With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’re showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. This week, we celebrate the career of a British screenwriter responsible for some of the UK’s most seminal and culturally significant film and television projects, yet his name remains largely unknown – as, of course, so many writers do – outside of dedicated fan circles and hardcore cineastes and Anglophiles. Troy Kennedy Martin wrote the screenplay for 1969’s The Italian Job and created the TV series Z Cars, which instantly qualifies him for legend status in the UK.
Troy Kennedy Martin was born in 1932 in Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland and was educated at Finchley Catholic Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin. Long fascinated with writing and storytelling, Martin began working for the BBC in 1958, first penning a series of television plays before eventually creating the anthology TV series Storyboard, which featured widely varying episodes from disparate writers and directors. A fan of more fast-paced, highly mobile storytelling, Kennedy wrote the police drama The Interrogator, which was something of a warm-up for his major career moment. In 1962, Martin created Z Cars, which was controversial at the time for its grittiness and sense of urgency, as well as its bold willingness to look at the darker, more violent side of policing. Martin only worked on the first two seasons of the show, but Z Cars had an extraordinary run, screening right until 1978, with Martin returning to pen the show’s final episode.
After more work on television plays and series, Martin made his big screen debut with 1969’s The Italian Job, which was directed by Peter Collinson. A rollicking and wildly entertaining heist movie, the film is ingeniously plotted, with Michael Caine’s master thief engineering a massive traffic jam as cover so he and his crew can steal a huge gold shipment in Turin. Packed with wonderful wit and humour, and a Mini Cooper car chase that stands as one of the best and most iconic in British cinema history, The Italian Job is a prime slab of Cool Britannia. It also means Martin is responsible for Michael Caine’s line, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”, still one of the most oft-quoted of all time.
If one classic heist movie wasn’t enough, Martin followed up The Italian Job with the equally impressive 1970 belter Kelly’s Heroes. Directed by the underrated Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare), this very unusual WW2 flick features Clint Eastwood (at his dry, cool, taciturn, muscular best) assembling a wacky crew of misfits (including Donald Sutherland’s very curious proto-hippie, Don Rickles’ wiseass, and Telly Savalas’ tough nut) to sneak behind enemy lines to steal a cache of pilfered Nazi treasure. Though not often mentioned as top-tier Eastwood, Kelly’s Heroes is one of the superstar’s most engagingly unconventional films, and Martin’s script is literally packed to bursting with original characters, quirky dialogue, and excellent action set pieces.
Martin next penned 1972’s now largely forgotten The Jerusalem File, a political thriller set during The Arab-Israeli Six Day War, directed by Unsung Auteur John Flynn (Rolling Thunder, The Outfit) and starring Bruce Davison and Nicol Williamson. Taut, daring, and highly politicised, The Jerusalem File was far more similar in tone to Martin’s TV work than his previous two comedic heist films. After this, Martin worked more solidly in TV, penning episodes for series like Colditz, Fall Of Eagles, The Sweeney (created by Martin’s younger brother, Ian Martin), and the very popular mini-series Reilly: Ace Of Spies and The Old Men At The Zoo.
Martin had a major cultural moment in 1985 when he created the TV mini-series Edge Of Darkness, a way ahead-of-its-time crime drama which used a shattered Britian for its dark, extraordinarily intense tale of political corruption and government conspiracy unraveled by a cop (masterfully played by Bob Peck) investigating the murder of his activist daughter. Featuring great work from Joanne Whalley and US import Joe Don Baker, and a sense of perfectly studied bleak nihilism, Edge Of Darkness is a brave, towering work from Martin, whose wire-tight script was also used as the basis for the 2010 film adaptation starring Mel Gibson and directed by Martin Campbell. After this, Martin worked on a wide variety of material, contributing to the script for Walter Hill’s excellent Arnold Schwarzenegger-Jim Belushi 1988 action-comedy Red Heat; adapting Andy McNab’s tale of SAS survival Bravo Two Zero for the small screen with a 1999 telemovie starring Sean Bean; and adapting Gillian Slovo’s powerful novel for Tom Hooper’s 2004 political drama Red Dust.
A truly incendiary screenwriting and creative talent, Troy Kennedy Martin passed away in 2009, leaving behind a body of staggering work.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Kelly Marcel, Alan Sharp, Leslie Dixon, Jeremy Podeswa, Ferd & Beverly Sebastian, Anthony Page, Julie Gavras, Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton Corbijn, Gillian Robespierre, Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo Nemes, Ayelat Menahemi, Ivan Tors, Amanda King & Fabio Cavadini, Cathy Henkel, Colin Higgins, Paul McGuigan, Rose Bosch, Dan Gilroy, Tanya Wexler, Clio Barnard, Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher ,Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.