Thursday, 06 February 2014

Gently does it

As he reprises his role as the much-loved Inspector George Gently, Martin Shaw talks to Richard Barber about living on the wild side, cleaning up his act - and fan mail from Alec Guinness

The day we meet, Martin Shaw is nursing a sore shoulder following an operation the day after he finished filming the latest series of Inspector George Gently. ‘The rotator cuff packed up,’ says 69-year-old Shaw. ‘A common complaint if you’ve been active and you’re getting older. They told me it would take three months before I was glad I’d had it done. And that’s when the physio begins.’

Dressed in an open-necked shirt and cotton trousers, he is thoughtful, amiable company, much less intense than his sometimes brooding performances and ascetic lifestyle might lead you to expect. He’s back on our screens as the eponymous Gently in a new series set in late 1960s Durham.

‘I think I’d like George if he existed,’ Shaw decides. ‘I like his honesty, his integrity and his clarity of mind. But then he’s a military man who’s had to make instant decisions and stick by them.’ 

Shaw always watches each episode more than once. ‘I look at the rough cut to see if I can spot any inconsistencies and then again when it’s shown on television to see what I can learn for next time. You never get good enough. It’s like playing a musical instrument: you can improve but you never achieve perfection.’

His is a family of performers. He has three children by his first marriage to actress Jill Allen. Luke is a jobbing actor who appeared with his father in a West End production of The Country Girl. Joe acts, too, but also makes well-received short films and TV adverts. And, when not acting, Sophie sings with a swing band called Blue Harlem.

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He sighs. ‘I tried to warn them of the pitfalls of so precarious a profession,’ he says, ‘but since they had never seen anything other than their father being in continual work with increasing success, I was on to a loser.’

Martin can remember his very first performance. His parents, Frank, a design engineer, and Jo, were both outgoing. He was a gifted raconteur; she won prizes for ballroom dancing. Both belonged to an amateur variety group. ‘At three, I went on stage wearing a straw boater and round glasses and pretending to smoke a pipe. I had to stop in the middle of the stage, drop the pipe into a carrier bag and then walk off. It got a big laugh, which I liked. In fact, I had to be hauled off in the end.’

Good at English and drama at school, he won a place at the London Academy of Music and Drama (Lamda). ‘What incredible good fortune! Rada was still in the grip of wonderful articulation’ – he slips effortlessly into a French-windows way of speaking – ‘while Lamda had discovered Osborne and Wesker, a new edgy style in which actors could talk in their native accents.’

He got work from the off. Indeed, he received one fan letter for his performance in an end-of-year student production that he’s kept to this day. It read: ‘Just to say thank you and congratulations on a very fine performance the other night and I wish you luck with your career, which I have no doubt will be very successful.’ It was signed Alec Guinness.

Martin-Shaw-02-590Left: Filming George Gently with Lee Ingleby. Right: As Ray Doyle in The Professionals

Martin seemed to have a knack for attracting the great and the good. In a 1970 production of Peter Shaffer’s The Battle Of Shrivings, he found himself cast alongside John Gielgud, Patrick Magee and Wendy Hiller. On the day of the read-through, director Peter Hall introduced him to Gielgud. ‘He looked me up and down. “You’re frightfully handsome,” he said. “I suppose you’re married, you swine!”’

Except that he used an altogether more Anglo-Saxon noun.

As it happened, Martin was indeed married to Jill, whom he’d met in repertory at Hornchurch. He was also drinking for England. ‘I drank because actors like Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed were big drinkers and they were my heroes. It was a badge of office.’ He pulls a face. ‘It sounds utterly ridiculous as I say it now, which indeed it was.’

Then, in 1971 – when he was 26 – he landed a role in Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth. ‘The career, my life, everything was at its height. I felt I could rule the world.’

One day, he noticed on the call sheet for the following morning’s filming the name of Luke Hardy, a fellow drama college student. ‘So I went along to his dressing room to say hello and I was immediately struck by how different he seemed. He was softer somehow in an almost angelic kind of way. I invited him round for dinner with me and Jill and he said that he’d better warn me that he was now a vegetarian. He and I sat up all night talking.’

Martin gave up meat, fish and eggs the following day. ‘Over the course of the next year, I kept thinking up objections to the path Luke was taking but the answer always came back and satisfied the question. By the end of the year, I’d given up alcohol for good.’ In 1985, he was stopped by the police in Liverpool for jumping a red light. ‘The policeman said, “Right, when did you last have a drink?” I’d been waiting years for just such a moment. So I said, “October 1971.” He looked at me. “Out of the car,” he said. He thought I was being smart.’

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The sobriety and vegetarianism must have put something of a strain on his relationship with his wife. ‘At first, yes,’ he admits. ‘My chosen spiritual path was asking a lot of me but it was asking a lot of Jill, too. Oddly enough, after we parted – and for quite different reasons – it became a path that she also started to follow.’

Martin married and divorced twice more – first to therapist Maggie Mansfield and then to TV presenter Vicky Kimm. His failed marriages are, he says, a matter of ‘huge regret’ to him. ‘You go into any marriage sincerely hoping it will last forever. If I had the answer [as to why they went wrong], I’d still be in one of those marriages.’

But he doesn’t duck the realisation that the common thread through all three is him. ‘I take full responsibility for the relationships unravelling but without quite knowing why.’

Perhaps he’s tricky to live with? ‘I think so. I’m kind, though, and honest and faithful.’

That said, he’s impatient, he says, and inclined to pessimism. ‘But I have stratagems for dealing with that. Sometimes, I’ll turn my calendar forward by, say, three months and write down what’s bothering me. Then, when I come to it three months later, I wonder what all the fuss was about.’

His current partner, Karen da Silva – he calls her Kaz – is a yoga teacher. (She massaged that shoulder every day since the operation.) They live in separate houses about 200 yards apart. I tell him it sounds like a sitcom from the 1970s. He laughs. ‘I know, but it works brilliantly.’

Martin-Shaw-03-590In the West End production of Twelve Angry Men

And throughout it all, he’s had his work. He’s never been unemployed, except by choice. So, it’s been a good career? ‘Not ’alf!’ And he’s loved them all – with one exception. In 1977, he was cast as Ray Doyle in TV ’s The Professionals.

‘It made me too famous and most people had no idea of all the theatre work I’d done before. The producers didn’t help, either. They saw both me and Lewis [the late Lewis Collins] as commodities and nothing else. By the second series, we were as famous as pop stars, with a regular viewing audience of more than 17 million.’

Between jobs, there’s little he likes better than driving to his croft in a remote corner of Scotland. ‘I go there with Kaz or with my younger brother or with the family. Or alone. I think of it as a retreat, very much so, away from the madness. I love it with a passion. I’m very conscious of mental noise, which is why I live in Norfolk. I feel rather like a radio that can pick up a clearer signal in the country. And that’s even truer in Scotland.’

So, life is good? ‘You are sitting in front of a contented man.’ He’s celebrating 50 years in the business but retirement is out of the question, of course, because actors like to carry on acting. He’s currently riding high on the West End stage in an acclaimed interpretation of the Henry Fonda role in Twelve Angry Men.

‘But I couldn’t afford to retire anyway,’ says Martin Shaw, ‘although, if I had the option, I’d like to work less.’

A slow half-smile. ‘But for more money, please.’

Inspector George Gently returns in four new feature-length films on 6 February at 8.30pm on BBC One.


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