‘He’s a grumpy old sod, but I like him. I like his moral compass.’
Martin Shaw is talking about his screen alter ego, dependable Sixties copper George Gently. But, if his press cuttings are to be believed, the actor might equally be describing himself. Over a near 50-year-career, Shaw has established himself as one of British telly’s most bankable leading men. But he’s also built a reputation for being outspoken, a bit crabby and perhaps even a little precious (he refused to talk to the media for several years, and was famously so keen to disassociate himself from his breakthrough role in The Professionals, he blocked the show from being repeated).
So it’s a somewhat surprised Waitrose Weekend that finds itself in the company of a man who is not only disarmingly warm and friendly but, having recently turned 70, clearly very happy with his lot. Yes, he speaks his mind – Shaw is refreshingly off-message on any number of topics – but it’s all done with a twinkle and, more often than not, a hearty chuckle.
Now into its eighth year, George Gently is Shaw’s longest-running engagement. Based on Alan Hunter’s novels about a widowed Met Inspector who relocates to the country (Norfolk in the books, Northumberland in the TV series), the feature-length films – co-starring Lee Ingleby as Gently’s occasionally wayward sergeant, Bacchus – regularly attract more than six million viewers. And Shaw is in no doubt about why.
‘Although it’s a police series, it’s not a whodunit,’ he says. ‘Really, it’s about the relationship between Gently and Bacchus, and lately Lisa [McGrillis, who plays WPC Rachel Coles]. Gently doesn’t have children of his own, so there’s very much a father-son thing going on with Bacchus.’
As you’d expect from a series created for television by Peter Flannery (Our Friends in the North), Gently also uses the social upheavals of the day to examine shifting attitudes to everything from rape to race relations to nuclear disarmament.
‘It was a time when the world was changing incredibly fast,’ says Shaw. ‘And what’s interesting is there’s an inversion, because George seems far more willing to accept change than Bacchus.’
In 1969, when the latest series is set, Shaw was living in an attic flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Having moved from his native Birmingham to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, he’d already started picking up TV work – including a short stint on Coronation Street – and was seeing out the decade on the West End stage alongside John Gielgud.
‘It was an absolutely wonderful time for me,’ he says. ‘Not only because I was embracing and enjoying these extraordinary changes in society, but also because my career suddenly took off like a rocket.’
It was also a time during which he drank excessively – largely, by his own admission, in a bid to emulate the hellraiser lifestyle of working class contemporaries like Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richards Burton and Harris. ‘From the perspective of today, it seems utterly idiotic,’ he admits. ‘But you wanted to be part of that, to wear that badge of office – of being windswept and dangerous!’
Shaw – whose three children, from the first of his three marriages, are all actors – gave up the booze in 1971, when he became a follower of the Indian spiritual guru Charan Singh. A vegetarian who practices meditation and believes in magic, he chooses not to work between series of Gently, preferring the solitude of his home in rural Norfolk, or his even more remote retreat in Galloway. ‘That’s the way I like to live,’ he shrugs. ‘I like the quiet life. But I do have a telephone and I do have a television set in both houses. So I’m by no means a hermit or a recluse.’
That said, you won’t find him trading LOLs on Twitter and Facebook. ‘I don’t do any of that stuff, and I regard it with absolute suspicion,’ he says. ‘There are stalking fans who have found out where I am and all sorts about me via Facebook. So I have nothing to do with it as far as I possibly can.’ (His caution is understandable: between 2003 and 2008, Shaw and his partner Karen da Silva were victims of a five-year stalking campaign by retired shopkeeper Sandra Price that culminated in Price pouring petrol through da Silva’s letterbox.)
He’s equally aggravated by the current state of British television, which he sees as running scared from the growing armies of professional offence-takers. But he still believes the BBC is ‘the world’s finest broadcaster’ which ‘copes with the intolerable political pressures magnificently’.
And what of The Professionals, the testosterone-charged late 70s action thriller that made him a household name as tousled heartthrob Ray Doyle? Having successfully shrugged off the ‘TV tough guy’ image in high-profile roles like The Chief, Judge John Deed and now Inspector George Gently, does Shaw feel less antipathy towards his days spent doing handbrake turns in a Ford Capri?
‘Yes, I’m a lot more relaxed about it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t enjoy doing it, and when I asked to be released for my contract, they said “You must be joking”. That was understandable, but uncomfortable. It was a very unhappy experience, and it put my career on hold for a very long time, because I was identified with that kind of work.’
Now, though, he recognises the affection the programme is held in. He tells a story about an actor who came up to him on set and told him how, as a kid, his dad had taken him to see The Professionals being filmed, and Shaw had sat him on his motorbike. ‘He said, “You were my childhood”. And my heart just melted. I thought, wow, how wonderful is that?’
While Shaw went on to forge a successful career, his co-star Lewis Collins fell by the wayside, spending the years before his death in 2013 selling computer equipment in Los Angeles. The pair’s working relationship was distinctly cool, but a generation who thrilled to Bodie and Doyle’s bromance will be heartened to know their story has a happy coda.
‘I met Lewis about 10 years after we finished The Professionals,’ recalls Shaw. ‘He brought his new wife and baby, and we had a really lovely dinner at my house. It was a very healing experience, because we hadn’t got on very well while we were filming. When we parted, we were the best of friends. That was the last time I saw him, because he left to live in America. But I’m very grateful that my last experience of Lewis, and he of me, was warm and happy. That was a great gift.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 23, 2015
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