He’s a son of the city and one of our most prominent actors. So what’s it like for Martin Shaw to be back here in his latest play? Lorne Jackson tried his hardest to find out.
Martin Shaw is being very, very scary.
Really, this is no way for a grown man to behave in public – even if he does happen to be an actor.
And actorish is definitely the label I’d pin on Shaw at this moment.
He’s telling fibs. Fabricating outrageous fantasies about himself. Refusing to take the blame for past transgressions or his own glaring inadequacies. One moment, outraged and indignant. The next, sobbing with shame.
Eventually he’s no more than a jellified jackass, a blubbing ball of blubber crawling along the floorboards.
Bleedin’ thespians, eh?
Though I should probably point out at this juncture that the actor, Martin Shaw, is only acting as an actor. All of the above is a performance.
A very fine one, too.
Shaw is touring with the Clifford Odets play, The Country Girl, which reaches Birmingham’s Hippodrome this month.
It’s about Frank Elgin, a talented but mentally fragile actor who has blown every opportunity of stardom. Now in the twilight of a failed career, he seems to be well and truly washed-up until a young, risk-taking director decides to give Frank one last throw of the dice.
I catch the show in Milton Keynes, where Shaw is in fine form, chewing up scenery as if it was a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.
Though a couple of weeks earlier it was the Birmingham-born actor who came close to being chewed up by the exertions of the play.
After battling with illness, he fainted in the middle of a Shrewsbury performance.
When I meet him backstage after the Milton Keynes matinée, the former invalid seems fit enough.
He arrives with his co-star Jenny Seagrove. In The Country Girl Seagrove plays Georgie, Frank’s long suffering wife. She also starred opposite Shaw in the popular television drama, Judge John Deed. The two enjoy a warm working relationship, and are close friends away from the stage.
In person, Shaw is no Frank Elgin. In truth, I wish he was a little bit more frank. Instead, he is painstakingly polite, though distant, while his smile has something of the Berlin Wall about it. No rogue emotions clamber over the barricades towards freedom and a better life in the West.
Even the mention of his home city fails to conjure up a twinkle in the eye.
I ask how he feels about bringing the production to Birmingham.
“Um, same as it is bringing it to anywhere else,” he shrugs. “Except we are very nervous about the size of the theatre in Birmingham, since it’s an intimate play. But we’ll be alright.”
Alas, there are no fond recollections of midnight strolls along the ramparts of Spaghetti Junction.
But I press on, regardless.
Shaw is originally from Erdington. Does he ever make sentimental sojourns back to the old stamping grounds?
Once again the Berlin Wall beams benignly, then he bathes me in his charming indifference.
“No, I have no reason to go back there, sadly, because I’ve got no connection with it anymore.”
He pauses. Perhaps that’s too harsh.
“A lady from Alleyne Grove, where I’m from, she wrote to me, and sent me a photograph, of her and my mother outside the front door, in the thirties.”
Yet that still doesn’t make him curious enough to take a misty-eyed amble down Alleyne, to discover how that front door has fared over the intervening years?
“No. I don’t think so.”
Okaaay... Moving on, then.
Birmingham may not bring out Martin’s mushy side, but there are some subjects that definitely get a reaction.
Rude theatre audiences, for instance. During the Milton Keynes performance of The Country Girl several mobile phones bleated from the stalls.
The Berlin Wall temporarily collapses as a simmering Shaw relishes a robust rant: “It’s the most destructive and infuriating thing that can happen to an actor in the theatre,” he says, shaking his head at the hideous recollection.
“There is absolutely no excuse for it. It presents one with the most appalling dilemma. It shatters the performers’ concentration, then it creates a black hole.
“For several minutes the play is dead, and it is just utterly unforgivable and stupid.”
Actors have been known to halt the show when mobile phones ring. Martin admits that the only reason he didn’t drag the perpetrators out of their seats was because he knew the man from the Birmingham Post was in the audience.
“Had you not been in today I just might have done it. It certainly crossed my mind, along with other more lurid punishments – involving Vaseline.”
Sadly, Shaw is much less passionate when talking about Aston Villa.
He is on record as supporting his home team. However, when I ask about a recent game the team played against Everton, he shrugs his shoulders.
Worse still, he admits his heart belongs to Everton. Another bum deal for his Brum beginnings. The reason he follows the Liverpool team is that the producer of The Country Girl, Bill Kenwright (another chum of Martin’s, and the long-term partner of Seagrove) happens to be the Chairman of Everton Football Club.
So the Villa have been banished from his life – along with the front door of Alleyne Grove.
“I am an Everton fan, now,” he says. “Jenny’s one of my best friends and Bill’s one of my best friends. And you know, blood is thicker than water.”
The mention of blood brings us to the Shrewsbury incident, when some of Martin’s red stuff was very nearly spilled on the stage.
The 65-year-old had been suffering from a powerful virus and a cracked rib before his collapse.
“I’m feeling better, though not completely better,” he admits.
“This virus has been around with me since March. We’ve all got this problem, these days, of mutated viruses, infections, and the misuse of antibiotics, which I usually don’t take.
“But I had to take them on this occasion in order to keep the show going. However, the antibiotics didn’t work, the infection hung on, and I passed out. It’s really very simple.”
The cracked rib he was suffering from at the time also complicated matters.
The injury was caused by a misjudged fall during an earlier performance.
“In The Country Girl there is a bit when I come on drunk,” he says. “For that scene, I used to lie down on a couch then roll off it. One night there was a hairbrush in the way, and I thought I could miss the hairbrush by tucking my elbow in, but I fell very hard on that elbow.
“That’s what caused the crack. But I carried on that night. Because that’s what you do.”
Seagrove admits she was extremely disturbed by the collapse of her friend (and fellow Evertonian).
“I was very frightened,” she tells me. “I saw the colour drain out of him and he just said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I thought, ‘He’s apologising – what’s going on?’ Then I saw his head go down and I realised we were in trouble here.
“About two years ago I was in rehearsals with a dear, dear friend of mine, who I won’t name. We were being given notes when he suddenly slid off his chair and went unconscious and practically died in front of my eyes.
“He didn’t, thank God. We managed to keep him alive until the paramedics arrived.
“The situation with Martin seemed to be a repeat of that dreadful event. When I saw what was happening to him, I thought, ‘I just can’t bear it.’
“Luckily it wasn’t the same situation. But it was horrible. Thank God Martin is well now, and those wretched antibiotics have at last kicked in.”
Shaw has a long and distinguished career in TV, film and theatre.
In the late 60s he held down a regular gig in Coronation Street, before finding stardom in the 70s with the gritty crime drama, The Professionals.
During this period he also had a leading role in Roman Polanski’s critically acclaimed film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In recent years he has garnered more praise with Judge John Deed and Inspector George Gently.
With many successful years behind him as an actor, it’s not surprising that this trouper of the old school is still treading the boards, even after his collapse.
“I’ve got even more powerful antibiotics, which are killing the infection, though they are making me dizzy,” he says.
“Focusing on my lines isn’t made any easier by that. Thank God this illness happened so late in the run, and that I had already learned my part!”
As our conversation continues, Martin starts to relax. The polished politeness of the Berlin Wall era is replaced by a welcome glimmer of glasnost.
Just before I take my leave of him, he even manages to dredge up a pleasant memory of ‘Martin Shaw: The Birmingham Years’ – though it does involve bomb sites.
“Birmingham was bombed to hell during the war, and when I was growing up there were bomb sites everywhere. It was just a fact of life,” he says. “From the age of sixteen until eighteen I was part of a semi-professional group called the Pied Pipers, who did traditional Commedia dell’arte theatre.
“We used to meet and discuss a plot, then we would improvise an outline. Then we would go through the streets playing instruments, and gather people along the way, find a bomb site, then get everyone in a circle and improvise a play, while inviting the audience to participate.
“The local people were really open to this, they were fantastic.
“Though you have to remember it was a very austere time, the early sixties, and people were much more receptive to that sort of thing.
“You’d probably get shot or stoned if you tried it today!”
* The Country Girl is at the Hippodrome from Sept 13 – 18. For more information, www.birminghamhippodrome.com