Martin Shaw's no fan of reality TV, but accepting an offer to mentor an amateur dramatic society for a new show had a profound effect on him
17:26 GMT, 4 November 2012
Martin Shaw was just three years old when he had his first theatrical experience. His parents were both heavily into amateur dramatics and one evening the director at the local theatre gave him a straw boater, a pipe, a pair of glasses and a brown carrier bag.
‘He asked me to walk across to the middle of the stage, open the carrier bag, look into it, drop the pipe and walk off,’ he recalls. ‘I forgot the walk off bit so somebody had to come and get me but the audience liked it. They laughed.’ It was his first taste of life in the limelight.
A few years later he was part of a group of amateur strolling players in Birmingham, where he grew up, called the Pied Piper Players. ‘We’d march through the streets of Birmingham and people would join behind us.
Martin Shaw was just three years old when he had his first theatrical experience
Then we would assemble on one of the bomb sites – in the early 60s they were still all over the place from the war – and we would perform an improvised show we’d rehearsed just a few times before.’
His happy memories from his amateur days were one reason why the star of shows ranging from The Professionals to Judge John Deed jumped at the chance to join a reality show despite, he admits, generally despising them as ‘cheap television’.
He felt Nation’s Best Am Dram stood out from the reality TV crowd. ‘I just thought it was something really worthwhile,’ he says. ‘It felt like something really involving, and hopefully the audience might learn something from it too.’
What he did not anticipate was just how much he’d enjoy the show – which pitches eight amateur dramatic societies and their celebrity mentors against each other – and how it would move, and even change, him. ‘It was a wonderful experience,’ says Martin, 67.
‘I loved the openness and willingness of the people in my group and their absolute desire to learn something new and unfamiliar. People have preconceived ideas of what it is to be an actor – they think it’s all about nice costumes and looking good and sounding right.
'But that’s not what it is at all. It’s about creating something inside of yourself and then allowing it the space to be expressed. It means a willingness to be vulnerable.
'I know I'm very lucky,' says Martin, who has three children who are also actors
‘It took me back to basic principles and it felt like there was a weight coming off my shoulders that I hadn’t even realised was there. I felt so much lighter joining in with the actors’ sense of exhilaration and their willingness to be exposed. Acting is all about the willingness to get it wrong a few times before it gradually evolves into something presentable. Working on this reminded me of how easy it is to fall into the trap of staying in your comfort zone.’
Martin’s job was to mentor Liverpool’s Tell Tale Theatre Company. His rival judges with am dram companies from around the country were a who’s-who of the nation’s acting talent, including Richard Wilson, Dame Harriet Walter, Roger Allam, and Jill Halfpenny.
The eight groups went up against each other in two rounds and were judged by a panel comprising theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, actress Miriam Margolyes, and the Daily Mail’s own theatre critic, Quentin Letts. The eventual winners will get to perform for one night in the West End.
‘All the groups were given very difficult scenes that would have challenged any group of professionals,’ says Martin.
‘The judges wanted to see how the groups and the mentors coped with it. Our first scene was a dense Scandinavian play and our directors had decided to take an externally different approach; I suspect to get the attention of the judges.
'My task was to tell them that it isn’t about what you can see on the outside; it’s about what you can make people feel. I wasn’t with them for very long but it felt like we went on this journey together, crafting the scene.’
He admits that when his group was criticised he took it hard. ‘Like any mentor or football manager you feel like complaining, “Oh come on ref – were we even looking at the same thing”’ he laughs. ‘There was a row between the judges about my group’s performance.’ He says he was touched by the amount of talent he encountered in the group and is still in contact with them.
Martin himself decided to make the move from amateur to professional when he found acting was ‘an itch that wouldn’t go away’. He applied for drama school while working in the sales office of a chemical factory and got into LAMDA where he won a number of leads.
Martin himself decided to make the move from amateur to professional when he found acting was ‘an itch that wouldn’t go away’
His breakout role was in The Professionals, which started in 1977, and he has been a television favourite ever since with his latest show, Inspector George Gently, recently being recommissioned for a sixth series.
‘I know I’m very lucky,’ says Martin, who has three children who are also actors. ‘I know there are always going to be ten or 20 people who could play the role better than me – I’ve just had the opportunities. I haven’t made enough to retire on yet so I rely on my continuous good fortune and the goodwill of television executives and the British public.’
He’s only ever had one twinge of regret at turning professional. And that was when he started his first theatre job. ‘After I left drama school I got a job as an assistant stage manager. The stage manager sent me to an old prop store across the road from the theatre and asked me to make a list of everything in it. It hadn’t been touched for 30 years and was ankle deep in rat droppings. So I had to get a shovel and start shovelling. All those years of drama school… I had to laugh.’
Nation’s Best Am Dram, Wednesday 14 November, 9pm, Sky Arts1.