New Poldark star John Nettles: actors like Aidan Turner deal with fame better than my generation

Bergerac and Midsomer Murders star John Nettles reflects on his career and his new Poldark character Ray Penvenen

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Poldark series two will have a very familiar newcomer when it begins on BBC1 next month: John Nettles, former heartthrob star of 1980s classic Bergerac and then Midsomer Murders, is coming on board as gruff landowner Ray Penvenen.

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His new character is an ageing old grump who prefers cows to people and he gets involved when his niece Caroline Penvenen (Gabriella Wilde, another newbie) attracts the amorous attentions of the ghastly fortune hunter Unwin Trevaunance (W1A’s Hugh Skinner, yet another newcomer).

Ray Penvenen is a far cry from Nettles’ most famous roles – detective Bergerac and Inspector Tom Barnaby, the first copper in Midsomer Murders. Both roles saw him attract the attentions of a huge number of adoring (mostly female) fans who wrote him hundreds and hundreds of letters.

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“Nowadays of course. I get those consoling letters,” he chortles. “I don’t think they lust after me, they pity me.

“My Poldark character, as it were, is the very antithesis of the charismatic man Bergerac pretended to be. He’s a rather morose, ageing chappy and prone to illness, who has one wonderful line which I think defines his character when he remarks to Demelza [Ross Poldark’s wife played by Eleanor Tomlinson] that he prefers cows to people, a remark that I thought that was lovely.”

Nettles adds with a laugh: “I polished my pecs. My spiritual looks into the middle distance, in preparation for Poldark” – an obvious reference to this picture that took the TV world by storm last year.

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Joking aside, did the veteran actor have anything to teach the new heartthrob-on-the-block Aidan Turner a thing or two about dealing with amorous fan attentions? 

He didn’t need any advice,” Nettles says. “No, not at all.

“Actors have become much more savvy about the nature of television celebrity these days. We were not. The kind of celebrity culture that exists now didn’t exist in the 1980s. It was a degree towards it, but it wasn’t quite there in the sense that it is now. And you learn about that; your agent tells you about the pitfalls and the dangers of it and so on.

“I think they’re all pretty much clued in, particularly someone who’s intelligent and as talented as our man Aidan is,” he adds. “The cast are lovely. I hate saying good things about other actors, but our man Aidan, in fact all the cast, is as charming off as he is wonderful on camera.”

Nettles says he is still recognised the world over for his work on Bergerac (which, despite the occasional rumour, he says he “doesn’t believe” is being revived). But it is Midsomer Murders that gets the most attention given its extraordinary worldwide popularity.

Germany is one of the countries where Midsomer Murders is loved, and it is a country which Nettles has a lot of dealings in his other sideline as an historian specialising in books on the German occupation of the Channel Islands.

“I don’t know why Midsomer Murders is so popular; I’ve asked this many times and I’ve asked the Germans particularly because I’ve become very fond of them, to be honest. And they say it’s the irony, the sense of humour and so on. The unwillingness to take itself seriously. They like that very much indeed. It’s a wonderful contrast to the depressed psychotics who occupy the world of television detectives these days.

“Another of the places where Midsomer Murders and Bergerac is most successful is Scandinavia. Absolutely wonderful.

“They regard their dramas as slightly boring. But Midsomer Murders is A-OK. It is quite bizarre, but, then again, across the world, it’s taken very differently by different people. I’ve had letters from Georgia, from southern Russia, and they seem to think it’s some kind of documentary.”

He still marvels as the sunniness of Barnaby –  “he’d be optimistic if he was surrounded by a death ray” – in stark contrast with Bergerac.

“Even in those days, and certainly now, if you’re going to be a television detective you have to be loaded down with all kinds of emotional, dysfunctional features of your character. I mean, dear old Bergerac, or dear young Bergerac as he was then, he had a gammy leg, he was going through a nasty divorce with his wife, he was a recovering alcoholic, it’s a wonder he can get up in the morning let alone solve any crimes. And he also had to drive that ridiculous car.”

Nettles also speaks with regret about the time in 2011 when the executive producer Brian True-May left Midsomer Murders after making unfortunate comments about the lack of ethnic diversity on the show.

True-May told Radio Times in 2011 in an interview which caused enormous controversy, “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them, it just wouldn’t work”. And, for Nettles, the controversy still rankles.

He was striving to say something which is not at all racist.… he was talking about the essential conceit of the show.

“It was never, ever an issue in our minds at all. There’s a lovely T-shirt which my daughter got me she produced at the time of the fiasco, and it had a logo on the front saying ‘Midsomer Murders: killing white folk for 14 years’.

“What you do very often with a television series is – let’s say there is a society like this, which is occupied entirely by white people. Or let’s pretend in something else let’s pretend there’s a society entirely occupied by black people. Nobody pretends it’s a documentary or a reflection on reality, because it’s not that. It’s not there to tell the truth about the way we live is there to create a fictional story which is an entirely different matter. But these are deep waters.”

Stepping aside from the waters, is Nettles enjoying life in his 70s?

He says he essentially retired in his sixties and misses the “sensual pleasures” of life which “fades by the time you’re 70”. 

“I’m just glad to have lasted so long to be honest with you. Most of my generation has died off, you see. So I’m enjoying myself now more than I’ve ever done. Now I don’t have to please anybody, I don’t have to pass any tests. I just have to enjoy myself.”

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Poldark series 2 begins on BBC1 on Sunday 4 September at 9pm