In praise of... Martin Shaw, who brings a tough of class to everything he appears in
Having Martin Shaw on our television screens is indisputably A Very Good Thing. Anything with Martin Shaw in it is automatically rendered at least 30pc better than it would be without Martin Shaw in it. Trust me: I’ve tested this under laboratory conditions.
He was one of the best reasons, apart from the guns, girls and fast cars, for watching smash-hit The Professionals, currently being repeated on ITV4 in the afternoons.
Yes, Lewis Collins, who sadly died of cancer last year, was ideally cast as the beefy, smart-arse CI5 hard man Bodie, but he never for a moment made you imagine his character might like to spend the occasional quiet evening alone, feet up with a good book, rather than out on the town chasing birds (it was the 1970s, so I’m allowed say that).
Shaw as Bodie’s partner Doyle, on the other hand, always gave the impression that there was something deeper going on inside that bubble-permed barnet of his. No mean feat, given that the actor considered the character and the scripts one-dimensional.
To seal the deal, Doyle’s clothes were always infinitely cooler than Bodie’s... at least as far as the ’70s’ definition of “cool” went. But sartorial taste wasn’t the only thing that separated the two men.
Post-Professionals, Shaw, who’d played Banquo in Roman Polanksi’s mesmerisingly dark and violent 1971 film of Macbeth, went on to one success after another on TV and stage, including winning rave reviews as the older, bloated Elvis Presley in Alan Bleasdale’s play Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Poor Collins, who was turned down for James Bond in the 1980s but got to play a sort of yellowpack 007 in the movie Who Dares Wins — an odiously reactionary piece of pro-SAS, anti-CND propaganda — spent the remainder of his acting career bouncing between cheap continental action thrillers, with titles like Der Commander and Kommando Leopard, and sporadic appearances on British TV (low point: playing Colonel Mustard in the game show Cluedo), before moving to Los Angeles and going into the computer sales business full-time.
But as we’ve already established, not everyone can be Martin Shaw, currently to be seen giving his all — plus the minimum 30pc extra — in Inspector George Gently on BBC1.
Most British telly coppers tend to exist in blatantly artificial environments. It’s impossible, for instance, to imagine either Inspector Morse or the youthful version of the character portrayed in Endeavour beyond their idealised Oxford, or Inspector Barnaby anywhere other than in the ridiculous bubble-world of Midsomer Murders.
Gently, however, feels like a real person with a real life beyond the 90-minute episodes. It’s a credit to Shaw as an actor, but also to Peter Flannery’s scripts, which give the character plenty of meat to chew on.
Other crime dramas set in the 1960s mostly use the period as mere set dressing; Flannery — who wrote the BBC’s magnificent Our Friends in the North (1996), one of the best TV drama series of all time — uses it as a means of touching on serious issues.
While last night’s episode was standard mystery fare, last week’s saw Gently confronting his subordinates over their appalling treatment of rape victims (something that’s still a blight on modern policing). An upcoming episode deals with the growth of gun crime.
And now, Gently has been landed with a problem no amount of policing skills will solve: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
As with Wallander’s Alzheimer’s, it’s a brave touch of realism in a genre not known for it.