Martin Shaw: Full cycle for Shaw

Martin Shaw became a household name decades ago but he still finds stage performance scary. Phil Penfold met him ahead of a visit to Yorkshire.

Anyone expecting Martin Shaw to make a grand showbiz entrance when he turns up for his nightly performance will be disappointed. He arrives on his trusty bike, which he tucks away somewhere near to the stage door. "These days the managements do tend to offer their leading players a car but I can't be bothered.

"I just say 'no thank you' and I get pedalling. It goes everywhere with me – I put it on the back of the car, and I drive to the hotel, and from there on in, it is in constant use. I'll definitely be using it in Leeds. It's not been without its hazards. I was knocked down in London once as I took a corner and a taxi driver didn't give me enough room. Another time I was beaten up by a bus driver who thought that he and his vehicle ruled the entire road, but you just carry on. It's great exercise for me, it concentrates the mind, and I can also do a vocal warm-up as I go."

Martin and his Judge John Deed co-star Jenny Seagrove are in a revival of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl which is coming to Leeds shortly before it opens at the Apollo in London. "It was one of the first West End plays that I did 27 years ago. I played the role of a young theatre director, Bernie Dodd, today I'm playing a washed up, though once great actor given one last chance to re-start his career.

"The stage, live performances, they terrify me. In the weeks before we open, I am always very scared, it's an incredibly frightening and strenuous process and I'm often physically sick. I lose pounds in weight, and first nights are an appalling ordeal. But then you get that out of your way and about three or four nights in, I find that I can relax a little and enjoy myself, and that the play gets explored on a different level. It's not at all like doing a telly drama when you can be on the set and you get to your lines, and you say them and maybe fluff them a bit, and then you do them over again until you get it right. With an audience in front of you there is no licence to fail. Theatre has to be visceral for me, and you are acting with your whole body, not just your eyes and face. When I go through the preparation and rehearsal process in such a state of dread anticipation, I begin to wonder why I put myself – and my family – through it all. But after the first few nights I realise just how much I love it all and why I became an actor".

He is now 65 and his first appearance in front of an audience "was when I was about three, in an amateur show which my mum and dad were doing. I was never much good academically – I only really seemed to like English Literature – and I left school at 16. I'd been offered a place at drama school in Birmingham, but instead I went off to work – one job I had was in a brass foundry.

"A couple of years later, a little wiser and more mature, I got a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. But probably my best bit of luck was that there was still something of the old repertory theatre system in some places, and I landed a job at the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, as an assistant stage manager. That's where you really learn your trade, doing production after production back-to-back.

"There was another lad there at the same time, and we shared a house. Welsh actor, name of Anthony Hopkins. We've remained great mates ever since. Tony was marvellous at the declaiming thing. The walls would resonate with him rehearsing lines. I always knew that he would turn out to be the best of the best."

Playing a period detective in the shape of Inspector George Gently he finds that he has discovered a new talent. "I'm a walking encyclopaedia on everything to do with the Sixties. Apart from one or two guest artists, all the other actors and most of the crew are a lot younger than me. I'm about the only person on the set who can remember that decade properly, so I keep on getting asked questions about how it looked, and what expressions people used.

"Those big old-fashioned police helmets – the strap was never worn under the chin, remember? It was always across the chin, just in case someone grabbed the headgear. We did one scene where there was a cake stand as a prop. And all the cakes and pastries on it were shrink-wrapped. We never did that back then.

"I always check to make sure that the cars are of the correct time and year as well. They were using a Rover 2000 with a wooden steering wheel and wire wheels the other day. I said 'Not that car, not in 1966!' Oh dear, I admit it – I am anal about detail. More than anything else, I think that the clothes and the hairstyles take me back – and yes, I admit it, I did own a kaftan, and purple crushed velvet flared pants. I went on the whole Bob Dylan shtick – even bought myself a guitar and one of those wire holders for the harmonica, and I tried to teach myself music.

"The guitar I still have, but the playing skills have not improved. That was about the time I was getting my first breaks in TV. I even played the love interest of Lucille Hewitt in Coronation Street for six episodes. So many plays went out live – there was always something happening at Granada or at Television Centre, and you got opportunities and you paid your dues in things like Play of the Week, Armchair Theatre, and the Wednesday Play. Programmes that were events in themselves. It doesn't happen these days. There was certainly a lot more good TV drama for us actors in the Sixties and Seventies.

"In today's world, reality TV is so much cheaper and so that's what the audience get most of, whether they want it or not. Mind you, if any actor speaks out and says that, all you hear is the collective sound of executive buttocks being tightened. They don't like hearing the truth. Take Judge John Deed – it was hugely popular, the audiences loved it, the ratings were good, and it did get BAFTA awards. But it wasn't the cheapest series to make, so that's it, done and dusted, and I don't think that you'll be seeing any new episodes, which is a pity, but one has to be realistic about it – once again the accountants have taken over from the creatives.

"I don't come across as dwelling in the past. Some things have changed for the better, some for ill. In the Sixties, they'd just abolished hanging, excellent. But men and women couldn't be friends, could they? You were either married, courting or….distant. Your mates were all of the same sex. It was a time of dissent, and of protest, and of CND marches, and I admire all of that – it wasn't the time of a shrug and a 'so what?', as it is today, the age of 'soundbite politics'. When you see a real, heart-felt protest, it is simply thrilling."

Martin doesn't drink, he's a vegetarian and he has long followed his own set of spiritual beliefs which "keep me sane, and keep me focused. I always strive to be better than I am, to move onwards and upwards to a better place, and I am a pretty upbeat and positive person, I think."

And when all else fails he can either jump on his bike "or into the cockpit of my plane. I still have my beloved Boeing Stearman, which is kept at an airfield near me in Norfolk. I'm going up this weekend, God willing. And I'm also starting work on a documentary about wartime planes. I keep busy. And I'll keep pedalling as well."

Martin Shaw is at the Grand Theatre in Leeds in The Country Girl for the week beginning August 2. Inspector George Gently returns on BBC1 later in August.

YP MAG 24/7/10