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1970s BBC BBC Pebble Mill Billy Smart David Edgar David Rudkin Gangsters Peter Ansorge Tom May

Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Three: Peter Ansorge on script editing Gangsters (BBC 1976-78), plus contributions from David Edgar and David Rudkin.

 Introduction by Tom May

 While Philip Martin’s television drama work might be justifiably termed as non-naturalistic, experimental, postmodernism or popular modernism, his can also simply be described as a truly original voice.[1] 

 I only encountered Philip near the end of his well-lived life, via the technological apparatus of Zoom I conducted two interviews in the summer of 2020. Philip was born in Liverpool in 1938 and spoke with the actor’s Received Pronunciation accent he had gained during his time studying at RADA, but his voice also contained the occasional trace of Scouse. 

 Philip was a key player with Z Cars (1962-78), one of the few to both write and appear on the BBC’s popular and gritty Merseyside-set crime series (he wrote seven and performed in four episodes). After his successful career as an actor on stage, television and film, Philip started out writing with many lunchtime theatre plays, before gravitating to the opportunities offered by the prestigious television single play.

 From our chats, he seemed to have a sense of intrepid independence; he wouldn’t suffer officious fools gladly. Nor did he seem a clubbable man, though ironically he formed close bonds with of the other key creative figures behind his Play for Today and series Gangsters (1975-78): David Rose, Alastair Reid, Peter Ansorge and Barry Hanson. Listening to the commentaries on the 2006 DVD release from the gang behind Gangsters is like luxuriating in a lost world of eloquent, lively and urbane camaraderie. They were centred in BBC Birmingham’s Pebble Mill and the genesis of the series was in David Rose wanting a Birmingham-set equivalent to the Hollywood thriller The French Connection. This involved Rose paying Philip, who later settled in rural north Lancashire, to live in Birmingham for more than three months to conduct research into the city.[2]

 After Gangsters, Philip produced a supernatural drama for the BBC2 Playhouse strand The Unborn (1980) and also a second Play for Today The Remainder Man directed by Richard Wilson, a neglected genre-fluid drama centring on the threat of nuclear war. Martin is now perhaps best known for contributing scripts to two sharp Colin Baker-era Doctor Who serials, ‘Vengeance on Varos’ (1985) and ‘Mindwarp’ (1986). Of the former, he claims that it ‘was one of the most political Doctor Whos there’s ever been’.[3]

 Running through all of his work, but most gloriously distilled in Gangsters is Martin’s profound love of popular culture. He especially loved cinema – everything from Warner Brothers gangster movies, W. C. Fields comedies and contemporary Kung Fu. With the director of the Play for Today Gangsters, Philip Saville, he brought stylistics from Bollywood and the Spaghetti Western to BBC1’s often realism-centric prime-time contemporary drama strand. Crucially, Philip combined his cutting-edge popular touch with a concern for truth and exploring the nature of how Britain was changing in the 1970s.

 With Gangsters, Martin presents the rough language and the increasingly diverse Birmingham of the time, in a richly entertaining drama which avoids any essentialist idealisation of ethnicity and class. While Gangsters became increasingly fantastical and surreal when it entered its sublime second series in 1978, Martin grounded this with the scrupulous research he and his cast, notably Elizabeth Cassidy, had conducted into tough contemporary issues: drug abuse, gun violence, illegal immigration, rape and racism. 

 Unlike more uncomplicatedly entertaining crime thrillers of the time, Gangsters has, as Peter Ansorge told me, a moral core to it: violence is presented sparingly, as significant and is potently deglamourized.[4] In series one, Martin and the directors convey its brutality by eschewing flashy cutting and subduing Dave Greenslade’s typically exciting underscore; while in series two, violence is often heightened to the point of delirious absurdity.

 Philip Martin’s voice as a writer was tough: he channelled and shaped the local idioms he encountered on the streets of Birmingham, drawing, as Peter Ansorge says, on his career as an actor.[5] I sadly failed to ask Philip’s views on the type of parts he played as an actor or to enquire more deeply into his experiences of secondary modern school. I would have liked to have asked Philip more about what it was like to work with Saeed Jaffrey and Elizabeth Cassidy, as well as his Thirty-Minute Theatre play Gun Play (1972) and his formative writing experiences in lunchtime theatre and radio drama.

 The doughtily independent Philip Martin was the core member of an incredibly able creative team at BBC Birmingham’s Pebble Mill who made the extraordinary Gangsters. We must remember and value Philip Martin’s drama, which was ahead of its time – and many subsequent times – in presenting British Black, Asian and Irish actors as lead characters in a prime-time BBC1 drama without a hero in sight. 

Peter Ansorge: Script editing Gangsters

(Text taken from a Zoom interview with Peter Ansorge by Tom May, 8 January 2021. Transcribed by Juliette Jones and edited by Billy Smart.)

Peter Ansorge: I started as a script editor at Pebble Mill in 1975. I think it was the first week of January that I arrived and David Rose and everybody else weren’t there then because they had taken another week’s holiday. The only other person there was Mike Leigh who was running up for a studio Second City Firsts so we spent a lot of time in Indian restaurants, mainly. But the Plays for Today that Pebble Mill did [including Gangsters] went out in January straight after Christmas, which was actually a very good slot because it meant that the audience were maximized.

 I had really been engaged to find new writers for Second City Firsts, the half-hour slot on BBC2, so I wasn’t really expecting to be involved in David’s BBC1 work. In those days you weren’t put up in posh hotels or anything, so I was in an Irish ladies’ boarding house in Moseley [Birmingham], in Barry Hanson’s old room because he’d moved to Thames [Television], and there was a crack in the window that had never been fixed. So I actually watched Gangsters go out with the landlady downstairs who had a black and white television. It was Philip’s first ever big piece on television.

 I had known a little bit about him from his theatre work with David Halliwell that he was involved with. I just loved it. As a Play for Today I just thought it was terrific. And then, rather to my surprise, there was another script editor, Pedr James, who then went on to direct. We started on the same day, I think. He didn’t like Gangsters at all. It was a curious thing that it wasn’t really approved of by the intellectuals, as it were.

 So David asked me, he said, I think you should be the script editor. It couldn’t have been immediately after, it would have taken time, because Bryan Cowgill [Controller of BBC1] was thrilled by it. He loved it, and also it got the biggest audience for Play for Today for a long time. And so that’s how I became involved.

 Then I had a first meeting with Philip who came down to Pebble Mill to meet me. So it was a completely different thing, it wasn’t like getting a script. It wasn’t like talking to a writer and getting a first draft or an idea and saying let’s go and work with it, we were meeting. So it was a completely unexpected experience. This wasn’t Second City Firsts, where they could get quite good audiences of two million at BBC2 at 9, 10 o’ clock, but this was a major, major commission for the mainstream.

 So that was unique, really It must have been about six weeks later when David said: ‘I think you should do it, I think you should do Gangsters’, and so I had that first meeting with Philip. So it was completely different in that way that he had just delivered a major hit.

Tom May: How would you say that his work was distinct as a writer?

PA: I don’t think multi-racial Britain – and they called it ‘multi-racial’ then, not ‘diverse’ – had ever been seen in that way on a major BBC1 show. It had never happened, and it was rooted right in Birmingham; in the experience of Birmingham. That’s one of the distinctive features of what we did at Pebble Mill, and it was certainly David’s philosophy, that we did not do shows set in London. A sense of place was absolutely crucial to most of the work that we did. It wasn’t a sense of place in a purely documentary sense. The Birmingham of Gangsters of course comes out of reality, but it took the form of a thriller, of a gangster, which I don’t think Play for Today had ever done before.

 Philip had a bit of a reputation amongst the production teams there of being a bit chippy… They just told me this – I didn’t know the guy. And so you obviously approach a meeting like that with some trepidation. But I think because I really did get Gangsters, in a way that other people might not have, we got on from that first moment.

TM: You have spoken about the gangsters’ conference scenes as being like Shakespeare’s War of the Roses.

 That did come from me and immediately Philip responded enthusiastically, which not every writer would have done. But how do you describe power, power struggles? There are so many references now to Shakespeare and what’s happening in the world in terms of the way he treated power. But it took off and we got on.

 And of course he was working class, from… not really working class, but there’s always lower middle class. In those days, the majority of writers had roots in the working class, Alan Bleasdale, you know, they really did. That’s one of the big differences now. And what the good ones had was a sense of an audience. Not in a patronising way, but understanding that they needed to be entertained before you engaged them in any serious topics.

TM: Did Philip ever tell you much about how he felt about his days studying engineering at a secondary modern school?

PA: He said a bit. Oddly enough, I don’t think he talked a lot about engineering although he told me about this, and, in a curious way, his writing when on form was really well-engineered. It varied. Sometimes he hit it straight away and the actual plotting and narrative, particularly in the first series was sometimes just brilliant. He had that sense. He did talk quite a lot about himself as an actor. I think this was the more important thing, because, of course, he wrote black gangsters, Irish gangsters, and the idiom he wrote, the voice he got because he could hear it and it was one of the strengths of the piece that when the actors were all assembled, established and they came back for the series, he had their voices and he used to speak about that. So, when it came to writing a scene, it was authentic. It was heightened but authentic. That came from him being an actor because an actor can write for and respect actors and so they can push them. That was really important.

TM: From working closely with him, what would you describe as Philip’s most defining character traits?

PA: What was interesting about the process of the series is that Bryan Cowgill made that decision to commission the major series, but he wanted it on the air the following year. So that meant that Philip had to deliver all six episodes very quickly – something like before the summer in order to start pre-production in the autumn of ‘75. I think he was able to manage drafts of three episodes. And at that time it wasn’t all film – it was film and studio.And we had the first director on board, Alastair Reid, whom I’ll talk more about later on in this conversation. That was a very lucky choice, David’s choice. So they had the three episodes to plan, but shooting started in the autumn without the other three scripts having been written. I remember that I never had a full treatment. I didn’t know how it was going to end. Nobody knew how it was going to end.

 And Philip was based up in Lancashire then, he’d moved into the countryside, so obviously he couldn’t be around much for this. So, once we started shooting, you did the film, it was episode by episode – you did the filming for the episode, then you went two days in the studio, then there came episode two. That’s how it used to work then. I used to go out onto the set and I talked to the actors because they knew they didn’t know what was going to happen, that was my point. And I used to convey that on the phone to Philip what they were saying and that was really interesting because they knew their characters, the main ones, because they’d been in the Play for Today, they had ideas and thoughts, and I passed these thoughts on. And after a while – this is not how you’re supposed to script edit, but this is what he did – sometimes a really good idea would charge Philip. You could hear it on the other end of the phone and he’d write it. What was so interesting is that if you’d give a good note to a good writer they’ll normally think, ‘oh, that’s a good note, I should work with it’. But the best writers don’t just put the note down as such; they transform it into something slightly different.

That he was brilliant at, on his day. That’s how the scripts were written, and it gave me a sense. The whole notion today of structuring drama, is that you need to do that first. Up to a point that’s true, but the idea that you have to know everything, every scene that you’ve mapped out in the treatment or whatever, the breakdown, is very damaging to creativity.

 If it’s done like that it doesn’t live in the way that Gangsters was to do with. You want to surprise the audience, you don’t want them to be able to predict who’s going to get killed in the… That’s the process, which I stumbled upon and I have to say Philip was strong about it. It really did work, I think.

 Philip would have been given moderate expenses to research Birmingham and would have stayed in a boarding house. Life in Birmingham was all about the city in a sort of different way to what people might think. I think he was put up in Mosley. He literally would walk the streets, bumping into people. He didn’t come there with the notion of doing it in that multi-races way, he literally stumbled upon it. I know because when I started doing similar things in Birmingham you really suddenly were aware in a way that… in an odd way in London, typically if you lived in north London, Brixton was a long way away. You didn’t quite get that sense that the inner cities of a city like Birmingham had completely changed, that basically the white, lower middle class had moved out to the suburbs. Yeah? Most of the production people at Pebble Mill didn’t live in the city. So you did become very aware of the place and how it was distinctive. That’s what he did. Locations were terribly important so he would have discovered the Mosley bars.

 I did a bit of that for him because he was writing, writing, writing that first series. He came down to the studios sometimes but he wasn’t really around in Birmingham that much. He’d say, ‘can you look for a garage, because I’d like to get a scene at it?’ What was great about Birmingham was that you could, you know. Much harder to film in London at that time… Finding permissions in Birmingham was a doddle, like it was waiting there as a film set.

TM: Was the spin-off series of Gangsters funded out of the [main, London based] Series or Plays departments?

PA: No. Absolutely not. Our budgets for drama were entirely separate. At Pebble Mill David had his own budget. Shaun Sutton was head of drama in London and he had a very good relationship with David because he directed Z-Cars. Shaun was incredibly supportive of what we did. Once you had a hit, the money wasn’t there at Pebble Mill to do a major BBC1 series, so that was given to us by Bryan Cowgill through Shaun Sutton. It was entirely separate, which meant that there was an independence. So if you had a good year and great audiences, next year your budget would go up, which most of the time it did. If you didn’t have such a good year… We were very protected because we never went to those meetings in London. David did that all on his own and would come back saying, I’ve got this money [laughs]. So that was quite important.

TM: Did Bryan Cowgill stay as supportive of Gangsters?

PA: Yeah. I mean, he was head of sport. [laughs]

TM: He was involved in pioneering “the action replay”, wasn’t he?

PA: Yeah, I remember all the script editors going to a meeting every two months or something in London to discuss state of the art and so forth. Bryan Cowgill, I remember, came to one of the meetings. And he said: ‘it’s all very well talking about drama’, he said, ‘but the greatest drama we’ve ever shown was the World Cup’, and the faces around the room looked appalled! I, of course, thought: yeah [laughs]. Philip would have said ‘yeah’. So, as you know, there was that little tribute to Bryan Cowgill near the end of the second series. [laughs]

TM: Whose decision was it to call the episodes “chapters” in Series 2?

PA: That was Philip. One of the reasons that we got on, was that I’d seen a lot of these films, too, that our generation grew up with. You kind of saw everything and we talked a lot about those serials, you know, the Flash Gordons… And they were called chapters: [American accent] Chapter One. And so Philip said, for the second series we should do that. So that was that.

 I think if you do a crime-based project, however you do it, it’s got to work as a thriller. You know if it doesn’t do that, if you just disguise something serious as a thriller then it obviously doesn’t work… so that importance of entertaining the audience through the thrills, through the comedy, was absolutely central and I think that [aided] the success of the show.

TM: Given how characters like Aslam Rafiq (Saeed Jaffrey) and Lily Li Tang (Chai Lee) are represented, do you think class is as much of a central theme as race in Gangsters?

PA: That’s a really interesting question. It’s not always race and there’s a lot of truth in that. Saeed Jaffrey was absolutely smooth and suave and witty and precise, and that’s what Philip wrote for. And, definitely, he looked down on all the other gangsters as riff-raff. [laughs] The notion Philip put in that you could have prejudice within the [ethnic minority] communities as well as just [in the] white working class was very central to the show. And it’s an open question because I do think, in a way, particularly if you’re writing drama, it’s all about class in England, isn’t it? And you’ve got that with those characters. Quite a few of the actors I worked with on other things later on came out of my first experience of that with Gangsters. I worked with Saeed a lot. You had to give him lines, you had to get the writer to give him those lines, and then he was just terrific. I think that made those Wars Of The Roses scenes, the gangsters’ meetings, that also allowed that humour to come in and the difference is really it’s people and that’s class as much as race. Yeah.

TM: What was your idea of the limit of taste and which things you would include and which you wouldn’t?

PA: You see, I don’t think I had a limit. There was one [instance], I can’t remember the scene. There was quite a lot of swearing in and I said, ‘let’s keep this in, let’s do it’ and actually I was probably wrong at that point because it did get a bit too much. But I never had any sense that it was an amoral or immoral series. I always thought it had its own morality and you wanted to see how that worked out.

TM: Did the decision to include this near-the-knuckle language of the streets help with gaining the big audiences for Gangsters?

PA: Definitely. Because there’s an honesty there. Whether the audience consciously got it I don’t know – who knows? – but they felt that and they’d never seen that before.

TM: The initial Gangsters play had a focus on style and action that was unusual for Play for Today. What are your memories of how you fought to maintain the [spin-off] series’ unique balance of seriousness and humour?

PA: I’m glad you ask that because it’s absolutely true. Philip [Saville, original director] could do that stuff in a way that quite a lot of English directors can’t, because they do it ‘real’. He pulled out all the things and the car chases were absolutely astonishing on them. Because the series wasn’t all on film, we couldn’t quite do that but we needed that. Very fortunately David chose Alastair Reid as the main director of Gangsters, first series, the first three episodes. And in terms of that working relationship, Alastair was absolutely crucial and on our level. He was absolutely brilliant. You didn’t really have to tell him. He was, again, one of the few UK directors that really did know film and could parody it, so if he needed to do a thing he could do it. Hitchcock was his great model so he was absolutely perfect for it. He never changed a word of the script, but sometimes he would actually change the location. I think in the second series there’s a bust of a Chinese gambling club. And he reversed it, in the sense that he made it a little sort of business factory [laughs]. Philip never had a problem with that. He felt a good director would enhance what’s there.

 Kenneth Ives did the last two. There was a kind of moralising point, that we had a civil servant who was a racist and was exploitative… it was quite modern, good stuff. What happens is that you do the filming first and can see the rushes and that. Then you go into the studio for two days. Before that you have a run-through, it’s like watching a rehearsal, just to see. You had rehearsal time, which not all shows have anymore, because you had to get all those camera movements and stuff. Each episode would have had at least a week’s – I think we had more than a week’s – rehearsal. David was a great believer in that, so it was proper rehearsal. So it wasn’t just about moves…

 And David used to come with us, and Philip too, and in episode five there was not a single laugh in the whole thing. The actors completely changed their performances! [laughs] So afterwards Philip and David both agreed, they said: ‘it’s a bit late, what can you do’? The one thing about this was we did do something about it. We talked to Ken at first and he said, ‘what do you mean? This is not a funny show’, he said. ‘This is deeply serious.’ [laughs]. So, we did arrange to have… this other place. Apart from wandering the streets in Birmingham, there was one Chinese restaurant. It’s was not like it is now, at all… There was the second floor bar at BBC Pebble Mill and there was nothing else for us to do in Birmingham, so we used to assemble even in the bar. It wasn’t quite like drunken revelries although sometimes that happened. You’d go into the bar and there would be, because there were usually about four or five shows in the run-up or being done at any time, and you’d go in and there would be Stephen Frears, David Hare, Mike Leigh, and there would be actors, because the actors would [be] put up, so it was more like a rep company.

 And they had nowhere else to go and you would talk about the work. So, Philip and I got all the actors, and Ken Ives, into the bar. I just said it: ‘you can’t do this’. And then the actors realised because the actors got it and it changed. It went back. That’s one of the reasons why it came to the second season Alastair said, ‘I’ve got to do it all’ so we let him do it.

Postscript: Being produced by Philip Martin

Two distinguished Play for Today writers, David Edgar (Baby Love 1974, Destiny 1978) and David Rudkin (Penda’s Fen 1974) had BBC radio plays produced by Philip Martin in the 1990s:

David Edgar: Movie Starring Me was probably a better title than a play: it was about a stalker who stalks an American actor playing Nina in an RSC-like production of The Seagull. I found it hard to write and I’d imagine I threw myself on Philip’s mercy – I certainly remember enjoying the process with him. My big memory is an anecdote: I was really impressed with the company Philip had assembled (even for a radio play, which notoriously attract top level actors), not least as it was made in Birmingham. The leads were Ken Cranham and Samantha Bond, who was then at the height of her ingenue fame. It was only when I entered the studio for the read-through that I realised why we’d got Samantha Bond: she was eight months pregnant.

David Rudkin: I was deeply sad to hear of Philip Martin’s death. I owe him much. At a time (the early ’90s) when theatre, tv and radio had lost interest in me, he alone took up my cause. He himself was a writer, and of some form – as witness his screenplays for the late ’70s Birmingham-set TV film and film-series Gangsters, produced at BBC Birmingham’s iconic Pebble Mill studios. Now a freelance radio producer there, he one day asked me if I ‘had anything…’  I ‘had’ in fact two fairly colossal radio projects shaping in my mind, that I despaired of ever seeing produced, and doubted they would be worth the labour of writing. One or other of these would have been technically and politically daunting enough to undertake. Philip took on both.   With a quiet unassuming persistence he navigated them, one then the other, through the Radio 3 commissioning process and into production. While in the studio, I had a feeling of being under the radar, involved in recordings of which the powers ‘upstairs’ were not really aware. The Lovesong of Alfred J Hitchcock went on to win two Sony Radio Awards, one for Richard Griffiths’ magisterial central performance (and twenty years later took on theatrical life, when the New Perspectives Company brought me back to the stage). The Haunting of Mahler, with its wide European cultural reference and its conceptually original radiophonic narrative (loyally and sensitively realised by the sound engineer, Mark Dexter – what became of all the talent there when Pebble Mill was so barbarously pulled down?), should have been an ideal candidate for a European Broadcasting Union prize – but the BBC hierarchy never submitted it.  (Was its Birmingham origin a negative factor to them?)

 These productions reached out a lifeline to me at a dangerous time in my career. They restored my faith in myself, and gave me the will to continue. Thank you, Philip. 


[1] These four terms are used about Martin’s work in these articles: ‘non-naturalistic’ in David Rolinson, ‘Beyond the reach of the cartographer: Dennis Potter the reviewing writer and writing reviewer’, British Television Drama, 31 July 2013 [online] Available at: http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=3817; ‘experimental’ in Frank Collins, ‘CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: VENGEANCE ON VAROS / SPECIAL EDITION DVD REVIEW’, Cathode Ray Tube [online] Available at: https://www.cathoderaytube.co.uk/2012/08/classic-doctor-who-vengeance-on-varos.html; ‘postmodernism’ in Jon Arnold, ‘Philip Martin’s ‘Gangsters’ reviewed’, We Are Cult, 17 October 2016 [online] Available at: http://wearecult.rocks/philip-martins-gangsters-reviewed; ‘popular modernism’ in Tom May, ‘My Ten Plays for Today: Tom May’, Forgotten Television Drama, 24 October 2020 [online] Available at: https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/my-ten-plays-for-today-tom-may/

[All accessed: 8 January 2021]

[2] Gangsters commentary, disc 1, 2Entertain DVD, 2006 [CCTV30272]; Author interview with Peter Ansorge, 8 January 2021.

[3] Author interview with Philip Martin, 1 July 2020.

[4] Author interview with Peter Ansorge, 8 January 2021.

[5] Author interview with Peter Ansorge, 8 January 2021.

One reply on “Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Three: Peter Ansorge on script editing Gangsters (BBC 1976-78), plus contributions from David Edgar and David Rudkin.”

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