TV preview: George Gently

DETECTIVE DRAMA: George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his partner John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby).
DETECTIVE DRAMA: George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his partner John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby).
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Martin Shaw is chuckling about his role on nostalgic BBC1 detective drama, Inspector George Gently.

“I’m kind of the unofficial historical advisor on the show,” says the veteran actor, laughing.

“I don’t have to look in a book or a catalogue, I’ll just go, ‘No, no, that wasn’t there’, or I can say, ‘Oh, wow I remember that!’”

Now 69, Shaw has become one of our most respected actors, with roles in TV series Judge John Deed, The Professionals and in stage productions of Look Back In Anger, A Streetcar Named Desire and Saturday, Sunday, Monday with Laurence Olivier back in the early Seventies.

He has also become known as one of the few of his profession to speak out about the business, recently telling the Radio Times of his misgivings about the length of time it takes to commission Inspector George Gently and the dwindling budget for the drama.

As a viewer, Shaw is all for mystery, subtlety and complex storylines in television.

“I prefer the mystery to unravel bit by bit and for brain power and guess work to be used,” he explains. “Very often there are views, shall we say, at the higher level, that want it to be plainer and more easily digested for the audience, and I tend to not like that so much. I think to some extent, English television has underestimated its audience for a number of years, so what both me, Lee [Ingleby, his co-star in Inspector George Gently] and our directors often try to do, is to make it more, dare I say, sophisticated or challenging.

“It’s a very difficult challenge to meet, of course, because you want to bring in your audience.”

But it’s a challenge that Shaw, who waxes lyrical about the beauty of Northumberland and Durham where they film the programme, seems to enjoy.

The seventh series is set six months after the shocking shootings at Durham Cathedral and old-fashioned detective George, who is recovering from shoulder injuries, is annoyed to learn that his partner John Bacchus (Ingleby) has resigned.

Off screen, Shaw’s “nothing like” fusty George, and isn’t a fan of the detective’s formal dress sense, either. “I don’t like wearing ties,” he admits, dressed in an open shirt and smart jacket today.

“I always feel like I’m being strangled by a tie. It’s always a solo comedy routine in the morning, because I’ll do it up and one end is too long, and then I’ll undo it and the other end is too long, so I still really need my mother to put my tie on!”

Born in Erdington, near Birmingham, Shaw has fond memories of his late parents and recently had the chance to return to the West Midlands for a short run of Fifties theatre classic Twelve Angry Men.

“A couple of years ago, we were at the Birmingham Hippodrome with my last West End play, and I was staggered at how Birmingham has changed,” recalls the actor, whose parents later moved to the suburb of Sutton Coldfield.”

Away from the city centre, Shaw, who has three grown up children with his first wife, would love to go back to the Lickey Hills in Worcestershire, where he would “sit on my dad’s shoulders”.

Father to Joe, Luke and Sophie, he’s had the good fortune of crossing career paths with his children, all of whom are actors.

But in 2010, starring in a production of The Country Girl with Luke ended dramatically, when Shaw’s “straightforward chest infection” turned into pneumonia because of that “hackneyed phrase, ‘The show must go on’.”

One night, Shaw collapsed on stage in Shrewsbury.

“As it happened, Luke was watching from the wings and I felt myself starting to go and didn’t say my line,” the actor recalls. “I heard Luke whisper ‘Bring the curtain down’ and nothing happened. He whispered again, ‘Bring the curtain down’ and in the end, he shouted out, ‘Bring that effing curtain down!’”

Shaw added: “He’s a good lad, my boy. [I’d take] any and all opportunities to work with him and that’s not just nepotism. He’s a very good actor and he’s fun to have around.”

George Gently, BBC1, Thursday 8.30pm

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