Martin Shaw is the star of “George Gently,” an excellent BBC detective series set in the 1960s in northeast England. Airing in Britain since 2007, it has shown locally this year on KCET, and its fourth season, comprising two feature-length episodes and joining three series already in release, has just been issued on DVD and Blu-ray by Acorn Media. A fifth has already been filmed.
Based on but not particularly beholden to a series of crime novels by Alan Hunter and scripted by Peter Flannery (the movie “Funny Bones,” the highly regarded and popular serial “Our Friends in the North”), it follows a London police detective whom circumstances have set down in far Northerumberland, where he remains, both to recover himself and to mentor an ambitious, morally unformed detective sergeant (Lee Ingleby).
Shaw got his start on the London stage — he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1996 for Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” (and won the Drama Desk Award) and played Banquo in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film of “Macbeth” — but he became widely famous as a curly-haired sexy supercop in “The Professionals” (1978-1981). Later he played the title role from 2001 to 2007 in the issue-oriented legal series “Judge John Deed” (also available here on video).
Reviewing the “George Gently” Series 1 DVD in 2009, I wrote, “Gently, whom Shaw gives both heft and delicacy, is not a savant but works from a hard-won understanding of human nature, which gives him a world-weariness as well as a certain liberality of mind.” Like John Nettles in “Midsomer Murders,” Michael Kitchen in “Foyle’s War” and the late John Thaw in “Inspector Morse,” he wears experience like a fine old coat. I spoke to him recently by phone, transatlantically.
What about this character made you want to play him?
Martin Shaw: I think anybody who has to live a life coping with a resistance, it’s a very interesting project for an actor, because it means it’s not straightforward. George Gently is trying to deal with the grief of losing the love of his life — he fought his way through Anzio, Sicily and Italian campaigns during the war and had met his wife, who was Italian, and joined the police force looking at serious gangland crime. And then his wife is murdered by the mob. So this is a man trying to cope with serious grief and with the background of having fought a war, and is scarred with that, with having lost so many comrades. It’s an interesting character with many things under the surface.
Does that background inform what you do, even in scenes that might have nothing to do with it?
MS: In the sense that if one of the other characters is talking about a relationship or a wife, that thought of his own wife is going to cross his mind. One of our regular viewers, and we’ve got a fair few, might just see that shadow cross my face, and they would know why. To anybody who didn’t, they would either not notice or think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder what he was thinking just then.” It’s all a realistic texture, because that’s how people are. We all have these private thoughts.
You’ve played several unconventional authority figures.
MS: I think authority figures are terribly interesting, because we always want to know what it feels like, vicariously. Some of the greatest work that’s come out of America recently, ... things like "The West Wing” and"The Sopranos” are about authority figures — different ends of the spectrum, but they’re people with power.
Does American television affect trends in British TV?
MS: I wish it would have a great deal more effect, frankly, because we are constrained by a sort of hysteria here that we must never offend anybody. And so we are not allowed to swear very much, if at all. If there is any violence, then it has to be toned down. People are not allowed to bleed if they’re shot. If they die, they must die with their eyes closed and not open. It’s a bit like it was in America a few years ago, before the shackles were taken off. Actors here see things like"The Wire” and “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos” and think, “Why aren’t we allowed that sort of freedom?” Also, because we don’t have your sort of budgets we usually only have one writer or at the most two [on a series], whereas you can have the luxury of a whole roomful of writers all brainstorming. And so your scripts tend to be far more balanced and more imaginative than ours are, and we look upon them with great envy, believe me.
That’s interesting, because from an American viewpoint, the British model is attractive, with shows that are creator-driven, where a single voice might predominate. Cable TV has allowed those to come into being here; they also follow the model of your shorter seasons.
MS: I think that’s simply because we don’t have the budget — and, of course, there is a limit to how much one writer can write, without drying up or having a stroke.
British dramas do seem to be making fewer and longer episodes.
MS: You’re completely right. All of our [episodes] are at least 1 1/2 hours long, and that’s on the BBC, where there are no commercial breaks. I don’t know what your shooting schedules are like, but essentially we have just shot four full-length movies in four months, and that’s exhausting. I can remember way back in the ‘70s being offered a movie that was going to be shot in three months and I said, “That’s mad. You can’t make a movie in three months.”
What was the schedule on “The Professionals” like by comparison?
MS: Well, “The Professionals” was only an hour long, and it was for the commercial TV, so I think we had to put in 5.2 minutes of edited film per day. So that was pretty tight too. I do remember having a very amusing meeting with the director, David Lean, and he asked me, “How much film do you shoot a day?” and I said, “Five and a quarter minutes.” And he said, “No, no, no, dear boy, I’m talking about how much edited film.” And I said, “Yes, I understand you, five and a quarter minutes.” And he just didn’t get it. When I explained it to him that we had a 10-day turnaround and had to shoot 52 1/2 minutes to fill the commercial hour, he said, “Five and a quarter minutes — I don’t shoot that much in a month.”
How did “The Professionals” compare in other ways to what you’re doing now?
MS: Oh, it was enormously different. “The Professionals” was a product of the ‘70s and had to do with that particular time. Certainly the constraints were taken off; you could be a bit more violent, you could have a couple of cops being glamorous. But there wasn’t much of social issues being explored, it was more about bang bang bang and driving cars. “George Gently” is much more issue-led and much more about character and “why done it” rather than “who done it.” It’s more about the relationships between these two policemen, the older guy and the younger guy, and about the social issues that were prevailing at that time in the ‘60s, a very extraordinary time for everyone.
To be perfectly frank, “The Professionals” was kind of a blip. I was relatively young when I did it, and I made a miscalculation. My agent said, “Don’t do it. You’ll hate it, and it’s not what your career needs.” And I did it because I really didn’t think it would last more than a single season — and lo and behold, it went on for 4 1/2 years. I had to struggle for a while afterward to get out of that genre — you had a series over there I think called “The Equalizer” roundabout the same time, and I was offered that role and turned it down. “The Professionals” was enormously popular, but it kind of disenfranchised the theater work I’d done before.
It makes me think of the sort of show that was parodied on “Life on Mars.”
MS: That’s all part of the nostalgia thing. People always look back and think, “Times were better then.” And I think TV executives are happy if they can combine people’s insatiable desire for cop shows with their desire for nostalgia. And there you’ve got them both, as we have with “George Gently.”
What was your own experience of the 1960s?
MS: It was intensely exciting and a very happy time for me, because my career was just taking off and I was at the Royal Court Theatre, where John Osborne and some of the greatest directors in English theater were working. And I did quite a few West End shows, with Peter Hall and John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier; it was just a cornucopia of learning, and talent everywhere, and I was just fortunate to be surfing on the crest of that wave of creativity and a new style of theater. Up until that point everything in England was rather Terence Rattigan and polite drawing room comedy. And suddenly there was this massive exploration — coming out of America again — of what was then called “the Method.” Of course, now it’s just regarded as the only sensible way to act.
And there was a lot of dissent — people were saying no, they were protesting against the Vietnam War, there were people like Bob Dylan singing protest songs. I think it’s very sad we don’t have more of it now; the public has much, much less of a voice.
“Judge John Deed” was also very issue-oriented.
MS: That was probably the most issue-oriented show I’ve ever done, and probably the most popular too. It was an enormous hit here, and I think that was because it tackled so many issues. And it bothered a lot of people. I remember having dinner with Tony Blair when he was the prime minister, and he asked me what was the next issue that we were dealing with on “Judge John Deed.” And I said, “MMR,” which was a vaccination that we were giving children in this country, and there was a lot of controversy about whether his children had been vaccinated or not. [Claims, since discredited, were made that the vaccination could cause autism.] And he just held his head in his hands because he knew that so many people watched the show and it was going to raise issues. Which we did every week.
Do you think such shows have an effect on the wider social conversation?
MS: I don’t know whether “George Gently” does. “Judge John Deed” absolutely had an effect. And it brought me into contact with a lot of people in the legal profession and the judiciary, and they were delighted and quite grateful in fact for some of the issues we raised, because we were champions of an independent judiciary, which is the only thing really that can call the administration to account.
You also played another detective, P.D. James’ Adam Dagliesh, in a couple of adaptations.
MS: I’m afraid if you’re in the English entertainment industry, you’re either going to be playing a lawyer, a doctor or a policeman; that’s what TV executives believe the public wants. And again I wish they would look a bit your way and see that you can do something different. It’s gradually happening, but things move slowly here. It’s not through personal choice that I played two detectives; it’s because that’s what there is.
Early seasons were filmed in Ireland, but now you’ve moved to Northumberland, where the series is set.
MS: Yeah, we’re in Durham, which is one of the most beautiful cities in England. Right in the center of Durham on a hill surrounded by the river, you have Durham Cathedral, which is 900 years old, 900 years of continuous worship with a saint buried at each end: You’ve got the Venerable Bede at one end and St. Cuthbert at the other. It’s such a beautiful city, and it’s almost like another character in the piece.
Does it change what you do as an actor when you’re in the proper location?
MS: It does, because subliminally you know you’re in the right place, and you’re in a place of comfort in the back of your mind.
Can you talk a little about your costar, Lee Ingleby?
MS: We get on very, very well; we’re good friends. I was there at the casting of that character, and he was clearly the one for the job and the one I was rooting for. He’s very talented, he’s very, very funny and he’s one of the nicest people you could ever wish to work with. It’s a very natural, easy and comradely relationship we have both on and off the screen. And it allows us to be abrasive in safety when we need to be, determined by the script’s requirements.
Which is quite frequently.
MS: Which is quite frequently. [Laughs.] It helps a lot that there’s no ego battle or rivalry going on.
He seems to be turning into a better detective as the series goes on.
MS: Well, hopefully that’s the case. George Gently takes him on originally because he sees the potential in him; but I think the subconscious thing is that he has no children and that this is a surrogate son for him. And so you get the added dynamic of old man-young man struggles, the classic “Who is going to head this Earth?” kind of thing.
How do you see your future with the show? Would you like to keep doing it?
MS: I would be happy to do it, but I take everything on the merits of the day. If they want to do it again we can discuss what direction they want to take and make a decision. But nothing has been decided. There are no options on other side; it’s open for discussion.
What else are you involved with now?
MS: There are a couple of West End plays on the horizon, but they’re not until next year. At the moment I’ve asked my agent not to bring me anything at all or even ask me anything until I’ve recovered from four months of shooting. I’m still having some R&R.;
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