Actor John Nettles

The BIG Interview: Actor John Nettles OBE – Star of Bergerac, Midsomer Murders and Poldark

Eric Partridge

‘acting is just a way of building a ring road around reality… ’

Actor John Nettles © Chris Saville

Over the years, my many interviews with various sportsmen or celebrities who spend the majority of their professional life in the public spotlight have sometimes been a stilted affair. Many spend more time watching the clock or trying to spot the proverbial ‘trip wire’ that could embarrass or incriminate them, with carefully rehearsed and guarded answers to my equally-carefully researched and genuine questions so that the finished article can be predictably tedious.

Within seconds of arriving at actor John Nettles’ delightful home on the outskirts of Holsworthy, which he shares with his wife Cathy to whom he has been married for 26 years, it became obvious that this was not going to be one of those interviews, indeed the next ninety minutes enjoyably played out to be quite the opposite.

Accompanied by The Moorlander’s editor and self-confessed John Nettles fan Laura White, along with our photographer Chris Saville, the warmth of our welcome was sincere and heartfelt as the Cornwall-born actor whose first major television role in 1981 as the Jersey detective Jim Bergerac made him a household name overnight, settled our inquisitive trio down into a homely little nook within the centuries-old imposing farmhouse, while he went off and
made some tea!

This was more of a private ‘Audience with John Nettles’ gig, rather than a newspaper interview and would not have been out place had it been hosted at The Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in front of a packed house. The self-effacing, humorous material and the audience reaction would have been identical. When Mr Nettles holds court the whole room is transfixed.

The 79-year-old, now-retired star of ITV’s top-rated show, Midsomer Murders, is undeniably the ‘King of Anecdotes’ as he regaled us with tales of yesteryear, his career and wicked stories of the many characters he has met along his unrivalled journey. In the interests of avoiding the Tower we have resisted repeating most to protect their reputation. It was simply a hoot!

John Nettles with his rescue donkeys Achilles and Hector – all photos © Chris Saville

Just one word, a single word, would trigger a flashback. We would be talking about one subject one minute then John would fly off at a tangent chuckling about a wholly unconnected incident the next. It was spontaneity at its very best, chronologically we were all over the place, sometimes it was hard to keep up but nevertheless it was enormous fun.

Born in October, 1943, in St Austell, Cornwall, John’s birth mother was an Irish nurse who came to work in England during the Second World War. John was adopted by carpenter Eric Nettles and his wife Elsie. As a youth John attended
St Austell Grammar School and in 1962, he went to study history and philosophy at the University of Southampton, where he also developed an interest in acting leading him to join the Royal Court Theatre after graduation.

His first stage role saw him play Laertes to Tom Courtenay’s Hamlet in 1969, at the University Theatre for 69 Theatre Company in Manchester. The following year he was in repertory at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter.

“There was hardly a theatre in the country which hasn’t been disgraced by my presence,” John mused. “My career took off in Exeter, I closed the place. There was me, David Suchet, Robert Lindsay, Roy Marsden and several other sublunary thespians who came down here, we were all fresh out of drama school or university or whatever and I’d just finished doing Hamlet. An actor friend of mine asked me what I was doing next and I said I’m going to Exeter, he said there’s one good thing about Exeter, I asked what’s that and he said – it’s got a bypass! Actors can be so cruel!”

Chatting casually about his 24 years as an on-screen copper: 10 as Bergerac, 14 as DCI Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders, John admitted that he’d be useless as a policeman in real life.

“Emotional wear and tear in homicide investigations burn-out rate is very high,” he observed solemnly. “They retire at 53/54 years of age through PTSD and I couldn’t take that. You meet enough criminals in acting though I can tell you that,” he roared! “No, acting is just a way of building a ring road around reality, and it’s very nice driving round there, thank you very much, dodging down the occasional side road into the real world.

‘As John Gielgud once said, ‘acting is no job for a grown up.’ And it certainly isn’t, I’d be driving along doing Barnaby and thinking this is bloody ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, I’m chasing old women down cul-de-sacs because they’d murdered somebody. Come on!

‘Bergerac on the other hand was just lovely, it wasn’t so much a job it was more a case of sitting down in front of half a ton of chocolate and slowly chopping your way through it. It was more of a holiday than anything else to be honest with you, chasing cardboard villains around a very small island.

‘John Sessions once remarked to me: “Why do you bother chasing the villains, why don’t you just stand still and wait for them to come round again?”

The show’s supporting actors, like the late John Sessions, responded to the fact that it was a holiday island too and thought it was a great treat to fly out to Jersey and play merry hell.

John recalled: “There was an actor called Ian Hendry who was a wonderful fellow but had a great problem with the drink and I remember very early on we were out on what’s called a moonscape beach, which is when the tide goes out so far that all you see is miles of sand and rocks and we’d lost Ian, he was nowhere to be seen, so they shouted through the mist ‘Ian, Ian, Ian’ and a hand went up clutching a small bottle of vodka, ‘I’m here,’ he slurred, incapable of even standing up.

‘The scene involved he and I having a conversation by a beached boat but as he couldn’t stand up for very long, he leaned against the boat to steady himself but then he couldn’t remember his lines so the crew put them on an idiot board and held it up for him but without his glasses he couldn’t focus so he said, ‘I’ll improvise, I’ll improvise’ which he did and he was so good they didn’t even bother turning round on me at all.

‘He was brilliant, he fell over afterwards mind you, but it was a great party for a lot of smashing actors. I don’t know how many we went through but it must have been over 1,000 actors over the 10 years.”

Bergerac ran for nine series between 1981 and 1991 and regularly attracted audiences of about 15 million people. John Nettles was the only actor to appear in all 87 episodes.

John Nettles at home in his study working on his latest book © Chris Saville

John recalled wistfully: “At the end of the day, Bergerac was all about pictures, it was about beautiful islands and unlikely villains beating each other up on cliff tops in bright sunshine. If you got bored with the storyline you could look over the shoulder of whoever was in front of the camera and see this marvellous scenery. You’d see Corbière Lighthouse or you could look over at Terence doing his stuff and you’d see the great length of Five Mile Beach… or the extraordinary cliffs up at L’Etac in the north of the island.”

While Bergerac made John a household name, in a career spanning some 34 years with near 50 films and numerous television roles to his credit, the show also gave established actor and co-star Terence Alexander, the opportunity to secure his first regular character part as Charlie Hungerford, Bergerac’s father-in-law and all-round lovable rogue.

The veteran actor always complained that despite his lengthy presence in the entertainment industry he was always being confused with other actors and was anxious to establish his own identity. Playing Charlie Hungerford gave him that identity, albeit a little late in his career, and as John recalls he would often be the butt of the cast and crew’s harmless pranks.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t like Jersey, he did, but he loved his wife Jane, more and he hated being away from her. So at the end of the shoot, he would run towards the exit to fire off up to the airport to get back home to Fulham and we would play terrible tricks on him by calling him back for retakes which frustrated the hell out of him. ‘Bloody hell!’ he’d yell but being the true professional he was, the last of a kind, he saw the funny side of it and took it all in his stride. He was a real gentleman actor in the mould of Kenneth More and John Gregson and people like that, I mean lovely, lovely people, they don’t make them like that anymore.”

While filming Bergerac, John was allowed a house on the island, the massive audiences for the series also led to a surge in tourism for Jersey which probably helped swing the decision.

“I lived there for the duration of Bergerac or ‘Borgerac’ as Les Dawson used to call it, yeah I lived there for 12 years, they were willing to let me have a house there but it’s no life for an actor, there’s no work over there for an actor, none at all, it’s all over here.

‘I wrote two or three books while I was there, and it’s come back to haunt me, Netflix are doing a documentary on a famous murder case over there in which I appeared and was mentioned by the killer, as that ‘bloody Jersey detective!’
if I’d known he knew I was on to him I’d have run a mile.”

It was during this period that the historian in him emerged as he developed a keen interest in the history of the occupation of the Channel Islands by the German forces during the Second World War.

“The figures are quite interesting you know,” John explained. “There was practically an entire German division over there, when you consider that the Islands are very small, seven miles by five for Guernsey and nine by six for Jersey, there’s nowhere to hide, absolutely nowhere to hide, besides all the young chaps, 10,000 or more were off serving in the regular forces. There were only the old men left so it was a wee bit difficult for those that were left behind.”

But Bergerac was not John’s first encounter with the Channel Islands as he appeared in an episode of in ITV’s Enemy at the Door called Officers of the Law, which was first broadcast in March, 1978. The episode was set in Guernsey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands in the Second World War and ironically John played a police detective ordered to work for the Germans, who anguished over the conflict between his duty and collaborating with the enemy.

Following the end of Bergerac, John played five seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon appearing in The Winter’s Tale, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Julius Caesar, Richard III and The Devil is an Ass. In 1992, he appeared in an episode of Boon, and in 1993 reprised the role of Jim Bergerac in a guest appearance in the spoof police comedy, The Detectives starring Jasper Carrot and Robert Powell.

In 1997 Midsomer Murders came calling and for the next 14 years the role of DI (latterly DCI) Tom Barnaby absorbed John’s persona. Over the course of the then 13-strong series, John reckons the show killed off about 280 victims, a fact which didn’t go unnoticed by HM The Queen when the fictional detective was presented to Her Majesty at a television event.

“We ruined more actors’ careers than you could shake a stick at. I did apologise to Her Majesty when I met her at some television bash for killing off so many of her subjects. Apparently, she’d been a fan of Midsomer from the beginning and said to me, ‘I wouldn’t like to live in Midsomer.’ And before I was able to offer some witty response, one of her aides chimed in with ‘No you wouldn’t Ma-am, you’d be dead!!’ It was at that point that I saw my Earldom disappear out of the window.”

The setting for the Midsomer ‘franchise’ was not as you might perceive in the Cotswolds, where the villages are exquisitely beautiful, but mainly in the Thames Valley, with the emphasis on Buckinghamshire, mainly for economic reasons because the headquarters were at Pinewood Studios, to reduce the cost of overnight stays for the crew and actors.

“Obviously the settings were a complete fabrication,” John pointed out. “When you see the final result on screen you’d marvel sometimes as you knew that we had been shooting down the middle of the village across the village green with all these black and white cottages with roses over the front and then you’d turn around and you’d see the M40 on the skyline and up in the sky there’d be hordes of planes stacking up to land at Heathrow every 40 seconds. Sometimes, because of the noise and other distractions, the opportunity to film was limited to, well, seconds.”

In February, 2011, after 80 episodes, John, who was awarded an OBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2010, finally stepped down as DCI Tom Barnaby passing the Midsomer law-enforcer’s baton to Neil Dudgeon.

The 1947 Triumph Roadster driven by Jim Bergerac was synonymous with the show. ©BBC

As John amusingly recalled: “Neil actually appeared as a character actor in one of the very early episodes when he played a gardener who did rather strange things with a hose pipe in the greenhouse, which was great fun and
Neil enjoyed himself enormously. Later he appeared of course as my cousin, which was a wonderful piece of scriptwriting. They had to have someone called Barnaby, because of foreign sales which are enormous, so because
the show is known as Barnaby abroad not Midsomer Murders, from out of nowhere Tom Barnaby suddenly had a cousin, who’s never been mentioned before, a John Barnaby, and who, guess what, was also a DCI  what a co-incidence, so we shot off an episode in Brighton in which John Barnaby was introduced. You couldn’t make it up!”

On the 40th anniversary of Bergerac’s first episode, a collection of previously unseen photographs was released by the BBC Archive. ©BBC

In 2016 and 2017, John enjoyed a recurring role as the gruff Ray Penvenen in the second and third seasons of the popular historical drama Poldark, which he mistakenly believed would not involve much travel living as he does on the Devon/Cornwall border.

“The Poldark role was quite appealing because I thought well it’s kind of shot in Cornwall and I could fall out of bed in the morning I’ll be on the set in half an hour and then they went and shot it at Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, which is 1,000 miles way! But that was great fun after a fashion.

‘Back in the early 70s I worked with Robin Ellis who played the original Poldark, a lovely, gentle, kind man and he was actually in this present series playing a judge or something like that , but I missed him unfortunately. In my early days he was very, very kind to me because I was a boy up from Cornwall and I didn’t know my arse from my elbow frankly but he had been around for quite a while and sort of took me under his wing really and taught me the ropes. These are pleasant memories. He makes cheese in France now so quite a career move and a diversion.”

In early 2010, John wrote, presented and produced a three-part documentary, Channel Islands at War, to mark the 70th anniversary of the German invasion and subsequent occupation of the Channel Islands. He defended the documentary saying at the time: “There is no possible way you could have avoided collaboration with the occupying power who had power over the civilian population. If you had not toed the line, you would have been shot.” This view was supported by local historians and members of the Channel Islands Occupation Society. In 2012, the documentary was followed by his book entitled, Jewels and Jackboots, also about the Occupation. It sold out in a matter of weeks and was reprinted a year later.

In 2020 John took over as the narrator on the Channel 4 television show Devon and Cornwall, a sister show to the network’s The Yorkshire Dales and the Lakes programme.

Nettles with his rescue horse Amos, one of nine he keeps

For those John Nettles fans hoping to catch a glimpse of television’s favourite fictional copper on screen or in a traditional theatre role any time soon, John appears convinced he has made his final curtain call and is unlikely to return to public performance, preferring instead to continue his historical writing and enjoying the Devon countryside and the company of his menagerie of rescue horses and donkeys… and who can deny him after giving so much pleasure and enjoyment to so many over the last 50 years.

“I’m 79 now, theatre’s a young man’s game and realistically I retired in my late 60s. Besides, I never want to see a camera ever again. I really do think there comes a time when you should say ‘yep, I’ve done that, been there’.
I’m not going to go on merely because I’ve got a certain reputation or whatever. I’ve seen actors fall over themselves doing parts they shouldn’t, which they started doing when they were in their 20s or whatever, they shouldn’t go on doing it, it becomes ridiculous, ludicrous and painful to watch. A bit like watching your grandad dancing!

‘I write quite a lot these days. I’m in the process of publishing two books, one is being created as we speak and the other one which has been delayed for two years because of COVID-19, which came about while I was researching for a documentary on the Channel Islands, was launched a few weeks ago in Guernsey. This is the wartime diaries of Reverend Douglas Ord, illustrating the Occupation of Guernsey, 1940-45.”

But the last word goes to Moorlander editor and fangirl Laura White. “My mother was a huge murder mystery fan, and I absorbed that passion. Although Bergerac first aired before I was born, I remember watching the later episodes with my ma, and when Midsomer Murders started I was straight into watching that religiously! I have grown up with John Nettles being the best TV detective in my life so when we had the chance to meet him, I couldn’t let that pass! I was so nervous I could barely speak! It was a huge privilege and an afternoon I will never forget.”

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