Interview: Martin Shaw, Inspector George Gently

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Inspector George Gently 8 - generics

This Wednesday (29th April) the seventh series of Inspector George Gently starts up, comprising four, new, feature-length episodes. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of Newky Brown but it’s one of my favourites, blending as it does police procedural with social realism and shifting cultural sands of the late 1960s. Here, one half of the police pairing, Martin Shaw, talks about the new series.

The Killing Times: Can you tell us about where we start with series seven?
Martin Shaw: It’s 1969 and the Bacchus and Gently relationship deepens. It’s beautifully written, a very layered textured relationship, with lots of secrets and lies, just like real life. In particular, the father and son dynamic is very unusual and interestingly done. It could almost be a family drama, not just a cops drama because we now have Rachel (Lisa McGrillis). Apart from the obvious skill of the participants because both Lee and Lisa are very talented, they are both such extraordinarily nice people and we’re all so fond of each other. It’s something about the people having a deep affection for each other, and then we get to play against it on the screen, but the warmth still comes across anyway.

TKT: And it comes across onscreen, too. You must be a tight unit now…
MS: For me, the most satisfying acting comes out of ensemble work because the most creative part of my work is in the listening as well as in the saying. And so now there is three of us, there is much more listening and watching to do, and sometimes the most entertaining is our character’s reactions to each other – so it gives me, as Gently, more opportunity to react to these two actors that are so extremely skilful. It’s another wonderful dynamic for Inspector George Gently, they are sometimes Gently’s petulant surrogate children and sometimes they are his indispensable colleagues. It’s hard to pick favourite scenes but certainly we had a few Bacchus and Gently scenes where we were having a few drinks together, and our wonderful director Tim Whitby basically said, you carry on and I’ll film it, and so we were left to our own devices. I particularly remember those scenes, as we had so much fun and made the crew laugh!

TKT: Gently and Bacchus have been through a lot together. How does their relationship evolve in this series?
MS: This season, Gently has a problem with Bacchus and his new relationship. At first Gently tries to steer him away to protect Bacchus’ career. Finally Gently sees the lad really wants it, which makes him look at his real feelings for Bacchus. Gently is very progressive and liberal in encouraging Rachel to rise in the ranks of the police at a time when women were not highly regarded in the force.

TKT: The show has never been afraid to tackle important and difficult issues. Will series eight be the same?
MS:
The first film looks at the issue of women and rape. Sadly not that much has changed regarding rape: it’s still an issue whether or not “no” means “no”. Gently has a naturally compassionate intellect and in this episode it is very useful to see the difference in attitude between Gently and Bacchus and Gently’s sensitively towards Rachel.

TKT: Anything else you can tell us about the rest of the series?
MS: Episode two brings back memories for me before I went to drama school. I used to work in a chemical factory in Birmingham. I worked in the office but needed to go down to the loading docks 11 to check the orders were shipped out. I was working in the electrical platting industry, and there were things going out as a matter of course, that would be considered impossible today. Like 56-pound drums of sodium cyanide and companies used to buy it by the pound. A man used to put on a mask and a big pair of gloves and use a scoop to scoop up the cyanide and put it in a bag and then out if would go. So a very evocative episode for me. Episode three was the first time we’ve used the high level bridge. Not only did we get to find the body underneath it but we got to actually film on it as well. We didn’t close the bridge down we filmed on the pedestrian paths very, very late into the night! The episode is set during the wildcat strikes and we use a section of real Pathe news footage which gave a taste of what the real thing was like.

TKT: Another key element of the show is the northeast. It’s almost like a character all of its own…
MS: It’s wonderful that Inspector George Gently is set in the North East, with the whole atmosphere of the North East. It’s very beautiful, the sounds and the music of the North East by which I mean the voices of the North East. And then you have the iconic monuments, the high level bridge in Newcastle, the river Tyne, Durham Cathedral – I mean it doesn’t get much better than that.

TKT: We see Bacchus get into all kinds of relationship scrapes, but what about Gently? He seems to use morality as a shield…
MS: I think Gently’s life is defined by two things; by the war that he fought in and the loss of his wife. He could either become very hardened and bitter or he could have become the opposite. I think Gently chose the opposite way because he felt he was fighting a war to make the world a better place and this is the mind set that still drives him. He doesn’t want another relationship in his life because he considers that he still has one, even though his wife is no longer with him.

TKT: Another reason why I love the show is the perfectly realised period detail of a period that was constantly in flux…
MS: Nostalgia is very important in drama and Inspector George Gently does that perfectly – this season we have the landing on the moon and use real news footage. I remember the landing on the moon very well, it was exactly a week before my oldest son Luke was born. We watched it on a 12-inch square black and white TV and it seemed like an impossible miracle. Suddenly there were men on the moon and not only that but pictures. For Gently, it’s a lovely moment as he’s on the street alone and a young lad comes out and asks him does he want to come and watch the moon landing. And it’s that long forgotten camaraderie community spirit of just coming out onto the street and inviting a complete stranger into your home to watch the TV, and that actually did happen. When I was a kid, my next door neighbour was the first house to get a TV on the street and all the kids on the street used to queue up at her door to watch Watch With Mother in the afternoon. It was just accepted that you would do that – and it’s not that long ago really.

Inspector George Gently: Wednesday 29th April, 8pm, BBC1

4 thoughts on “Interview: Martin Shaw, Inspector George Gently

  1. I subscribe to Acorn in order to get BBC programming. George Gently is one of the highlights for me. These prior comments made me realize that it is the ‘father/son’ relationship that resonates with me. But, the writers deserve a bit of applause for their good work. Say, that MS in the last episode was not appreciated. George has more than enough challenges and does not need MS!

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