Interview: Martin Shaw talks about his four decades as a leading man

Martin Shaw in Inspector George Gently
Martin Shaw in Inspector George Gently
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For years Martin Shaw refused interviews, letting his work in TV dramas speak for him. Now the actor is ready to give voice to his views on everything from flying vintage aeroplanes to Leveson and Laurence Olivier

As portrayed by Martin Shaw, Inspector George Gently is a compelling character. In many ways, he is the perfect copper – upright, patient, loyal and honest.

For all that, you would not necessarily want to do the West Highland Way with the buttoned-up detective. The actor agrees, “I find him a little dour, and that’s completely alien to my character. I don’t have to rein myself in like that. I sometimes watch old episodes of Inspector George Gently and think, ‘Who the hell is that?’”

Where Gently is closed and cold, the actor is effusive and expansive. At 67, a time of life when many men are already reaching for the pipe and slippers, Shaw is still bursting with energy. Sporting spiky, salt-and-pepper hair, a black-and-white Hawaiian shirt, black trousers and matching suede shoes when we meet in a central London bar, he could pass for a decade younger.

Take his hobby. Not for Shaw a bit of light pottering around in the greenhouse or some gentle Airfix modelling, rather he prefers wrestling with the joystick of a vintage aeroplane.

“When I left school at 16, I would have liked to have been an RAF pilot,” he explains. “But at that time they were only employing graduates. You needed at least an A level in maths, and that was an area of complete obscurity to me. So that career never materialised.

“I have made up for that since by becoming a pilot and owning my own plane. I have a Piper L4 Cub, which was used during the Second World War for artillery spotting. I keep it near my home, and it still goes very well. So, I think I have managed to fulfil more dreams than most people in that area.”

He is similarly fired up on a whole variety of subjects. Listen to him railing against politicians. “We have recently been treated to the terrible spectacle of adolescents arguing in Parliament about who’s to blame for the financial crisis. They can’t just say, ‘Screw political advantage – let’s just put this right’.

“Meanwhile, the real perpetrators of this tragedy must be rubbing their hands with glee. Nothing is going to be done. It’s very depressing. The only hope is that it will show people that we’re not governed by those we elect.”

The actor gets equally worked up on the dumbing down of television. “We are made to be apathetic and are prevented from thinking by the anodyne nature of drama we’re fed.

“If people are not thinking, they cannot be persuaded to change. It may not have started as a deliberate policy, but the lack of imagination and the race to the bottom have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m afraid we’re completely ratings-led, so that often riskier things are not made. But a public service broadcaster should not be constrained by ratings.”

It may well be this passion that has kept Shaw at the top of his game for all these years. He has been a “go to” TV leading man since co-starring with Lewis Collins in ITV’s hit law-enforcement show The Professionals in 1977. The tough guy show ran for five years.

He then did three years as ITV’s The Chief, two stints as PD James’s intellectual detective Adam Dalgleish on BBC1 and six series as BBC1’s Judge John Deed.

Almost four decades after his breakthrough, TV commissioning editors are still casting Shaw in leading roles.

And his star shows no sign of waning; this will be his sixth series as Inspector George Gently, the thoughtful 1960s Northumberland detective. “I know Gently so well now, he goes on like an old shoe,” smiles Shaw.

The actor believes the show has lasted so long because, “It always has something else going on – the investigation is only part of the story. We don’t just say, ‘Here’s the puzzle – work it out’. There’s much more to it than that.” To prove the point, the forthcoming series grapples with such weighty topics as race, class and adoption.

As he peers at me like a youthful college lecturer over his tortoiseshell spectacles, it is a pleasure to spend time in Shaw’s company.

But it was not ever thus. He would be the first to admit that he has had a turbulent relationship with the press. “I have been a victim of sandbagging,” Shaw sighs at the memory. “It’s very easy to fall into that trap, and you have no redress. When it happened, it was like a bomb going off in my family.”

Shaw, who has been married three times and now lives with his partner Karen da Silva, recounts the details. “The journalist arrived in my dressing room with a tape recorder. Towards the end of the interview, she asked, ‘Can I switch this off? This is not part of the interview, but I’m studying psychology, and I’m very interested in what you have to say about therapy’. I was stupid and said yes. She asked if I brought my failed marriages into therapy. Not only was all that in the article, but she said – and I quote – ‘he wailed!’

“There was nothing I could do about it. So, for a period I refused to talk to the press, which brought me into conflict with my employers.

They said, ‘You have to talk to them’, and I replied, ‘No, I don’t!’

After a while, the bad feeling faded away.” And here he is today, chatting to me quite freely.

Despite having been burned so badly by the tabloids, Shaw remains admirably open to criticism. “I don’t care what journalists write as long as it’s truthful.

“In the Guardian once, I got a right slagging off. Obviously, I’d rather the journalist hadn’t done that, but I didn’t mind because the article was truthful. He was very honest, so that was absolutely fine with me. I don’t know if that is something my parents have given me – they were very straight, down-to-earth people.”

All the same, Shaw is convinced that downmarket journalism is an Augean stable in need of a thorough cleansing. “This whole celebrity thing has taken the boundaries away. Now there’s an assumption that dealing with the worst side of journalism is part of the job.

“At the Leveson Inquiry, journalists were saying that if you want publicity, then the downside is that you have to take the flak. From which area of Mount Sinai did that decree come down? Because you once wrote nice things about me, you can now dig for dirt and bug my phone?

I missed that particular scroll.”

The actor continues that, “A long, long time ago, I walked past an advertising hoarding saying, ‘Martin Shaw: The Day I Threatened to Kill Lewis Collins!’ I’d never even spoken to that paper in my life. It was very scary.

“That’s exactly what Leveson is all about. I hope it will make a difference, but I fear that it won’t. I don’t know how you balance the obvious necessity for free speech with the need for redress for someone who feels wronged.” With a wry grin, Shaw adds, “That’s why Leveson is a judge, and I only 
play one.

Understandably, Shaw remains wary of celebrity culture. For a start, he has been subjected to that curse of modern society, stalking. The actor acknowledges that, “Fame gets to me. At the time of The Professionals, I couldn’t go to the newsagents without it becoming a major event. That doesn’t turn me on in the least.

“Fame almost completely removes your ability to be spontaneous and natural. I find myself unconsciously putting my head down in the street in case I make eye contact with someone. I hadn’t noticed I was doing it until I went to Broadway in 1996. Then the release of openly being able to say hi to someone in the street was tremendous.”

Shaw, who has three adult children from his first marriage, proceeds to rail against our obsession with celebrity. “There is very little discrimination about how that word ‘celebrity’ is used. Once it becomes an obsession, it dehumanises both the celebrities and the people chasing them. It objectifies the celebrity, and it becomes very hard to think of that person as a human being. The chasers invest celebrities with a personality and imagine they know them.

“People have done that to me. I’ve been stalked a couple of times. It felt like being the Julia Roberts character in Notting Hill. I found it very hard to cope with. I shut it off in my mind. Eventually I fought back and said, ‘No, go away!’ But now it’s rarely a problem, and I hope I am able to maintain perspective.”

Having been unable to become an RAF pilot, Shaw pursued his other great love, acting, and got into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. His parents were less than delighted by his choice of career.

Birmingham native Shaw says: “They weren’t very pleased when I went into acting. What did they say? ‘Don’t!’ But once I’d been through two years of hell as an extra and was doing well, they never missed anything I did.”

During his formative years – he was an assistant stage manager in rep at the Hornchurch Theatre Essex in the mid-1960s – Shaw learned many valuable lessons about how to behave. Laurence Olivier became his mentor.

“I learnt lots from him. He cemented in me the idea that gracious behaviour will hold a company together and will infect everyone in a positive way. He knew the name of every single person in the canteen, and treated everyone the same. His kindness is something I’ve clung onto.

“After I had done a term at drama school, I got a job as an extra on Crossroads. There were all these actors milling around. I walked up to the first one, held out my hand and said, ‘How do you do?’ She looked at me with disdain and simply turned away. The same happened with the next one and the next one and the next one – they all turned their back on me and wouldn’t speak to me because I was an extra.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never ever be like that.’ That’s a very good example of how vile people can be, and ever since then I’ve always tried to be gracious. I hope that I have managed to carry that through my career.”

So what’s next for this busiest of actors? Would Shaw like to retire and spend more time with his aeroplane? Fat chance. “I have thought about retiring, and it’s not a particularly attractive idea. I still get this great buzz from work.”

And, he concludes with a self-deprecating smile, “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

• Inspector George Gently begins on BBC1 tomorrow, 8.30pm