Thursday, 17 September 2009

Troy Kennedy Martin 1932-2009

In my, admittedly idiosyncratic, view the three greatest British screenwriters to work significantly in television (Dennis Potter is a near miss) are Nigel Kneale, Simon Moore and Troy Kennedy Martin. This week I was saddened to hear that Kennedy Martin had died. The only up-side of his loss is that we might get a BBC4 retrospective devoted to his work. I first became aware of Kennedy Martin's writing, although I was already an admirer without knowing it, through Edge of Darkness. When I started working at the BBC as a script editor in television drama that influential six part serial had only recently been made. There were still posters on the wall and scripts lying around the offices in Shepherds Bush. I never met Troy in person (we'll use his first name to avoid confusion with Ian Kennedy Martin, his brother, creator of The Sweeney and another considerable British screenwriting talent) but after Edge of Darkness I watched everything I could find by him. I mentioned above, somewhat cryptically, that I'd been an admirer of his without knowing it. That's because I'd seen and appreciated Kelly's Heroes, the Clint Eastwood feature which Troy had written. His other famous movie, from much the same period, is the cult favourite The Italian Job. Both Kelly's Heroes and The Italian Job are marred, in my view, by undistinguished direction which encouraged some broad slapstick and hammy performances. But both films rise above their deficiencies and the essential brilliance of Troy's writing shines through. Add to these The Sweeney 2, a crackling, sardonic and salty big screen version of the police TV series his brother created, and you have the best of Troy's big screen work. His other feature credits consist of co-writing the Walter Hill mismatched buddy-cop movie Red Heat (a proficient and engaging thriller fatally compromised, I think, by some questionable casting, while the great character actor Peter Boyle languishes in a minor role), adapting the South African suspense writer Gillian Slovo's novel Red Dust (an intelligent and mature but strangely under-powered script) and The Jerusalem File (an obscure thriller which I have never seen; roll on its DVD release). The highlights of his later television work are Edge of Darkness and Reilly Ace of Spies. I can't tell you about his early TV dramas, because with exception of one episode of Z-Cars (which he created) I haven't seen them. Fingers crossed that the BBC4 retrospective materialises soon. A big screen adaptation of Edge of Darkness is in the works, starring Mel Gibson, but Troy did not have a hand in the script and I suspect it will have as little resonance with his original as the recent Italian Job remake. If you want to catch the original, classic version of The Italian Job it's worth noting that the latest DVD has a new commentary featuring Troy Kennedy Martin himself. There are some interesting website postings about him here and here.


  1. "Edge of Darkness" was the big head-exploding moment for me as well. Even years afterwards, every time I looked at the script book, I picked up some new technique from it -- from how *little* you needed to write to bring a scene across, to the wicked tricks he plays with shifting tone and black humour. The biggest thing which I'm still only learning now, is how a story can be so murky, elusive, and incomplete, and still compellingly tell you everything you really need to know. I've spent so many years as a writer learning how to draw the right lines and colour within them... Edge of Darkness teaches me how powerful it can be *not* to do that.

    I can't believe that we're coming up on twenty-five years since it aired... but given the utter atmosphere of doom throughout the whole thing, I can't help but feel the fact that we're still here at all twenty-five years on is a bit of a triumph for the species. At least the nuclear neocons are finally on the wane again, now all we need to do is work on the black flowers...

  2. Hi, Andrew. Thanks for kindly including a link to my obit on Troy Kennedy Martin in your own lovely piece about one of my favourite television writers.

    'Edge Of Darkness' really was his masterpiece and is perhaps one of the last, great pieces of television that came out of the BBC prior to the arrival of Mr. Birt.

    Roll on the BBC4 retrospective.