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John Nettles: Bergerac, Jersey, Midsomer Murders, Shakespeare and More…

Exclusive interview by Karen Beishuizen

John Nettles is a British TV, Stage and Film actor with a career that spands more than 50 years. TV audience know him best as Detective Jim Bergerac in the crime shows “Bergerac” and Inspector Tom Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders”. He has narrated the documentary series “Airport” from 1996 to 2005. Now living in Devon, he works on several books and documentaries.

KB: We best know you as John Bergerac in the series Bergerac: you played this role for 10 years. ? How did you get this role? What made you accept the role?

The role of Jim Bergerac, a Jersey UK detective, was given to me because a previous detective series, Shoestring, had to finish because the lead actor, Trevor Eve left to pursue a Hollywood career. A replacement show was needed and Bergerac was it, and I was the actor taken from the decent obscurity of the classical theatre and thrust into the limelight to play the eponymous lead, Jim Bergerac. It was a choice between Hamlet and a telly cop show. Did not take me long to decide and the next I knew I was on the plane to the rather beautiful island of Jersey. Spent the next decade there making over 90 episodes. And, truth to tell, it was not so much a job as a long vacation, a glorious opportunity to munch the lotus – a sunny sybarite, that was me!

KB: The show was filmed on the beautiful island of Jersey: You drove around in a 1947 Triumph Roadster? That is a great car to drive in! Why did the show end?

Jersey is a delightful little island as was obvious when Jim Bergerac drove about the place in his splendid ’47 Triumph Roadster and it is true that many a viewer on seeing how beautiful the place was, booked a holiday there – which was then, and is now, an excellent idea! Incidentally that the Roadster motor might indeed have looked splendid but it was a difficult if well-nigh impossible thing to drive. It has a very long bonnet stretching out in front of the driver. Jersey has extremely narrow roads and many, many, blind T junctions. To get round them two things were required at the same time – to push the front of the car across the road and to pray! I managed both, survived unscathed and lived to act another day. Despite this minor inconvenience I did get to love the Island and the Islanders very much and was more than sad when the series ended its long run having simply run out of steam and story opportunities- I mean Jersey is a very small place with practically no crime to speak of beyond the Saturday night punch up outside the pub or serial parking on a double-yellow line. Having said that there was a famous murder case in 1987 when two brothers were involved in the killing of both their parents. That case was famous internationally and still excites interest to the point that Netflix have made a documentary about it to be shown in the near future. Bergerac had nothing to do with solving that case – that was left to the proper and very good, Jersey policemen.

KB: In 1997 you were offered the role as Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders: Again, a Police role so what made you accept this role? It was based on the books by Caroline Graham. You played this role until 2011. Why did you leave the show?

And then, in 1995, on a warm summer’s day in Stratford the producer Brian True-May came to see me to offer me the role of yet another detective, that of Tom Barnaby in a show that was to become known as Midsomer Murders. I accepted in the thought that only five episodes would be made, this being the number of books Caroline Graham had written on which the series was based. Yes, that would be nice, a lot of money, just a year break from the theatre. What not to like? And the series was an instant success, not only in the UK but all over the world. Every country, every territory which had a name, took the show. There was terrific pressure to continue the show and make even more episodes. And so, we did. I ditched my theatrical ambitions deafened by the rattle of coinage in the producer’s purse and secretly proud of the show’s success I went on playing the provincial cop for a decade and more – to 2011 in fact when I decided that, in all conscience, I was too old and stricken in years to be remotely believable as a hot shot detective. I had stayed too long. It was time to go. Didn’t want to be the oldest cop on the box. But Midsomer goes on and on. In America in addition to Acorn and the local PBS stations who take the show, there is now a Midsomer Channel – now on Roku (522) and Xumo (304). And I am available told by those who know that even more platforms will be picking up the channel this year too! By way of escape from Midsomer Murders I ran back to the theatre to appear in a production of Hamlet only to realise that there are more murders in Hamlet than there ever were in even the most mortal of Midsomer episodes. I played King Claudius – and lost.

KB: When Bergerac ended you did 5 seasons with The Royal Shakespeare Company in all sorts of plays: What attracts you to Shakespeare? It is a whole different language and the lines are more difficult to study. What is your favorite play?

After my time on the Island, I returned to work for the RSC in Stratford and London and did think to spend the rest of my career in the theatre. A lifetime with Shakespeare seemed to me a wonderful prospect and indeed I did manage six years with the company and wonder of wonders, getting to appear in perhaps the most miraculously beautiful play the Bard ever wrote – The Winter’s Tale. It is my favourite Shakespeare play with its effecting narrative of sin, love and forgiveness. It is as a mirror image to my second favourite play which is Troilus and Cressida with its equally effective story, but this time of sin, betrayal and damnation, war and lechery. It was all much harder but more involving work than the Jersey detective show. The scenery wasn’t so good but the scripts were infinitely better. Six years of bliss!

KB: You had a recurring role in Poldark in 2016 and 2017? Can you tell me what role this was and what attracted you to the role?

In 2016 and 2017 I was handed the role of Ray Penvenen, grumpy- but- nice underneath character (something like myself) in Poldark, a pleasant television confection of Cornish dramatic tropes. Looked forward to doing this as I fondly believed that as we live just over the border from Cornwall where they would have to be shooting the show, I could fall out of bed in the morning and be on the set inside half an hour – no overnights away from hearth and home. My idea of a perfect job. Alas! When the schedule arrived, I saw that my scenes were going to be shot miles and miles away up-country round Berkely castle in Gloucestershire. Did not like that one bit. Lots of overnights away from home. Lots of travelling. Doh! On the plus side the actors in the show were just great and I discovered that many of the technical crew had been on Midsomer way back in the day. And this was so pleasing to an old thespian like myself.

KB: You narrated the documentary style show Airport for many years: You have a very soothing calming voice. I loved watching that show. Have you done more voice over or narrating work?

Even further back in the day I used to do a lot of voiceover work on documentaries, and also read a lot books for the audio market. Lovely thing about voice-over work is that you don’t have to dress up for it or try and hide the ravages of time with layers of make-up – and you can work from home working remotely via lap-top to whatever studio. How convenient is that?

KB: Are you still living on Jersey? I heard you wrote books about the Channel Islands during war time?

There was a move down to Devon, that beautiful English county, and the start of a sort of retirement at least from acting. Made a documentary on Xumo: The German Occupation of the Channel Islands and wrote a book on the same subject entitled Jewels and Jackboots which has been published in a German edition for Germany. As part of this Channel Islands project, we have edited and annotated a diary of the time from a Methodist minister, the reverend Douglas Ord, which was released last November. It is a splendid piece of work and to be followed later on this year by a translation of another wartime diary, this time from a German, the Baron von Aufsess, sexy beast, and almost what became known as a ‘good German’ just to give the other point of view.

KB: Are you currently working on something new?

Being now resident in Devon I have made a number of radio documentaries on Devon famous people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh. I saw that the statue of another famous Devon Man, Sir Francis Drake was taken down from Larkspur Landing, Marin County, California. It so happens that the very next drama-doc we are making for the BBC radio is going to be about Sir Francis Drake so might just be getting in touch with the people out there to see what the situation now is! Got a message from one of Her Majesty’s officers ( which makes a welcome change from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) inviting me, and 10,000 others to the Jubilee celebrations in London this summer. I see that I am listed under the heading of ‘National Treasure’. I am more than pleased.