At home with John Nettles
PUBLISHED: 12:14 27 November 2014
Enjoying a break from the hectic Midsomer Murders filming schedule which takes up 10 months of the year, and just back from a few days in Galway, John Nettles is in relaxed, laid back form as he invites me into the home he shares with his wife Cathy and their Welsh collie Greta.
Their home for the past 16 years is an idyllic converted barn, complete with orchard and free range hens, which nestles in the countryside straddling the south Worcestershire-Warwickshire borders. It’s an environment in which he feels very much at home
“I do like the people here they’re very down-to-earth, it’s very ‘unheritagey’,” he says.
Down-to-earth is a good description of John himself. Gregarious and an engaging raconteur he has a lively sense of humour – frequently directed at himself – and not a hint of self-assumed ‘celebrity’.
Instantly familiar as Inspector Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders it’s easy to forget that he’s also an accomplished stage actor, with a passion for Shakespeare that stretches back to his school days.
A Manchester born ‘war baby’, as a young child he moved with his adoptive parents, Eric and Elsie Nettles, to St Austell in Cornwall.
“It was the making of me, they were a lovely couple,” he says fondly. “We were exquisitely poor, but because everyone else was too we never noticed it. Looking back at the photos of me and my peers in the mining district of Cornwall I was amazed by the poverty, the sheer grinding awfulness of it from the economic point of view, but of course from another point of view it was utterly wonderful. We had the beaches, we had the sea, we had the countryside and we had a thriving community, which didn’t depend on money but depended on good will and affection which doesn’t exist quite so much these days. It was a wonderful childhood, a wonderful place to be brought up full of great people”
One such person was the exotically named St Austell County Grammar School teacher, Frederick Farnham-Flower.
“He introduced us to all kinds of literature, wonderful, wonderful literature, and taught it very, very well. Some people who teach poetry or Shakespeare, take the heart out of it by analysing it too much and teaching it in a pedantic awful fashion, but he enthused us with a love of Shakespeare, he inspired a whole generation of people.”
None more so than John himself, and perhaps his teacher had hopes of encouraging a fledgling talent when he cast the 5th former, who by his own admission was rather too interested in cigarettes, cider and girls, in the title role of the school production of Macbeth.
“I didn’t know one end of an iambic pentameter from another, but I knew a good fight when I saw it and killed a lot of 3rd formers on the way to the final showdown with Macduff,” says John.
Subsequent schoolboy roles, Hlestakov in The Government Inspector and Mephistopheles in The Devil To Pay, earned John rave reviews in the local press:
“As Hlestakov the penniless junior official, John Nettles revealed a gift of stagecraft, matching speech and action to every circumstance,” wrote one reviewer, while another said: “The success of the play depended largely on Richard Turner as Faustus and John Nettles as Mephistopheles two remarkably talented young actors. John Nettles brought the necessary zest and venom to the part and Richard Turner brilliantly contrasted his two roles of the ageing doctor and, latterly the buoyantly spirited young hedonist.”
Life as actor was far from the plan when John left Cornwall to study History and Philosophy at Southampton University with thoughts of a career in academia.
“Being a war child you want to know what happened at that time, although I wasn’t present in any real sense it was the great experience of my life, and my generation’s life, it colours all our thinking.
“It was also when the Whig interpretation of history finally died, the idea that man is on an endless journey that progresses from good to better to best. Suddenly The Holocaust happened, the Eastern Front happened, and Stalin happened and that destroyed it in one go. I wanted to get to terms with it so that’s why I studied history”
Philosophy provided the tool to explore these issues, and studying the work of continental philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, who also wrote plays such as Huis Clos and Caligula, reignited the theatrical spark. He joined the university drama club and then, on leaving university, the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Co-incidentally his first professional performance was also in Macbeth – albeit in a somewhat more modest role than in his schoolboy experience.
“I was playing Menteith and the Third Murderer, Menteith was cut after the technical rehearsal and the Third Murderer murder was reduced to one line,” he laughs.
A period of treading the boards of rep theatres across the UK followed, and then in the long hot summer of ’76 there came the chance to join the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I got there by a species of nepotism. My first wife, Joyce, was the casting director, and a part in Trioillus and Cressida came up as an actor had dropped out, so they stuck me in the part. I was filming TV in Holland at the time, I came back to do a season at the RSC and fell in love with the place.”
It was a stellar period. ‘The Firm’ as it is fondly known by its members, was a melting pot of talent that included such luminaries as Bob Peck, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, David Troughton, and Donald Sinden – who John nominates as the finest King Lear he has ever seen.
“My God it was wonderful to walk into that theatre in those days, the energy was just zinging off the wall and the quality of the work was extraordinarily high. The direction was so certain, so good, Trevor Nunn at the height of his powers and John Barton ditto.
“It was also a real eye-opener for me I’d never come across work of such quality or actors of such calibre before, and I thought I’ve got a lot of running to do here to keep up. I stayed for two or three seasons before I was pulled away to do the Jersey detective. It was the most wonderful time of my life as an actor I think.”
The offer of the role of maverick detective Jim Bergerac in the BBC’s Jersey-based crime drama was John’s big TV break. First screened in 1981 it was an instant hit, and virtually overnight John Nettles became a star of the small screen.
An upshot of this popularity was the annual invitations to perform in pantomime, and it was whilst performing with Les Dawson that John met Cathy, his second wife.
“The great Les Dawson was doing his farting turtle joke for the benefit of a very pretty dark-haired girl, it’s a very long joke, very tedious and I thought: ‘I can’t have that,’ and so when he got to the bit where he covered his head with his jumper I said ‘Come on let’s go and get a drink,’ and I left the great man doing his joke – I think he forgave me!”
When Bergerac ended a decade later, John rejoined ‘The Firm’ in Stratford and recalls working alongside Clare Higgins an actress he describes as “incandescently talented – a non-pareil.”
“Her Cleopatra was the thing itself. She managed to combine intellect and sexuality and most English actors can’t do that. I used to stand behind the flats every night and listen to her dying speeches, it was wonderful. I was having a whale of a time and really, really happy.”
Unsurprisingly then, when approached to play a detective in an ITV crime drama his initial response was less than enthusiastic. But, persuaded to take a look at the books based on the work of Nuneaton author Caroline Graham, he enjoyed what he read, and told producer Brian True May to get back to him if the project went ahead. Twelve months later Brian called and announced they had the green light and John Nettles hit our screens as a TV policeman once again.
The pilot, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, had instant viewer appeal with audience figures that hit 13.5 million. Eleven years later Midsomer Murders remains a ratings winner, has been sold to 209 countries around the world, and even includes Her Majesty the Queen as a fan.
With filming of the 12th series underway and a 13th already commissioned there is no fear of Barnaby disappearing from the screen anytime soon. John even hints, with a sparkle in his eye, that fans can expect to see a shift in Barnaby’s strikingly platonic relationship with this wife Joyce, played by actress Jane Wymark.
John’s own enthusiasm is similarly undiminished
“It’s not so much work as an extended party really, all these wonderful actors come in and strut their stuff and we have a laugh and its great, great fun.”
Despite a cast list that reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of English theatre there are still plenty more actors he’d like to see make their appearance in Midsomer.
“Eileen Atkins - she’s just wonderful, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer, Greta Scaachi whose first job was in Bergerac, there’s a whole host,” says John.
If there is a downside for John then it’s the limitations the filming schedule places on other work. One project he has planned is a series exploring the famous cases of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum.
“I’ve played a policeman for the past 20 years but of course it’s had hardly any resemblance to real police work. A revolution has gone on in those 20 years in the way police go about their investigations, and policemen like Barnaby, Wexford and Morse are utterly obsolete. I like now and again to have a look at real police work and we’ll be making the programme when we can.”
Our conversation shifts to local matters and two projects come to the fore. The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre gets a definite seal of approval, the Courtyard, a working prototype for the main development he says works exceedingly well as a performance space.
On the subject of another proposed development he is vociferous in his opposition. Government proposals to allow the construction of 6,000 new homes at ‘Middle Quinton’, the so-called Eco-Town, fill him with incredulity.
“It’s huge, it’s about the same size as Stratford,” he says. “It would change the nature of the place entirely and turn a sparsely populated rural landscape into something entirely different.”
His objections are not just aesthetic, they’re economic, social, and environmental too.
Where would all the residents work? What are these jobs that scheme promoters claim will be provided on the site? What about the ability of the local infrastructure to support such an increase in population? Surely an inevitable rise in traffic levels will necessitate new roads and result increasing levels of carbon emissions? Are just a few of the issues he deliberates.
He also holds big concerns about the impact of such a major influx on the local community. Communities, he argues, evolve over time you can’t just build them in one hit, to try and do so is an attempt at social engineering.
The level of opposition, he points out, is extraordinary, not just from the campaign group BARD and well known public figures such as Dame Judi Dench, Jilly Cooper, Julian Lloyd Webber, Johnny Herbert and MP Peter Luff, but also from residents from across Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire and the local councils.
“I hope it works,” he says. “The new theatre is very welcome, the ‘Eco-Town’ is not!”