“Enjoyable and direct storytelling” was the headline of a review in the trade paper Television Today of a BBC adaptation of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, directed by Derek Martinus. This was the hallmark of Martinus’s career.
In common with his contemporaries Philip Saville, Barry Letts and Herbert Wise, he had begun in the theatre as an actor before becoming a director and then exploring storytelling possibilities as television expanded. Borrowing his professional surname from a Dutch grandfather, he continued to take inspiration from farther afield in Europe.
Born in April 1931 in Essex, to a father who worked at Smithfield market, he attended Brentwood School before National Service in the RAF. He had his induction into the acting profession with the Taverners, who performed Shakespeare plays in pubs, insisting that they’d originally been staged in taverns. Winning a scholarship to study drama at Yale, he directed a summer season at Connecticut aged 22, which prepared him for British repertory theatre.
In a 1956 article for The Stage, written just as the TV companies were moving out of New York and into Hollywood, he declared that “One often gets the impression that the producers pay more attention to the commercials than to the programme.” He then wrote and produced commercials in Toronto. His repertory career began in 1956 in Swansea, and continued in Leatherhead the following year.
Martinus played Orsino in a Manchester Library Theatre production of Twelfth Night in 1957, alongside seasoned players John Franklyn-Robbins and John Ringham. He would later cast the former in a Z Cars story in 1968, and Ringham in another four years later, in which he also used Bill Kenwright. Kenwright acted for him again in an ITV four-parter starring Jenny Agutter, A House in Regent Place (Southern, 1973) – and the impresario later returned the favour by assigning Martinus to direct The Killing Game (Greenwich, 1981), a thriller questioning the nature of soldiery.
In 1957, Martinus appeared in Nest of Robins at the Royal Court, Liverpool; its main attraction was the musical star Jessie Matthews as Martinus’s mother, although later generations would be more familiar with the name of Valerie Singleton, who played one of the “juveniles”. In 1958 he joined the Arena Theatre Company at Newcastle, and a year later directed his first play there, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. At the Pembroke Theatre in Croydon, he combined acting with directing, often of new plays.
His 1965 appointment as associate director at the Salisbury Playhouse coincided with his entry into television. As an actor he had been in Carry On Sergeant (1958) – and he began directing for another future British institution grown from rickety beginnings, and initially starring William Hartnell: Doctor Who.
“The Tenth Planet” (1966) was Hartnell’s third story for the sci-fi series and the first to feature regeneration; Robert Beatty, whom Martinus had previously directed on stage in The Man Who Played God, guest-starred. Jon Pertwee’s debut story, “Spearhead from Space” (1970), and Martinus’s last, was the first in colour and was made on film, and arguably had the highest production values of any Who story until the 1996 one-shot revival and the resumed series from 2005.
Martinus’s time on Z Cars began in 1968, when the series was in an earlier time slot and averaging audiences of 8-10m. He undertook various projects for BBC2’s literary adaptation strand (newly in colour) and BBC1’s Sunday classics serial. Among them were What Maisie Knew (1968), The Black Tulip (1970), A Little Princess (1973) and A Legacy (1975). Two children’s series for ITV won Pye Television Awards: The Paper Lads (Tyne Tees, 1977), made on location in Tyneside, and Dodger, Bonzo and the Rest (Thames, 1985), set in a children’s home.
As early as 1962 Martinus had felt Sweden to be “an actor’s Utopia”, with “an enormous state and municipal subsidy for theatre, and in having a classless society, which makes theatre-going an entertainment that all can share.” He had a lasting partnership with his Swedish wife, Eivor, whom he met in 1959. He acted in her one-act play You at the London fringe venue the Cockpit in 1974. Twenty years before John Madden’s film, he assembled Shakespeare in Love (1978), an anthology which toured Scandinavia, with Eivor providing a Swedish commentary. He directed Vargen (1984), a drama for Swedish TV set in an unnamed country in 1994, depicting the aftermath of civil war.
Martinus co-directed, and Eivor translated, three one-act Strindberg plays at the Gate, Notting Hill in 1985, where they also staged the playwright’s Thunder in the Air four years later. In 1991 he directed and she translated Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest in Swedish in Malmo. Having directed student productions since a 1962 Merchant of Venice for Rada, in which the Venetians included Ian McShane and George Layton, Martinus regularly directed for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the late 1980s and ’90s. His last years were overshadowed by Alzheimer’s.
Derek Buitenhuis (Derek Martinus), director and actor: born Ilford, Essex 4 April 1931; married 1963 Eivor (two daughters); died London 27 March 2014.