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Tony Garnett on Troy Kennedy Martin

On 18 March 2004 I interviewed Tony Garnett for a book I was researching about the screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin.[1] The interview began with Garnett talking about his debut as a television actor in Kennedy Martin’s first television play, Incident at Echo Six (1958) and his role as a young tearaway in one of Kennedy Martin’s Z Cars episodes. It continued with a discussion about Kennedy Martin’s influential critique of naturalism in television drama, published in Encore in 1964, and concluded with their collaboration on the BBC Screen One production, Hostile Waters (1997).

TG
Tony Garnett

Two years after Tony Garnett’s death, in January 2020, and following the publication in 2021 of my earlier interview with him[2], I’ve decided to make this interview available as a tribute both to Tony Garnett and to Troy Kennedy Martin, who died in 2009.

Troy Kennedy Martin

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Lez Cooke: What do you remember about Incident Echo Six, we’re going back to 1958…

Tony Garnett: I think it was the first piece that Troy had had produced and we met first on that show and we’ve been friends ever since. 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, and it was a very small part and he said “You’d 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 – I didn’t have an agent – and in those days what happened is that 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 the 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, at Aldershot where the little bit of outside filming was to be done as in 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’d 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, and Gil Calder walked over to me and looked up into this big army cab and he said “I’m most awfully sorry, I really do have to apologise to you, we’re having great difficulty setting up this shot and we just 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.

LC: Tested your acting skills!

Z Cars

TG: But then obviously I knew Troy ever since. Then I acted in a Z Cars episode that Troy wrote.

LC: Yes, was there only one? Because I saw one recently called Invisible Enemy [1962] which was where you played a young tearaway who was accused of theft.

TG: I broke Brady’s nose in the lift, yes, that’s the only one I was in. John McGrath directed it.

LC: That was a really good episode I thought, a really well written episode and you had a short speech, well not so short actually, which was really quite lyrical, quite poetic, and it’s Troy’s writing.

TG: Yeah, Troy is just… actors love his writing because it’s not literary, it resonates at different levels but at the top level it’s sayable, playable, you know? And that’s unusual for a writer who hasn’t been an actor, but then of course during all those years Troy and Roger Smith and Clive Goodwin and me and a whole number of people, we were all friends so we would spend a lot of time together. Sometimes we’d call Troy on a Friday and say, “Come on, what we doing tonight, where we going?” We were all being lads about town with little sports cars and things and Troy said “I can’t come out tonight I’ve got a Z Cars to write.” But he’d come out Sunday night, he’d actually done a draft in about two days.

LC: I wanted to ask you about ‘Nats Go Home’ which was the article he wrote which was published in 1964.

TG: Yes, and I wrote a reply to that, have you seen that?

LC: I have.

TG: But it’s thirty/forty years since I looked at it.

LC: You won’t remember it … but that obviously came out of discussions which were going on in the BBC in your group at that time. Were you involved in those discussions about trying to create a new kind of drama?

TG: I came in at the back end of them, so yes. I wasn’t in at the beginning of them, but I did get drawn in, partly because I wrote that little reply and then it all started. It was a loose group of friends really, trying to think through the place of naturalism in television drama, the uneasy relationship that television drama had between the theatre on the one hand and the cinema on the other, and what do we actually mean by naturalism and are there different kinds of naturalism, which is a furrow I’ve been ploughing ever since really, one way or the other, and thinking about and experimenting with and failing at and trying to make some sense of it.

LC: Succeeding a lot as well, I think. How influential was that article at the time?

TG: It was very influential. Everybody was talking about it. I mean everybody of our generation in the media. It was partly because Troy was already very well respected but the ideas in it were very provocative and provocatively written. So I think it was a big pebble thrown into that still pond really.

LC: So would you say that Troy was very much a leading light on that? I got the impression that the article wasn’t just down to him, that it had come out of these discussions which might have been going on anyway.

TG: Well, anything you write doesn’t exist in a vacuum does it. It came out of a climate and a ferment of ideas and opinion, but on the other hand it was very much his piece and no one else wrote it. To actually set it down like that in such a provocative way was a contribution over and above the ferment of ideas it came out of because it was something absolutely concrete that people could either rally round or argue with, so he did push it on a bit. And then, roughly at that time, other friends of mine were working on that six-parter, Diary of a Young Man [August-September 1964], and then Roger Smith and Jim MacTaggart and I were preparing The Wednesday Play and we were all friends and we worked together and spent a lot of our social time together and were arguing together and arguing about politics and art and the place of television in it and so on.

LC: Your response [to Troy’s article] was different to some of the other responses, because there were a number of writers who were taking issue with Troy and you were obviously very much in agreement with his argument, but there was one aspect of the article which I don’t think you engaged with, which I wanted to ask you about. If you remember, Troy talked about three aspects of naturalistic drama which had to be got rid of, or needed to be broken away from: one was to free the camera from photographing dialogue, to get away from a dialogue-led drama; the other was to get away from simply doing things in real time so that you could have flashbacks or change the narrative structure, etc; and the other was a more contentious point about exploiting the objectivity of the video camera. He had this argument about the cameras at that time producing an image which was naturally alienating in a kind of Brechtian way and I just wondered whether you recollected anything about that, or what you thought about that idea that the quality of the image at that time had a kind of a distancing quality.

TG: I can’t remember what I wrote, and I can’t remember in detail what he wrote, but are you saying that I engaged with the first two but not the third?

LC: I don’t think you engaged with it in that way. I think your response was mainly trying to support his argument that there needed to be a more theoretical engagement with television.

TG: Yeah, okay. The first two points of course really go back to what I said earlier, which is that television drama is a bastard form out of a relationship between theatre and film and it didn’t really exist in its own right, because the shooting of dialogue and real time and most of those things are really from the theatre. Whether he was conscious of it or not, he was saying I want it to be more cinematic. But the constraints of the time was that you weren’t allowed to go and shoot a film. You had to shoot it mainly in the studio with electronic cameras and the only film you could do were little inserts, like the taxi driving up to the door. Even though when I started acting a few years before that all of it was live, I mean actual live. I can remember acting in a production of Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist [1961], ninety minutes of racy Ben Johnson, from Birmingham BBC studio, live. Nevertheless, even then most of it was shot as live, partly to save money and partly because the video recording techniques were not good enough. And there certainly was a great perceptual difference between the image that a film camera captured and the image that those big lumbering video cameras captured. So he was on to something.

LC: I think he was on to something that wasn’t really followed up and it may be that it wasn’t followed up because it was superseded by the shift to film, but he was arguing I think that there was a sort of naturally objectifying quality about the image of the electronic camera which could be exploited for a non-naturalistic purpose.

TG: Well, my feelings now about that, and I can’t remember my feelings at the time, is that a lot of it is to do with association in the audience’s mind and you’re not conscious of it particularly but if you are seeing celluloid you tend to associate that with the movies, and for most people not even the art movie but the Hollywood movie and invisible editing and emotional identification and immersion in the action subjectively, and if you see a video image you associate it with real events that you are observing, or the cricket, or entertainment shows. So when you do drama with a video image you are connecting it with all those other things, you’re not connecting it with the emotional identification that you have with cinema and therefore celluloid. So now when we are using digital electronic images, as opposed to shooting on film, because it’s dramatic fiction we’ll shoot on a Sony Digital Betacam and then we’ll put it through a film process which basically degrades the image to some extent to make it feel to the audience a bit more like film, which is absolute nonsense but that’s what we do.

LC: And if they didn’t do that?

TG: Well it just looks like video and people associate that with not being quite as serious. Because there’s still such a snobbery about film, as there always is about old technology as opposed to new, and old forms like theatre. I mean popular film, popular movies didn’t become academically respectable until after television started, because that’s what the workers used to go to. Now the workers are in front of the television set the film is somehow a serious matter. But it’s a great credit to Troy to be groping at these things as early as that.

LC: One of the other reasons why, or perhaps the main reason why, that article got a lot of flack from other writers was because Troy was making an argument for a kind of narrative storytelling which was associated with film which was, as you say, groping towards cinema really and therefore he was making a case for the greater importance of the role of the director, I think.

TG: Well that was a consequence of it and as you know in the theatre the writer has pre-eminent prestige and in the cinema the writer has none whatsoever, unfairly. There’s the old saying that the theatre is for the writer, the movie is for the studio executive, the film is for the director, and television is for the producer, so maybe those other writers were sensing that they wouldn’t be at the centre of it. You still see this hangover in television drama, always then and still occasionally now you have the title and then it’s ‘by’ the writer, in the cinema it’s ‘by’ the director, but in fact it’s ‘by’ about fifty or sixty people, it’s not like a painting or a novel, it’s a social activity.

LC: But when you were pushing for the use of film as you were on Up the Junction [1965] and Cathy Come Home [1966] and others did you see it in that way, did you think that this would bring about a shift to the director?

TG: No and for me it never did and never has and still hasn’t. I mean we have to hold the ring and hold the balance between them and everybody else who collaborates on something. For me it was a political matter, that I wanted to get out of the constraints of the studio, with the new lightweight equipment, and into the real world, on the streets, we wanted to shoot where real people were because I didn’t want to do drama where human beings were in some isolated emotional and historical space. I wanted to do films and drama where people were placed historically and in class terms and socially because I thought that was the only way to do anything political.

Up the Junction and AfterLC: Troy wrote an enthusiastic article about Up the Junction in 1965, just after it had gone out, in which he argued that it exemplified the kind of new drama which he’d been arguing for in ‘Nats Go Home’, so did you see Up the Junction as the consequence of those kind of experiments?

TG: Not consciously but the thing is we all… I’m sure it’s the same in academic life, you get a loose group of people who are the same sort of constellation of ideas and consciously and unconsciously you’re pushing each other on and helping each other to do things, because it’s in a climate and I don’t suppose Ken or I or Troy or anybody else could have done anything that we did in isolation from each other, so although we didn’t consciously say “Oh yes, now we’re going to think through Troy’s article and therefore do that” but we were all affecting each other weren’t we.

LC: Ken [Loach] has said he was quite influenced by it, I think. As you say, it was very influential at the time. What did you think of Diary of a Young Man, which was really the theory, Troy’s theory, put into practice?

TG: Well, I have difficulty talking about it because I only saw it when it went out, but I thought it was a brilliant performance from Victor Henry. I thought it was a breath of fresh air really, and just had a lot of verve and energy and was going in the right direction and it was a pointer to us all. I thought it was a real contribution.

LC: That was a landmark moment I think in the development of British TV drama – Diary of a Young Man and Up The Junction as well, I see them as part of the same tradition – but after Up the Junction Troy has suggested that Ken’s work, particularly I think with Jim Allen, tended to go back to naturalism, but a different kind of naturalism, a sort of a cinematic naturalism as opposed to the theatrical naturalism which was being argued against in ‘Nats Go Home’. Do you agree with that? Or do you see it differently? I’m thinking of The Big Flame [1969] and Days of Hope [1975] which were, stylistically, quite different to Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home.

TG: I think Ken was thinking more and more about the cinema and less and less about television, maybe you’d have to ask him about that. For myself, looking back, I think what was happening was a deeper and deeper involvement in politics which I think for me at least made me less stylistically adventurous and a bit more conventional. I think that [because of] the rigidity of some of the politics that we felt less free, in being so embedded in the politics, whereas it would have been much more revolutionary and a better contribution if we’d been freer and more open to flexible ideas and experiment in the way we did things. So I think Troy’s probably right.

LC: Because some of those works really epitomise the kind of social realism which you and Ken were very much associated with at that time and a lot of the work that was coming out of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today was of that nature it seems to me.

TG: Yeah, well, social realism can cover a lot of things and the difference between social realism and socialist realism, which we were trying to do, you end up with a caricature if you’re not careful where you think drama is about some thick thighed young woman sitting astride a tractor shouting ‘Bread, Land and Peace’ and that’s all you need to do, and there were one or two mannerisms like that. Since then, obviously you develop as you go, and I would say that what we’ve been trying to do recently in things like The Cops [1998-2001] and so on has been a distilled naturalism. There’s an empty naturalism of the soaps which is wallpaper, mannerisms and ticks, a sort of wallpaper verisimilitude of the kind of things people say, which I don’t think is interesting, creatively, but it’s how to distil it and concentrate it and yet still make it feel believable, is what I’m interested in.

LC: After the mid-sixties you and Troy seemed to go separate ways and do different things, was it not until Hostile Waters [1997] that you worked together again?

TG: That’s true, but he did me a wonderful favour on the way, which is typical of Troy, writers are not always the most generous of people, but Troy introduced me to G.F. Newman who had written a couple of paperback novels about a corrupt cop in the Met and quite wanted to write for the screen and Troy put us together and out of that introduction and a long walk around Hyde Park one day, came a mini-series called Law and Order [1978], which was the first thing for the screen that Gordon had ever written, and that was down to Troy, typical Troy.

LC: That makes sense now because he mentioned, when we were going through his boxes of stuff, that he’d worked on an earlier draft of Law and Order and I said I didn’t know anything about that, but that’s obviously what he was referring to.

TG: He probably gave Gordon a hand, without ever telling anybody, I don’t know, but that’s typical of his generosity. But Troy was really heavily involved in the movies during all those years and we were still friends and then much later of course he did Edge of Darkness [1985], with Michael Wearing, but our paths didn’t cross professionally and I only got involved with Hostile Waters because it was Troy. It was an HBO/BBC production and I knew it was going to be aggravation.

LC: How did you get involved with it?

Hostile Waters

TG: I was asked to. HBO asked me and the BBC asked me, but I wouldn’t have done it and also I’m very wary of these ‘A True Story’ things because it’s difficult to keep faith with the audience with those things. I won’t say I’ll never do them but I’m very wary of them. But I only did it because Troy wrote it and it was a brilliant screenplay. I knew it was going to be complicated with HBO and the BBC and the budget and everything else and I sort of didn’t want it messed up.

LC: It might seem like much more of a director’s film in a way but clearly, as you say, Troy’s screenplay was very important, so what were the qualities that Troy brought to Hostile Waters?

TG: Well he brought a whole lot of research material to life and made you feel that you were living it and in addition he’s now so accomplished a screenwriter, which he’s earned, not in British television, but through being beaten up year after year after year by people in Hollywood, but the best of them do know their craft. He really understands the structure of screen fiction and he can write things now that actually work structurally like a Swiss watch but don’t feel as though they’re anything but things inevitably happening to people because of the premise. I mean he really is head and shoulders above most people writing in Britain, isn’t he?

LC: I think so, yes, and talking to him about all of the scripts of the last ten or so years which he’s not got produced, it seems such a waste really, there’s so much work there which has just gone unproduced.

TG: It must be so disheartening.

LC: But he’s still ploughing on, he’s got an adaptation of Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust which has been shot now and is coming out soon. It’s been done by David Thompson for BBC Films.

TG: On right, oh good.

LC: But in terms of original work he’s had a number of original scripts which haven’t got done. Hostile Waters does seem like a very odd project for World Productions in a way. People who know World from This Life [1996-97] and The Cops and No Angels [2004-06] would be surprised I think to find that Hostile Waters is there. Is it something that you’re proud to have done?

TG: Well I’m happy to have been involved in it for Troy’s sake.

LC: Some of the casting was a bit curious, I watched it again the other night and er…

TG: That’s HBO.

LC: Given that we were just talking about all the work that Troy hasn’t managed to get produced in the last ten or so years, do you think there’s still a place for writers like Troy in today’s TV drama, or is it now a young writer’s medium, a young person’s medium?

TG: It’s not a question of age, it’s a question of the industry changing and when Troy was young the writer’s voice was allowed, there was room for the unique voice of the writer in British television and there is less and less room now, very occasionally it’s allowed, but that’s where it all started. I mean I would ring up David Mercer and say “What you up to David? What do you fancy?” and he’d say “Oh well I’ve got this idea…” and I’d say “When do you want to write it?” and then we’ll do it. But now it’s not writer-led, it’s marketing and focus group and executive-led and the writers, most of the time, just have to fit in, so it’s a much more difficult climate. It’s the ultimate commodification of the act of writing.

LC: And Troy’s always been very dependent I suppose on progressive producers, like yourself and like Mike Wearing and others, and it seems to me that, I mean you’re doing very well, but other people are not managing to get things produced these days.

TG: It’s very difficult. Our generation had the best of it in British television. There are complicated reasons why, as you know. It’s very difficult now and very difficult for the young generation coming through.

LC: But you’re still doing your best.

TG: Well, we’re having a go!

Tony Garnett (1936-2020)
Troy Kennedy Martin (1932-2009)

 

 

[1] Lez Cooke, Troy Kennedy Martin, Manchester University Press, 2007.

[2] Lez Cooke, ‘“In these postmodern days, I suppose I’m just an old relic of the Enlightenment, so Marx and Freud are very important to me”: Talking TV Drama with Tony Garnett’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 18.2, 2021.

2 replies on “Tony Garnett on Troy Kennedy Martin”

Great interview and a really interesting discussion about cinema and television. Wonderful how engaged Garnett still is in those debates. Thanks

I was particularly interested in the discussion around the quality of the single camera location film image in relation to the quality of the video image, when the video image was confined to the theatricality of the multi-camera studio set, and the interpretation of the different aesthetic of each at that time in relation to naturalism/modernism. I think it would be interesting to revisit this twenty years on from your conversation around Digital Betacam being degraded to look like film, now that we see ultra-high definition ‘4K’ and also virtual production as new aesthetics (contrasting interestingly with a resurgence of the non-naturalistic hybrid of televised multi-cam theatre from the stage).

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