’s run it was like God was coming down to look at what you were doing. I didn’t know that years later that we’d become friends After he commissioned Gangsters he would support things that I was in. He was a really nice man. Even though he had Parkinson’s disease eventually he didn’t let it stop him. He went on right till the end and I think he was 92 when he died, and a great guy. Wonderful thing about David was that things like mine weren’t really to his taste, but he recognised that it had a place and he would back it. He recognised the quality was there. There are very few people like that who can differentiate between their own taste and what’s good in other genres, if you like.

TM: What were your opinions in Play for Today as a strand? Did you watch it much at the time? Did you have any particular views on it?

PM: I’d watch it because it was the main play for the week, but mostly I thought it was middle class left-wing, a lot of dinner parties in Hampstead. When I was told before I’ve written it that Gangsters was going to go in the Play for Today strand I said, ‘this is nothing like Play for Today’. Barry Hanson said, ‘well, don’t worry about that, just write it’. I had absolutely no expectations when I sat down to write it. I thought, this isn’t a Play for Today, this doesn’t fit with the general ethos of that programme, it’s not going to be made… Two weeks later they phoned me and they said ‘we’re going to make it, we’re going to put it into production’. So, you never know. But I honestly thought that when I wrote it. In a way that was a release because I could just write for myself with something I would like to see, something that I would want to be involved in, something that I knew was true, because I’d lived it for three months so I just did it – and that was the thing that was made.

 TM: Would you say there is any link between you and writers like Dennis Potter?

PM: Not really, no. I liked Dennis Potter and he was an innovative [writer], but he didn’t like Gangsters. What Dennis Potter used to do was he played the intellectual circuit. Before one of his plays was shown, he would appear on all the talk shows and culture programmes and explain what his play was about and what he was aiming for and why it was great, so he softened the critics up. Some of his plays were great, I’m not arguing about that, but this is what he used to do.  I used to think, yeah, that’s your technique, mate. I watched The Singing Detective. I didn’t watch his later stuff because I thought it became very self-indulgent but I liked the early stuff and Blue Remembered Hills.

TM: Were there any other Play for Today writers or directors who you admired particularly?

PM: At that time? No. There was a sort of hierarchy of writers that were okay. Mostly left-wing, mostly writing about how bloody awful life is. I don’t think I admired anybody, really. When you’re as young as I was and making your way you’ve got to think you’re the only game in town. That’s just the way it is because you’re making your way and your career and you’ve got to write what’s true to you. So you’re not imitative or don’t say oh, I’ve got to see that or think I’ve got to write a play like Joe Orton or something because you can’t. Joe Orton’s Joe Orton and I’m Philip Martin. Can’t be the same and if you start to write that way it’s just [a] disaster.

TM: So in your view, was there a dominant creative force in Play for Today out of the director, writer, script editor, or producer?

PM: They were all that on Play for Today. It was very much Irene Shubik’s baby and she should have ran it. I got on alright with her, but she was very much in charge of the whole thing and it was her baby. And Kenith Trodd took over and it became much more left-wing, but he threw all Irene’s scripts in the bin including one of mine.

TM: Can you explain the process of The Remainder Man being commissioned by the BBC?

PM: Ann Scott was the producer, but she didn’t actually commission it.The curse of the writer is that when a new producer comes in the first thing they do is sweep all those scripts of the previous producer off the table – no matter how far along they’ve gone. I also lost a play called The Killing around the same thing. This happens time and again. But Ann Scott took over and virtually the first thing she had to do was put a play on the same night that Channel 4 opened and so she looked around she came across The Remainder Man which had been… not exactly junked, but it had been pushed to one side. She really liked it, but I knew it was a sacrifice because everybody was going to cover the opening of Channel 4. So it was produced and made and it was okay and went on. It was actually shown at the BFI recently. I wasn’t there but it went really well, I believe.

TM: Was that one shot at Television Centre rather than Pebble Mill?

PM: Yes. It was the London Play for Today, it was all cast and recorded in there. It was away from Birmingham by that time. David Rose left to become head of drama at Channel 4. Peter Ansorge wentwith him. Barry Hanson had gone to Thames. So the core of that had gone and the BBC in London had always resented the fact, the autonomy of Birmingham and with David going they used the chance to downgrade so Birmingham couldn’t commission anymore. It had to go through London so in a way, the golden age of Pebble Mill drama was over then.

TM: Why did you set out to write The Remainder Man? What was in your head when you were writing it?

PM: At that time there was a lot of scare about nuclear attack and there were shelters and government leaflets and there were books coming out about how to survive the Holocaust if it happened and what to do. And it just occurred to me one day, I thought – it’s a bit ironic now when they talk about being in lockdown – I thought, being in lockdown for a fortnight with your family is more dangerous than the nuclear radiation outside really, and it stuck with me. That was the germ of the play and I developed it from there. There were a couple of characters that I wanted to explore as well, who fitted very well into that. After Gangsters it was a fairly straightforward commission, really.

TM: What were you aiming for with the Dad character, Jack?

PM: It was that he was struggling for his position for head of the family and he wanted some power over them and set up the whole lockdown. It gave him a sort of position in the family that he never really had. He and his wife never really got on, she resented his work [as a policeman] and everything. So, in a way, he was hoping that it would heal the family and give him some respect from the others So when he says, ‘draw the curtains, I’ll stay here’ at the end, you know in a way he’d rather have the darkness than living in the light.

TM: He’d have quite liked lockdown, wouldn’t he?

PM: Oh yeah, he’d love it! He’d be one of the shielded, no doubt…

TM: Why did you entitle it ‘The Remainder Man’?

PM: Well, it was originally called Nuclear Devices which I liked. I had lots of arguments at the time and I fought as hard as I could for Nuclear Devices but they said ‘it gives the game away’ and I said ‘well, I don’t really see that’ but they thought it did, so they asked me to come up with an alternative title. The remainder man wants to remain, but when you think of remainders in books, they’re books that nobody wants to read. Nobody wants him, really, so it’s one of those dual titles.

TM: Where is it meant to be set?

PM: It was set in London. The cast was London.

TM: I think Dumfries is mentioned at one point as being very far away.

PM: Well, the director was Richard Wilson, who was One Foot in the Grave and that business. He made a good job of it. I enjoyed worked with it. It was good, but it was just a pity that I knew it was going to be thrown away. There [were] a few reviews, but all, everything, was about Channel 4 opening…

TM: I’ve only been able to find one review so far of it, in the Daily Mail.

PM: I knew this was going to happen but I thought well, at least it’s going to be there and it’s going to be shown.

TM: How did you regard the casting and the production of The Remainder Man?

PM: I was satisfied with it. Richard Wilson consulted me quite a lot and we talked quite a lot about it.

TM: So, do you remember how long the production process was for The Remainder Man?

PM: I can’t remember exactly but usually you had about a fortnight.

TM: What about the selection of music in it? There’s a few jazz tunes and a classical piece at the end.

PM: That would be Richard, giving some ambience to it.

TM: Do you remember anything more about how that one was received other than wasn’t reviewed much by the critics?

PM: A few people who weren’t in the business really liked it, particularly women who told me they could very much sympathise with the Sheila Hancock character.

I didn’t get a lot of feedback, which I half-expected. It was being sacrificed and so I left it. But apparently when it was shown at the BFI the revelation at the end took literally everybody by surprise which is the heart. It’s the trick, you know, to get, to keep that tension and then slowly reveal: he set it up. He set it up as an exercise, really…

TM: I was surprised, watching it yesterday.

PM: It works.

TM: Did you attempt to write for Play for Today at any other pointbeyond The Remainder Man?

PM: No. Alistair Reid and I wanted to bring out something called Middle Class Fantasies and we couldn’t get it off the ground and nobody was interested. Alistair went on to direct Traffik and I was involved in my local theatre. The film industry was pretty flat as well. There was no real impetus creatively from the second series of Gangsters. I thought there would be, but people just wanted the same old stuff.

TM: How did you find working with various script editors? How did Eric Saward [on Doctor Who]compare with Peter Ansorge or Tim Aspinall on the Thirty-Minute Theatre Gun Play, BBC2, 1972]?

PM: Tim Aspinall picked up me, he saw a lunchtime theatre play. He came down to see me, to see the play. He was very encouraging and guided me through because I was still pretty raw, I’d been an actor. P. J. Hammond on Z-Cars again taught me a hell of a lot. A series like Doctor Who is different because they’ve got to link the arcs of [the] overall story of thirteen episodes and it’s particularly the script editor [who] has the knowledge of where it’s going and where it’s been and what it wants and what the audience wants.

 Peter Ansorge was very supportive. He became a producer and very successful in television with Channel 4, but he was very supportive without being – he would never try to control me. He would perhaps give me a little guide as we went along – where are we going with this or what have you – but basically, my work just amused him and he enjoyed it. He was very supportive and defensive of it. He would protect it. He would [bring] in other directors and if they didn’t quite get the tone of it he’d be right at my side saying ‘it’s alright’, ‘it has to go’, ‘do this’. But all [were] good in their own way.

TM: Peter Ansorge produced Playhouse: The Unborn (1980). What was the genesis of that play?

PM: The Unborn? It sort of happened, really. Peter Ansorge was a producer at that time and he was a play short and came up to stay with me in Lancashire. At that time, you know, there was The Exorcist [1973] and a lot of those sort of things were around and I wanted to do something like that. We talked it through and Peter said ‘yeah, okay, we’ll commission that’.

TM: What was your intention behind the intro? You delivered it to the camera.

PM: I don’t know whether that really worked. It was an idea that they’d found that it was a… there’s a genre of this now that… fragments have been found in another culture by some sort of alien, somebody in the future, and they’ve gone back and they’ve discovered this thing called the unborn which was on the… I’m not sure it totally worked, but that was the idea.

TM: Were you pleased by the final production?

PM: Yes, I thought it was very well-acted and I think it was quite scary.

I had almost a unique experience with the part of Madame Roma. I had actresses fighting to get that part, they were queuing up to play it – very strong auditions. Judy Parfitt eventually played it. I always remember when she’d play a scene in rehearsal, she’d do a sign on her head like this [Mimics a swirling, sanctifying motion above his head] to take away the evil influence, the witchcraft that was going on in the studio or the rehearsal room.

TM: Did you see your Play for Todays as engaging more with public life or private life?

PM: Public life. The hooks that were in the original film, I met somebody.. The difference then from now was, there were only three channels and if there was a big, dramatic event on millions would watch it, 12 to 15 million people, and they’d talk about it in the supermarket or the office the next day. It was part of their lives and you were part of it. I would meet people for weeks afterwards who’d seen it. The one I really liked said, ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you’. ‘Why’s that?’ I said. ‘Well, I had an evening out booked’, he said, and ‘I had my coat on, I got to the door, and your play was on and I kept watching it and the wife said come on, “let’s go”, and I said, “no, no, let’s just see this next little bit”, he said, and ended up watching the whole thing and finishing it at 10 to 11 at night or whatever it was…’ He was joking, of course, but I thought that’s what I want – to hook somebody. What happens next? Where does it go? Where’s the surprise? That heartened me and I thought, we’re on the right track here.

TM: Several critics have recently described Play for Today as left-wing propaganda. Do you agree with this assessment?

PM: When you say propaganda, that means it’s overt. I don’t think it was, but that’s the way the writers looked at the world. I was sort of middle to left at that time and I wasn’t extreme by any means, but that’s where my thoughts were and political ideas were. But others really made a thing of it, you know. They were, ‘I’m a left-wing writer, I want revolution’, and there was a lot of that. As often with people with fixed views, they didn’t really take in anything else. You were part of a gang or you weren’t, really, and I never wanted to be.

2 replies on “Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Two: Philip Martin on The Remainder Man (BBC Play for Today, 1982) and The Unborn (1980)”

A really interesting read. I didn’t know Richard Wilson was a producer. Yes, just three channels and everyone talking about what they’d watched the next day.

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