'George deserves to have a proper send-off'
As Inspector George Gently draws to a close after a decade on screen, actor Martin Shaw tells Susan Griffin that they plan to give him an appropriate ending
A decade after first meeting Inspector George Gently, it's time to say goodbye to the straight-talking detective. And the occasion marks a moment of reflection for actor Martin Shaw. "I shall miss most of all the companionship and comradeship of the people who have been part of it right from the start," says the 72-year-old, who's breathed life into the character created by Peter Flannery from the novels by Alan Hunter for the past 10 years.
"I shall miss Lee (Ingleby, who plays Detective Inspector John Bacchus), who is unfailingly good-tempered and good-humoured, funny and brilliant. I will miss Lisa (McGrillis, who plays Detective Sergeant Rachel Coles) for the same reasons.
"She is the most kind, sweet and funny person, but that applies to both of them. Then there is Dave Sullivan, my driver, PA and bodyguard. He fulfilled all those roles right from the very first day." What he won't miss, surely, is battling the freezing elements on location in and around Durham, although he'll always have a soft spot for the North East.
"I love the atmosphere; the music of their voices. There is a kind of blunt, but soft-edged honesty to the way people talk to you," says Shaw, who was born in Birmingham.
"I love the countryside; I think it is absolutely gorgeous. Durham is a very beautiful city and every time I drive down and see the cathedral and the castle on the river, I find it extremely uplifting. It never fails to inspire me.
"It's one of the wonders of the world. Durham was an enormous part of this project for all those years and I shall miss it very much."
Recalling what drew him to the role initially, he says: "The most important thing was to know he (George) was written by Peter Flannery, who is such an extraordinary writer.
"And also, because the first episode was set in 1964, and even if it is recent history, I love history, I like re-enacting the old days. It's what I like to do more than anything else. And the social commentary of this show gets the audience thinking as well. It provokes thought in people, which is what storytelling is all about."
The long-running series will bow out with two feature-length films.
The first is Gently Liberated, in which Gently and his team become involved in an investigation that might be a miscarriage of justice.
The second is Gently And The New Age, in which Gently gives evidence at the Old Bailey against corrupt police officers in the Met.
It should be one of the final acts of his career, but he's asked to take on one last job by DI Ian Lister (Adam Levy), the head of a new Special Investigations Squad examining evidence against 'bent' coppers.
"George is a warrior and, as with a lot of people of that generation, his life was moulded and laid out for him by the war. He fought through a very difficult campaign through Italy," comments Shaw, who has starred in The Professionals, The Chief and Judge John Deed.
"And whatever he does as a detective, he accomplishes it as would a soldier. He can't get out of that mindset. Police work is something he is so passionate about; police work and justice are his life."
We also see the detective grappling with a new decade - and technology - as the series moves into 1970.
"As with all people of a certain age, George finds it confusing. I'm the same," admits Shaw, who has three children from the first of his three marriages.
"People get used to their own ways and I am sure 500 or 1,000 years ago, people would have been saying, 'Things aren't as good as they used to be'. It's the way of life, it's nature."
The show's creative team looked to the pilot for inspiration for the final series, ending as it began with Gently striving to solve the mystery of his wife Isabella's murder.
Shaw believes Gently's enduring grief makes him a man "somewhat at odds with life".
"He is someone who doesn't move through life too easily. He constantly feels he's out of place, or that life is out of joint, and it is partly because of the continued loss that he feels over his wife's murder. He is still grieving for her, and what he is missing and what is left, is a space that can never properly be filled."
His close relationship with Bacchus also becomes frayed as the series draws to its conclusion.
"They have been investigating a cold case that Bacchus worked on before George arrived up north from the Met - and to George's horror, he finds that there have been some shortcuts made by Bacchus," reveals Shaw, who is a keen pilot with a passion for vintage planes.
"He has compromised. This infuriates George as he insists on doing everything by the book."
As a result, Gently comes to rely more on DS Rachel Coles.
"In any murder squad, there would be scores of detectives, but this is his close team and George has also mentored Rachel very closely. In a way, she is the mirror-image of Bacchus. Rachel is much more on George's wavelength and she believes passionately in the law in the way he does."
Asked if he believes it's a fitting end to the decade-long show, Shaw doesn't want to presume what the viewers' reaction will be, but he's hopeful they'll appreciate the sense of resolution.
"It's very nice to know that something has definitively ended. I think the audience deserves to have a proper ending - like a flourish at the end of a symphony."
Inspector George Gently, BBC One, tomorrow, 8.30pm