Martin Shaw: "I love George Gently but I hope I’m not like him"

“Gently can continue so long as the scripts are good. A bad one is like telling a lie," says the star of the BBC1 detective drama

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Martin Shaw: "I love George Gently but I hope I’m not like him"
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How pleasant to meet an actor who agrees he’s opinionated and stubborn and who talks in a mild voice unencumbered by PR speak. Martin Shaw, 69, lives deep in Norfolk in a low-ceilinged 17th-century cottage built by Quakers, and we talk in the Meeting Room. The next day he’s off to his even more remote croft in Galloway, “my real wilderness”, where there are no neighbours, or television reception, and minimal telephone access.

He’s not a hermit, he insists. “I can give a metaphysical answer why I like it: there’s a lack of mental noise, and a profound sense of emptiness. I love people, but like to turn off their noise.”

This may be why he’s been married three times and his partner of the past few years, a yoga teacher, Karen da Silva, lives 200 yards down the road. “We share both houses. Marry again? I never say ‘never’.” His first wife, at 23, was an actress, Jill Allen, mother of his three grown-up children (Luke, Joe and Sophie), followed by an alternative therapist, Maggie Mansfield, and then TV presenter Vicky Kimm.

He’s obviously not good husband material. “That’s one thing I can’t answer. If I could, I’d probably still be married. My children are close to their mother, as am I. The other two wives? A healthy completion. There’s no animosity, but no need to keep in touch. Finished, done.” He’s had therapy, “a useful tool for self knowledge”.

For more than 40 years he’s been a television stalwart, his sturdy gravitas making him ideal for a detective (Adam Dalgleish in the dramatisation of PD James’s Death in Holy Orders, and Ray Doyle in The Professionals), surgeon (Always and Everyone), judge (Judge John Deed), statesman (Rhodes) and priest (Apparitions). This week sees the start of the seventh series of Inspector George Gently, set in the 60s, in which he plays a widowed policeman, assisted by a combative sergeant, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby).

“If I say I’m surprised it’s continued so long, I’d be dissing the programme,” he says. “I take it as it comes because television is so capricious. There’s no formula for success, but the formula for failure is to try to please everyone and that’s what’s happening at the BBC. Bless ’em, it’s not their fault. They have to compete with ITV to justify the unpopular licence fee, which is incredibly cheap. Viewers think nothing of paying £20 a month for Sky.

“We don’t know if there will be an eighth series. They’ll wait to see our ratings and then if they do recommission, it will be too late. The pressure is on to write four films quickly, and once they’re finished, it’s passed up the food chain. The first set of administrators make changes and send it back to the writers who say, ‘You’ve taken out our favourite bits.’ They’ll rewrite and it goes to the next level. By the time it’s gone through everyone, the writers are tearing their hair out or walking off in a huff.

“When we actors get the script, we’re often already committed to other work and have to make last-minute adjustments.

“Gently can continue so long as the scripts are good. A bad one is like telling a lie. It doesn’t sit comfortably in the heart, mind or mouth. They all require work on set and one never knows if it’s the fault of the writers, or later adjustments.” I mention I detected a few infelicities in this week’s first part, Gently between the Lines. “I’m damn sure you did,” he says ruefully, smiling. There are several scenes of rioters protesting a slum clearance that are comical in their lack of an authentic crowd.

“I agree, but that’s all they would pay for. In America when a show is successful, the budget is increased, but here they take money away. It p***es me off, but as a human being you need a target and I don’t know where BBC decisions come from.

You ask, ‘Why are 100 protestors played by six extras?’ and everyone says, ‘I know. Isn’t it a nightmare?’ Somewhere a god decrees it. Lee and I are trusted with our creative input and I flatter myself that’s important. Having been in this job for 50 years, I adjust parts of the script because, being arrogant, I know I’m right. I’m stubborn about the rhythm and content.

“I’m told I become the person I’m playing. I love Gently but hope I’m not like him – a curmudgeon, moody, straight-laced and self-important, an old-time copper who’s fought in the Second World War. Like me, he’s not one for political correctness – it’s stupid – or health and safety, an unforeseen by-product of lawyers able to take work on contingency. Everyone is terrified of being sued. Anything worth doing is run by people who know nothing – the BBC, NHS, government, police. I don’t know how it will change. Creativity and administration are innately exclusive. And here’s another idiocy – only young people can be on TV. It’s bloody obvious older people stay home to watch. The young go out.

“I’m bound to say there are too many cop series because I’d like mine to be the only one, but it’s a shame there isn’t more variety. I was excited by Apparitions [BBC1 in 2008], my idea, about a Roman Catholic priest who carries out exorcisms. I believe in magic, which is where Prince Charles and I are in the same category. The BBC hierarchy sent notes saying it was the most exciting thing they’d seen in years. But after the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross debacle they pulled the plug because it was controversial. I was bitterly disappointed.”

There’s another view: The Guardian described it as a ludicrous piece of old hokum. The first episode had an audience of 4.6 million, but this diminished to 2.8 million for the second.

The son of an engineer and a champion ballroom dancer, Shaw was born in Birmingham where, at 16, he was offered a scholarship to a local drama school, which he turned down for various jobs including work in a brass foundry. Two years later he went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, serving an apprenticeship as assistant stage manager in Hornchurch, Essex.

One of his first TV appearances was in Coronation Street in 1967, as hippy student Robert Croft. “It was social drama reflecting life in the north in those days, and we rehearsed for a week. I can’t watch soaps now, because they’re so bad. It’s just people yelling at each other, although I don’t think I’ve seen more than 12 seconds of EastEnders. It’s hard to answer why they’re so popular without sounding grand. If wall-to-wall pornography and public executions were on television, they’d get massive ratings, too. We need challenging programmes, but viewers don’t want that, or to listen. It sounds as if I take a dim view of humanity, but I don’t.”

A bit of a snob then? He laughs. “Yes, when it comes to drama.”

For the first ten years of his career he worked on the West End stage, at the National Theatre (Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1968 enabled him to buy a small house in East Barnet) and with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. The latter’s greeting when they first met, he recalls, mimicking the actor’s sibilant voice, was, “How do you do? You’re frightfully handsome. I suppose you’re married.’” Gielgud added an anatomical expletive.

His relatively calm theatrical success was broken in 1977 when he was cast as C15 agent Ray Doyle in ITV’s hugely popular drama The Professionals, which had audiences of up to 18 million – although he complained he was playing a one-dimensional character in a one- dimensional series. “I hated fame and was unprepared. Celebrity is not my motivation. My tag line for years was ‘TV tough guy Martin Shaw’. The British industry puts us in boxes.”

He and co-star Lewis Collins, who played fellow agent Bodie, had a healthy rivalry. “We were very different, which contributed in part to the success.” Collins was furious when Shaw refused to accept repeat fees that were offered. He says the production company refused to negotiate. “But I should have remained dignified and kept my trap shut. I became precious, although I was sensible enough not to say, ‘I am an actor.’ It harmed me. I didn’t work for a couple of years. Morally, you should say what you think, but that’s not the way it works.”

Collins moved to California but was unable to emulate his previous acting success. He died last November. “Ironically I heard just after receiving a Christmas card showing him and his family smiling in the sunshine. We weren’t in touch for 20 years until he and his wife came to dinner and we reminisced. It was a good way to end after the trials and tribulations of the series.”

For Shaw, alcohol became another problem. “I drank prodigious amounts – half a bottle of Scotch, two bottles of wine, and odds and sods every day. I shudder to think how stupid I was. I didn’t even like it. I wanted to be one of the crowd – Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole – and alcohol was the working-class actor’s way of becoming an amusing, outspoken hellraiser.”

In 1967 he was severely beaten up in a brawl – he shows me a moveable plastic cheek bone on the right side of his face – in the Cromwell Road, west London. He remembers nothing about it. “I have traumatic amnesia.” He’s been teetotal and vegetarian for 42 years, as well as a follower of an Indian mystic, Charan Singh, who died in 1990.

He once thought of retiring from acting to practise an alternative therapy called polarity, based on Indian Ayurvedic medicine. “It’s related to acupuncture, but you use your hands, and it involves elements of psychotherapy. I found it creative and something I wanted to do. I use it on myself and it helps me listen to my body and understand my mind. But I decided I couldn’t make an adequate living for those I needed to support at the time.”

All his children are actors – Sophie played his daughter in A Man for All Seasons, Joe was the young Rhodes in Rhodes, and Luke is foreman of the jury in the much-praised Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End. Shaw is Juror 8, the lead character played by Henry Fonda in the film, who convinces the others that a 16-year-old black boy, facing the electric chair for killing his father, is innocent.

“It’s lovely working with Luke. We have the same ethos, and there’s no seniority. He gives me observations and notes, which are helpful. I explained the difficulties of acting to all my children, but they haven’t seen me experience them because I’ve been incredibly blessed since I left Hornchurch Rep after 18 months making tea and shovelling s**t. My upward curve was very steep. You can’t suggest to your children they might not be so lucky.”

Unsurprisingly his hobby is also solitary. He flies a Second World War Piper L4 Cub spotter plane. “My interest is history rather than a means of transport. These planes are hard to fly and I worry about crashing. Every time I take off I know where I’ll put down if the engine fails, and once I’m flying I look every few minutes for a place to land. I’m not scared of dying, but frightened of the process – spiralling down, waiting to hit the ground. The actual moment – no. My father, God bless him, one of the greatest men who ever lived and I miss him every day, died watching TV, aged 86, with a box of caramels in one hand and herb tea in the other.”

His eyes moisten. He’s fastidious, spiritual, compulsive and admits, “All actors have a neurosis.” He doesn’t read about himself, he says, and for a while refused to give interviews. The police told him his phone was tapped by journalists.

“I haven’t made up my mind what to do about that. Who hasn’t had problems with the press? What I’m quoted on is slanted, and mostly in a negative way – everyone enjoys a bit of schadenfreude. Ordinary, boring people doing a job are not interesting. But that’s exactly what I am.”

Inspector George Gently, Thursday 8:30pm, BBC1