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Q&A: 'George Gently' star Martin Shaw

July 20, 2012|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Martin Shaw is a police detective in northern England in "Inspector George Gently."
Martin Shaw is a police detective in northern England in "Inspector… (Acorn Media )

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).

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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.

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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.

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