Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Into The Shadows

Troy Kennedy Martin died yesterday. Since he was a writer and therefore didn’t appear in front of the camera his passing doesn’t seem to have been important enough to make the news, which is a great shame.

Born in Scotland and educated in London and Dublin, Kennedy Martin spent his National Service as part of the peacekeeping forces stationed on Cyprus in the years leading up to Britain surrendering the island as a Crown Colony. Back in England he turned his experiences into the drama Incident at Echo Six, which was submitted to, and accepted by, the BBC. Following a small army unit who find themselves marooned overnight in a police station high in the Cypriot mountains, the Radio Times described the drama as:

...[A] powerful play, written without sentiment and without any false glamour. For Martin has caught exactly the sense of inadequacy and the feeling of nerve-racking anxiety that must come to these young officers as they consider not only their own defensive actions against savage and unheralded attacks but the retaliatory measures that in a declared war would be straightforward and acceptable.

Transmitted live in early December 1958, Incident at Echo Six, which also featured the acting debut of Tony Garnett before his switch to a story editor and producer, led to Kennedy Martin being taken on as a scriptwriter for the BBC. Once there he became part of a group of television drama writers and directors eager to experiment with the form. Working with producer/director James MacTaggart, Kennedy Martin wrote and adapted six experimental plays for the anthology series Storyboard. Broadcast during the summer of 1961, their aim was to tell each of the studio-bound dramas in visual terms.

In The Magic Barrel, adapted from a story by Bernard Malamud, a sequence of the drama was cut to the Spanish guitar piece Fantasy for a Gentleman to give it a more cinematic effect as it conveyed the emotions of the characters on camera. The following week, The Middle Men required a rapid montage sequence toward the end of the half-hour drama, fully utilizing the cameras trained on members of the cast of twenty-one characters on the five different studio sets. An easy task to perform now with the editing software readily available, at the time it was a major undertaking that showed the levels of their aesthetic ambitions.

With the conservatism of the 1950s giving way to 1960s modernity, Kennedy Martin set his sights on invigorating the police drama typified by the long-running Dixon of Dock Green. Taking his idea to Elwyn Jones, then responsible for the Drama Documentary section, Kennedy Martin intended to set the show in the north to reflect the social changes taking place in England. Once co-operation was secured with the local constabulary, in the company of director John McGrath and the writer Allan Prior he began to research modern policing methods in and around Liverpool.

First broadcast in early January 1962, Z-Cars was the first step toward the sometime controversial, socially conscious drama that BBC Television would soon gain a reputation for. Set in the fictional Newtown, which was based on Kirkby, Kennedy Martin had decided not only to show violence as a routine fact of life but also portrayed police officers as gamblers and wife beaters. Soon after transmission the Chief Constable of Lancashire County Police was in the office of the Controller of BBC Television, demanding the series be taken off the air. Instead only the credit thanking the police for their co-operation was removed.

Though transmitted live, Z-Cars included a far greater number of filmed inserts than its contemporaries. Together with an average of fourteen different sets that required five cameras for the 250-odd changes of shot used to realize Kennedy Martin’s interweaving storylines, the fast-talking characters and their actions came together to create a fast-paced drama that refused to pull any punches. An immediate success, with audience figures rising to 14 million, Z-Cars was extended well beyond its original thirteen episodes and a second series was commissioned. Deciding that the success would lead to the series becoming more formulaic than they initially intended, Kennedy Martin and John McGrath decided to leave the show.

Continuing to develop non-naturalistic new drama, in an attempt to theorize the challenges he was up against in the face of contemporary television drama and suggest ways to get past them, Kennedy Martin wrote Nats Go Home: First Statement of a New Drama For Television. Published in Encore Magazine in March 1964 the manifesto-like attack on the theatrical naturalism that dominated television drama was criticized by writers who mistakenly concluded that he was promoting giving far more responsibility to the director when it came to New Drama.

Instead Kennedy Martin was advocating that writers worked creatively with directors to avoid the sort of dramas that, confined to the studio, relied on an overdependence of drama that left directors with no other option but to shoot talking heads rather than narrative action. As an exercise to get beyond this Kennedy Martin and John McGrath had been writing Diary of a Young Man, which followed the adventures of two young working-class northerners in London.

Introducing narration, still images and montage sequences to the story structure, the six-part drama employed a combination of Eisensteinian montage and French New Wave editing to emphasise the sense of visual storytelling they were aiming for. Working in concert with their directors Ken Loach and Peter Duguid and the drama’s producer James MacTaggart, Kennedy Martin and McGrath showed that television could become truly collaborative medium, with the end result proving to be an influence on the early careers of the likes of Tony Garnett and Dennis Potter.

After writing single dramas for The Wednesday Play, the BBC’s science-fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown, and episodes of the ITV drama Redcap, starring John Thaw as a sergeant in the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch, Kennedy Martin broke into film with his script for The Italian Job. Based on an idea for a television drama that featured a robbery set in a traffic jam in Central London devised by his brother Ian, Kennedy Martin bought the concept from him and relocated the action to Turin, having been vaguely aware that the city employed a computer-driven traffic control system.

With Michael Caine onboard as Charlie Croker and the treatment renamed The Italian Job, once Paramount bought the idea Kennedy Martin spent six weeks writing a first draft that was more of a hard- edged thriller laced not just with wit but also political and social undertones. Though director Peter Collinson didn’t share his sense of anarchy, the finished film still retained enough satirical swipes at the British take on Europe and the Common Market mentality. Though it didn’t quite end up the way Kennedy Martin initially envisioned, the comedy caper has become something of a national institution, which is some compensation.

Staying with the gold robbery theme, Kennedy Martin wrote Kelly’s Heroes. Set during the Second World War and following an unruly mob of soldiers as they go AWOL in an attempt to help themselves to a stash of German gold held behind enemy lines, the film was made during the final years of the Vietnam War. Heavily influenced by the current political climate, like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H before it, Kelly’s Heroes relished every opportunity to thumb its nose at the establishment.

Returning to television, Kennedy Martin wrote the situation comedy If It Moves, File It, before working on wrote numerous episodes of The Sweeney. Created by his brother, as a continuation from his 1974 Armchair Cinema episode Regan, the show arrived on television screens a decade on from the introduction of Z-Cars, which by now had settled into the cosy conformity it had once railed against. With its fast pace and undiluted violence, The Sweeney instigated another seismic shift in television police drama. Amongst all the agro, the episodes Kennedy Martin wrote across the four series benefited from his wicked sense of humour to counterpoint the action.

After scripting the movie Sweeney 2, Kennedy Martin turned his attention to long form drama, feeling that a television serial suited his writing style better than film or individual TV drama episodes. Broadcast in the early 1980s, his critically acclaimed twelve-part espionage thriller Reilly, Ace of Spies followed the exploits of the WWI double agent Sidney Reilly, born Sigmund Rosenblum, leading up to his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in post- revolutionary Russia. This was followed by a five-part adaptation of Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo that used high drama and low comedy to comment on the state of British society.

Two years later he delivered his masterpiece: Edge of Darkness. Kennedy Martin began writing it never expecting the drama to be made simply because at the time the BBC had shied away from having any political dimensions in their recent slate of dramas. Initially focusing on the coal miners’ strike of the early 1980s, Kennedy Martin didn’t feel the story was really going anywhere and turned his sights on the nuclear industry. It was only when he saw Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “star wars” speech, advocating the proposed Strategic Defence Initiative, that it started to come together.

With born-again Christians and Cold War warriors changing the White House’s nuclear strategy, coupled with the escalating protests here at home at Greenham Common, Kennedy Martin had the makings of a story. Understanding what people were against, he had to know what they were for. At that point Kennedy Martin came across James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Positing that the Earth was a self-regulating system designed to maintain the optimum conditions for life, it gave its readers the opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship with nature.

Beginning with Ronnie Craven, Bob Peck’s suitably dour Yorkshire police detective, delaying an inquiry into alleged vote-rigging of a miners’ union election ballot to investigate the murder of his student activist daughter, Edge of Darkness opens on his personal sense of grief and loss before gradually opening out to reveal the far wider canvas. Evolving from a police drama to a political conspiracy thriller to a nuclear thriller in which the survival of the planet is at stake, by transcending genres Kennedy Martin also managed to slip in some unexpected mystical and supernatural elements.

Over the course of the story the characters that are introduced as members of the establishment take on more radical stances. Craven comes to personify the Celtic Green Man while Joe Don Baker’s CIA agent Darius Jedburgh reflects a Knight of the Marches defending the borders of Eastern Europe. Kennedy Martin saw Jerry Grogan, chairman of the company that profits from the nuclear industry, as a descendant of the Knights Templar who, according to legend, guarded a special wisdom in the Temple of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, leaving Emma Craven, who returns in the form as a ghost, is transformed into the messenger of the Earth Goddess Gaia.

Shot during the latter half of 1984 on a budget of around £2 million, Edge of Darkness was first broadcast on BBC2 in late 1985. The groundbreaking drama proved to be so successful that Michael Grade, BBC1’s then Controller, almost immediately repeated the serial on BBC1 in the lead-up to Christmas. The winner of six BAFTA Awards, a quarter of a century on Edge of Darkness remains the definitive conspiracy thriller than nothing produced since has ever managed to better.

Following its success, Kennedy Martin’s career at the BBC was curtailed by his criticism of Director General John Birt. Eventually he returned to the Corporation with the BBC-HBO co-production Hostile Waters, based on an unconfirmed incident just prior to Reagan and Gorbachev’s historic Reykjavik summit in which a Russian Yankee-Class submarine colliding with an American Los Angeles-Class Hunter Killer submarine while on patrol northeast of Bermuda came close to causing a nuclear catastrophe. Two years later he co-wrote the BBC adaptation of Andy McNab’s SAS memoir Bravo Two Zero. His last produced script was the 2004 drama Red Dust. Returning to his roots in documentary drama, the adaptation of Gillian Slovo’s novel centred on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission.

In early 2007, during the National Film Theatre’s season celebrating his career, Kennedy Martin was scheduled to give a second talk regarding his many unrealised projects, including The Other Side, a satire on American corporate bureaucracy, and a biography of Enzo Ferrari that had Michael Mann attached to direct. Ironically it was curtailed because his drama on global warming, based on writing of James Lovelock, had been greenlit by HBO. Reported to have finished scripts just before his death, hopefully the six-part drama, titled Broken Light, will eventually see the light of day.

There’s always the danger when you’re lucky enough to meet your heroes that they could turn out to be complete and utter arseholes. I’ve had a couple of instances where that has turned out to be the case. But when it came to meeting Troy Kennedy Martin he was charming and avuncular at both the BFI Southbank’s bar and then later in the green room. Though he will be sorely missed, his magnificent body of work lives on.


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