We’re sorry to report the passing of British TV writer Philip Martin, who is perhaps best known for his TV series Gangsters in the 1970s, and his work for Doctor Who. He had been diagnosed with leukaemia, and been ill for some time.
Over a long career that included acting roles in the 1960s, Philip’s writing encompassed work in all aspects of drama. Early work included episodes of the police drama Z-Cars for the BBC, some in which he also appeared.
But it was his Gangsters project that brought him acclaim, an examination of race seen through an increasingly surreal vision of Birmingham’s criminal underworld.
Beginning as a one-off edition of Play for Today screened on BBC1 in 1975, it was followed by two series of six episodes each in 1976 and 1978, starring Maurice Colbourne as John Kline, a former SAS officer recruited by law enforcement to become an undercover agent in Birmingham. Philip Martin also appeared in the series in several roles, including as himself.
Memorable for its strong violence, multi-ethnic cast and increasingly surreal cliffhangers, including a bizarre final scene where the characters not only “break the fourth wall”, but walk off the set, its groundbreaking format prompted the Open University to feature Philip’s work on their study list.
“I started off in a very naturalistic way,” Philip told SciFi Bulletin’s Paul Simpson in an interview last year, who also wrote a novelisation of Gangsters second series “but in the second series I was starting to wonder about the genre – what the thriller genre was and what television was – and I began to break up the convention, by having the fourth wall removed at times, by taking the audience into what was going on in the writer’s mind, so it became entertaining.
“Some people like the first naturalistic drive of Gangsters, and others love the way it went on to – particularly media academics!”
For Doctor Who, Philip wrote the Sixth Doctor story Vengeance on Varos (1985), which drew some criticism for its violence and characterisation of Sixth Doctor, but is best remembered for the debut of the villainous Sil, brought to life on screen by Nabil Shaban; and The Trial of a Time Lord: Mindwarp (1986).
He also wrote a Mission to Magnus, originally written to be part of the unfilmed 1986 season of Doctor Who, which featured the character Sil from his previous televised serials.
He later wrote a novelisation of the script, published by Target Books in 1990, and the story was subsequently adapted into an audio drama by Big Finish, released in 2009, who also produced two other stories by Philip – The Creed of the Kromon (2004) and Antidote to Oblivion (2013).
“It was a pleasure to work with him on a number of stories,” commented the Big Finish team of his passing.
A sequel, Vote Sil, is in the works, a project that sustained Philip as his health worsened.
“Working closely with him on the script (we regularly bounced ideas around about making it work on a tight budget), I was impressed by his professionalism, empathy, flexibility and willingness to compromise,” commented Reeltime’s Keith Barnfather in a heartfelt tribute. “I absolutely loved the creative process with him. I’d like to think he did too.”
Other TV credits include episodes of the Channel 4 sitcom Tandoori Nights (1985), Star Cops (1987), Virtual Murder (1992), and several episodes of the 1990s detective series, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates.
Philip was also a much in demand writer for the theatre, who had productions of his stage plays at the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, the Liverpool Playhouse and his local theatre at The Dukes, in Lancaster.
He also wrote numerous crime adaptations and original plays for BBC Radio 3 and 4, including Dead Soldiers, broadcast by Radio 3 in 1977, which was voted best radio play of the year.
Philip’s writing for radio, theatre and film was interspersed with creating children’s stories that his agent noted he hoped would eventually instruct and entertain his young granddaughter, Erin.
Tributes to Philip Martin
Praise for Philip and his work has been deservedly forthcoming since his death was announced.
“Philip Martin was a genuinely lovely chap to work with when we filmed The Writers’ Room S23,” recalled writer Chris Chapman. “He was unwell then, but he was still a terrific voice of clarity and sense. His contributions to Who are some of my favourite of that era.”
“I’m a little shocked to hear this,” commented author and fellow Doctor Who contributor Paul Cornell on learning of his passing. “He was very kind to me as a young writer. A lovely man.”
“Utterly heartbroken to discover that we’ve lost Philip Martin,” commented script editor and producer Gary Russell. “I worked with him at Big Finish on Creed of the Kromon… We bonded over my love of his series Gangsters. He will be sorely missed.”
“What a writer,” commented Devil Seeds of Ardor designer Phil Newman, telling downthetubes that “to find myself designing settings and costumes for a script and characters by such a prestigious and talented writer was a fairly surreal and unexpected treat.
“As a fan, never would I have countenanced the idea that I’d get to design Lord Kiv’s next costume, for example,” he continued, “but, at the drama’s premiere, Philip was kind, generous and complimentary of all our creative efforts. It really was a privilege to have professionally crossed paths with him.”
“His script for Vengeance on Varos combines wonderful black humour and satire with some of the fruitiest dialogue committed to paper,” notes fellow writer Jonny Morris.
“A great writer, but more than that; a warm, generous and wickedly funny man,” said Cutaway Comics publisher Gareth Kavanagh. “A mentor and friend. It still doesn’t feel real that he’s gone, but his voice will live on through his work which is all any writer can dream of really.
“It’s bittersweet that Lytton #2 has an interview with Philip in it and the last commentary we recorded with him for Gangsters in the first lockdown is on the accompanying DVD,” Gareth told downthetubes.
“We had planned to do more this month and he’d worked on an outline for a Kline one shot comic, sadly not to be. But we’ll look to continue the Gangsters commentaries for future issues with other contributors and we’ll be featuring a tribute in issue 3.”
“I’m so very sad to hear that the brilliant Philip Martin has passed away,” commented Doctor Who actress Nicola Bryant. “I adored the episodes he wrote for Colin Baker and me. We were to have worked together again, but then COVID-19 struck.
“He gave Peri some of her very best moments. Rest in peace, Philip… thank you.”
Our sympathies to Philip’s family and many friends at this time.
Philip Martin, writer, born 1938, died 13th December 2020
• SciFi Bulletin’s Paul Simpson interviewed Martin live on stage at Gallifrey One, and later chatted to him about Sil – read the interview here
• The Gangsters novels by Philip Martin have been re-published by Candy Jar Books. You can order the collection directly from Candy Jar Books
• The second issue of the Lytton comic mini-series from Cutaway Comics includes an interview with Philip Martin about Gangsters. If you buy the comic direct from Cutaway Comics, you also get a DVD that includes an interview with Philip