Philip Martin obituary

Actor turned writer whose stylishly desolate plays and TV series were often suffused with dark-edged humour

Philip Martin, who has died aged 82, was a writer whose work for television synthesised gritty, often bleak and sometimes violent subjects with sly, offbeat humour and an innovative approach to the medium.

His groundbreaking series Gangsters (1976-78) began as a one-off Play for Today on BBC1, shot on location in Birmingham, where Martin had embedded himself for weeks in order to authentically capture the city’s underbelly. A revenge story, it had a backdrop of seedy strip clubs and dodgy business deals as Maurice Colbourne, playing the anti-hero John Kline, uncovered a web of crime and illegal immigration. It was a raw, violent work with the odd surreal twist (including a pair of standup comedians acting as a chorus), deftly directed by Philip Savile with an unusually strong and well written array of leading parts for black and Asian actors.

When Gangsters became a series the following year it embraced the avant garde more daringly as it went on. Martin himself appeared, narrating the action while typing the script, and also played a WC Fields-esque villain. The final episode broke the fourth wall, as the camera pulled back to reveal the studio behind.

Martin brought the same form-breaking approach to Doctor Who with the two-part serial Vengeance on Varos (1985), set on an impoverished planet that supports itself by exporting videos of torture and execution produced from its penal system. A satire on TV violence, it also anticipated reality television, and introduced a new nemesis for the Doctor: the slug-like capitalist Sil, played with gruesome relish by Nabil Shaban.

Sil returned in Martin’s next Doctor Who story as part of The Trial of a Time Lord (1986), and the character recently featured in the movie Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor (2019), which has won many awards on the independent film circuit.

Philip was born in Wavertree, Liverpool, the only son of Rose Martin, into a hard, working-class environment. He never knew his father, or even his name. After leaving school he worked in a factory as an apprentice toolmaker, losing himself in Hollywood films in his spare time. Inspired by the new, naturalistic, method-style of acting, he threw himself into amateur dramatics, eventually winning a scholarship to Rada in 1960.

During his first year there he was offered the lead part in a live 90-minute television play, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring (1961), broadcast on the BBC. He won excellent reviews, and after offers of work came flooding in, he decided not to continue at Rada. A film break playing Tom Courtenay’s borstal nemesis Stacy in The Loneliness of Long Distance Runner (1962) vindicated his decision.

From there, thanks to his youthful looks and naturalistic performance style, Martin was able to capitalise on the industry’s newfound thirst for genuine working-class characters. On stage he appeared as a delinquent schoolboy in Skyvers at the Royal Court (1963) and on television he acted in various BBC and ITV plays, as well as episodes of Dixon of Dock Green (1962) and Z-Cars (1962-63).

As his looks began to mature, necessitating a recalibration of his acting career from juvenile lead to character parts, in 1967 he decided to move from acting into writing scripts. He became resident writer for David Halliwell’s theatre company, Quipu, writing a number of pieces for them between 1968 and 1973.

Lord Nelson Lives in Liverpool 8 (1974) – about a young black man given the birch by a sadistic policeman – started life as a Radio 3 play before being staged at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Royal Court. It covered two recurring Martin topics – the treatment of ethnic minorities and state violence.

After a period as resident writer at the Liverpool Playhouse he moved to the Dukes theatre in Lancaster, where he came up with Sambo (1977), about a slave who, according to legend, was buried in the area, and Thee and Me (1978), which was centred on a Lancashire village gripped by a post-apocalyptic drought and transferred to the National Theatre in 1980.

Martin had broken into television in 1970 with four scripts for Z-Cars: issue-driven and committed to airing working-class voices, the series was a perfect fit for him, and more followed, as did New Scotland Yard (1972) and Thirty Minute Theatre (1971, 1973). His later TV work included Shoestring (1979), BBC Two Playhouse (1980), Star Cops (1987), Tandoori Nights (1987), The Bill (1990), Virtual Murder (1992) and an enjoyable stint on Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1997-98), a genteel comedy-drama that showed his sense of humour did not always have a dark edge.

In the 1980s he became a radio drama producer for the BBC at Pebble Mill, working with established figures including David Rudkin and David Edgar, and emerging writers. In 1990 his production of Guernica won him the Radio Festival of New York award for best director. He had previously won a Sony Award for his script for Dead Soldiers (Radio 3, 1976).

Martin was still writing at the time of his death, having recently completed Vote Sil, a follow-up film project to Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, and was working on a children’s novel, The Magic Crown.

In 1974 he married Patricia McDonnel, an executive assistant at the Rank Cinema group, and they had a daughter, Hilary, who became a television producer. Patricia died in 2010, and he is survived by Hilary and his grandchildren, Erin and Esme.

• Philip Charles Martin, writer and actor, born 3 July 1938; died 13 December 2020


Toby Hadoke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Graeme Curry obituary
Other lives: Writer and singer whose talents ranged from early music to Doctor Who

Andrew Curry

06, Jun, 2019 @3:25 PM

Article image
Myra Frances obituary
Versatile screen and stage actor who took part in the first lesbian kiss to be screened on British television

Anthony Hayward

13, Apr, 2021 @11:52 AM

Article image
Lynda Baron obituary
Actor who played Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours and Auntie Mabel in the children’s programme Come Outside

Toby Hadoke

08, Mar, 2022 @5:37 PM

Article image
Ben Roberts obituary
Stage and screen actor admired for his gruff, world-weary portrayal of Chief Inspector Derek Conway in The Bill

Anthony Hayward

15, Jun, 2021 @3:34 PM

Article image
John Challis obituary
Actor who enjoyed huge popularity in the role of Boycie in the BBC’s long-running sitcom Only Fools and Horses

Toby Hadoke

20, Sep, 2021 @3:33 PM

Article image
Ann Davies obituary
Actor admired for her many roles in TV drama series including Z Cars, EastEnders and in 1964 an appearance in Doctor Who

Toby Hadoke

10, May, 2022 @8:06 PM

Article image
Stewart Bevan obituary
Actor who played Clifford Jones in Doctor Who and appeared in several popular drama series including Emmerdale Farm

Toby Hadoke

09, Mar, 2022 @7:36 PM

Article image
Terrance Dicks obituary
Doctor Who scriptwriter and author of more than 50 novelisations based on the TV series

Toby Hadoke

03, Sep, 2019 @3:18 PM

Article image
Philip Voss obituary
Compelling actor whose versatile career encompassed Doctor Who, James Bond and the RSC

Michael Coveney

20, Nov, 2020 @11:49 AM

Article image
Dorka Nieradzik obituary
Designer of makeup, prosthetics and hairpieces who created memorable images for films and television

Toby Hadoke

06, Mar, 2018 @3:23 PM