This isn’t the first time Martin Shaw and I have met, though I don’t blame him for not remembering. Today, I’m here to ask him how he feels about saying goodbye to Inspector George Gently, the detective he has played on BBC1 for the past ten years.
During our previous encounter, I had one question for him: “Will you tell my sister it’s time to come home?” That was nearly 40 years ago. I was not yet a teenager and he was at the height of his fame in The Professionals (and a rather unhappy man at the time, as we shall see).
I’d gone round to his ex-wife’s house – she lived in our road, along with his three children – to collect my sister from a play date with his daughter Sophie. The two girls were good friends, spending afternoons climbing on top of Sophie’s wardrobe, making a “camp” for her stuffed toys.
We all knew who Sophie’s dad was (indeed, I was friendly with her elder brother), but the TV star was rarely there. So it was a moment of great excitement when the door of this ordinary semi was answered by CI5 agent Ray Doyle.
Shaw smiles when I tell him the story, and tells me that he still goes round to the house for family get-togethers at Christmas and Easter. Although apparently stuffed toys no longer play such a big part in events.
In the intervening decades, almost everything has changed in Martin Shaw’s life – he has acquired two further ex-wives and a new long-term partner along the way – yet, once again, he’s grabbing the nation’s attention as a crimefighter. Not for much longer, however. After ten years of playing Detective Chief Inspector George Gently, BBC1 is bringing the show to a close.
There are two episodes in the series starting on Sunday, then no more. So how does it feel to be waving goodbye to the much-loved detective? Perhaps surprisingly, Shaw says he’s not angry with the BBC’s decision to kill the show. “Not in the slightest. In fact, I think it’s absolutely the perfect time to do it.”
This isn’t public relations flim flam. This is a man who has never been shy about questioning in public the judgement of TV executives. “It feels completely appropriate,” he says. “I had no difficulty in letting go of the role, because it makes space for something else. All through the last day of filming, people were saying, ‘Are you going to be emotional?’ I said, ‘No, not at all.’ It’s a fact of life. Things come to an end. And then, after the last shot, I started to make a little speech… and I was gone. Bang! So I did get emotional, after all.”
There are not many TV dramas that remain popular over the course of a decade. Viewing figures have held steady since the first episode in April 2007, and at the peak of the most recent series, in 2015, were even a little higher. It’s not like there’s a shortage of police officers on TV.
So what makes this show stand out? The secret of its success, says Shaw, is that at its heart it’s not really a cop show at all. It’s a show about a decent but damaged man who is making faltering attempts to deal with loss. Right at the start of series one, we discovered that Gently’s wife had been murdered. She’s never been replaced in his life – instead, Gently has invested his emotions in his surrogate “son”, rough-and-ready sidekick Detective Inspector John Bacchus, played by Lee Ingleby.
Shaw with Lee Ingleby in Inspector George Gently
“The thing that sets this apart from cop shows is that it’s not a whodunnit. The cop side of it is a framework on which to hang the relationship between these two men. Really, it’s the story of a family.”
There’s also a nostalgia factor. By setting the show in the 1960s, writer Peter Flannery tapped into a feel-good factor. After all, who doesn’t get a frisson of pleasure when they watch Gently grab a box of Omo washing powder out of his shopping bag?
Martin Shaw is 72, though his clean-living lifestyle – no booze, no meat – has blessed him with a complexion that could belong to a man 20 years younger. He lives in a big, old house in Norfolk with his partner Karen Da Silva, a yoga teacher.
For several years, they lived in separate houses down the road from each other, but now, he tells me, she’s moved in. There’s just one nod to older age: the hearing aid that’s tucked discreetly into Shaw’s ear, the result of years of piloting his open-cockpit private plane without adequate ear protection. “I got it about a year ago,” he says. “But I don’t wear it on set.”
But back to the 1960s. Shaw moved from his home city of Birmingham to London in 1963, to go to drama school with, among others, Maureen Lipman, Lesley Joseph and Stacy Keach. Which means that, in theory at least, he was well placed to play an active part in Swinging London.
Did the 60s swing for him? “No, no, no. There wasn’t enough money to live a party lifestyle.” He lived in a one-room bedsit on London’s Westbourne Grove, “with a shared bathroom and toilet, a gas ring and a gas fire”.
Was he busy marching against the Vietnam War? No, but he was listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. This surprises me, I tell him. He has a reputation for being, well, quite cross about things? “No I’m not. Not at all.”
Did you used to be? “I don’t know. I used to be a heavy drinker. And you could argue that has some roots in anger. But I was never an angry drunk. I was more of a stupid, over-placid, affectionate kind. But that stopped in 1971, a long time ago.”
There is one subject, however, that used to irk him every time he was asked about it: the show that made him a star – The Professionals. For years, Shaw despised the ITV action series that he worked on from 1977 to 1981.
He has described Doyle, the tough guy he played, as “a one-dimensional character in a one-dimensional show” and said the drama “disenfranchised my career… it was like being an Action Man doll. No humanity. Just a function.”
The subject comes up when we discuss the fact that three characters have dominated his working life: George Gently (whom he has played for ten years), Judge John Deed (six years), and Ray Doyle (six years).
Which of the three men does he view with the most fondness? Without pausing, he answers, “John Deed”. But, he quickly adds: “Which is not to disrespect George Gently…” But you do, I suggest, disrespect Ray Doyle? He doesn’t disagree. “Well, with George Gently and John Deed, I was there willingly throughout.”
Say that again? Are you telling me that you worked on The Professionals against your will? Indeed so. “I foolishly signed a contract that I thought they would let me out of. It’s completely my own fault.” How many series did you make under duress? “Four and a half. After the first one, I thought I’d graciously be able to say, ‘Thank you very much, but this is not for me.’”
Instead, he claims, the producers insisted he make more. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that they deliberately timed the shooting schedule in such a way as to prevent him from taking on other (more high-brow) work.
You make it sound like spite, I tell him. “Well, I don’t think it was spite. I think it was proprietorial.” TV chiefs didn’t want their tough-man crime-fighter poncing around on stage at the National Theatre.
Shaw says that he didn’t even get rich on the back of the show. “We got paid very little for The Professionals. Very little. We started on £400 a week and finished on about £1,500 a week.”
And, he argues, he’s never earned a penny from repeats (indeed, for years an obscure argument about royalties blocked ITV from reshowing old episodes). The traditional charge is that Shaw’s attitude towards The Professionals is ingratitude on an epic scale.
Had he not spent those years wearing tight T-shirts and pointing guns at dodgy geezers, would he be where he is today? “It’s a very fair comment. And it’s a charge that I accept. I hold my hand up. Mea culpa.”
But – and here’s the big news – after years of bitterness, Martin Shaw has made his peace with The Professionals. “Let me round this off. Because it’s been a long dissertation on the down side. All the antipathy has faded away.”
Why? Because a few years back, a younger actor explained to him how important the show was as part of their childhood. “And I suddenly got it. So all that antipathy has faded away.” Phew. And, as George Gently fades away, how would he feel about taking on another long role that might take him into his 80s? “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Absolutely.”
This article was originally published in 20-26 May 2017 issue of Radio Times magazine