When I was growing up, I chose what movies to see by what actors were in them. Movie stars were the draw. Sometime between now and then, we have seen the rise of the director, who now often not only directs but also writes or co-writes the screenplay and is, in many cases, the producer as well. We are now motivated to see the film because of the director.
Back then — though time has revealed how important the director was all along — names like John Huston or John Ford meant nothing. I knew who I wanted to see. William Powell, David Niven, Hedy Lamarr, Lauren Bacall, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant. I preferred leading men and women who could add a dash of humor to their heroics.
As I grew older, I began to appreciate actors with the ability to hit the subtleties or better, create entirely new characters every time out. Some American actors could do it if permitted. The early career of Rod Stieger comes to mind. The truth is, however, the British were especially adept at character: Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Peter O’Toole, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and on and on. I’m not necessarily an Anglophile. I have little knowledge of the lineage and history of the Royal Family, for example. And if you asked me much about the Anglos and Saxons, I’d have to look it up. But I love the richness of most British drama. I spend many nights watching episodes of various, old BBC mystery series. There is a list of some of them here.
A year or so ago, I became enamored with the George Gently series about an experienced British cop who had just lost his wife. He accepts an assignment far away from London . This is what I wrote back in April, “The dark, rich, moody cinematography set in the ‘60s, shares the credit with the actors. The main character (played by Martin Shaw) is magnetic and a joy to watch. His much-to-learn partner (Lee Ingleby) is the perfect foil. If I were in charge of awards, they’d both get them.”
Not all the episodes are available and I felt shortchanged knowing that there was more to see, but I couldn’t. Shaw, a stage and film actor, also briefly and admirably played P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish. There was something about Shaw. Dalgleish was more enjoyable in Shaw’s hands. Gently and Dalgleish, portrayed by the same actor, were very different characters — a tribute to the actor's talent.
However, it was only after I discovered Martin Shaw’s portrayal of the title role in Judge John Deed, a series that preceded George Gently, that I realized just how fine an actor Shaw is. Here was a more complex character in more complex situations. Can we like a man who, despite his good causes and stubborn adherence to personal ethics, occasionally violates them to do good as he sees it? He is someone who possesses incredible strength of character, but falls short at critical moments. He has a lofty mind, but venal moments. He is someone the viewer, this one at least, can love and respect all the while seeing the glaring imperfections. Credit has to go to the writers and directors, but it is Shaw who, like that impossible member of your family, makes you care even if you don’t want to. And he makes accomplishing this difficult acting feat look effortless. You do not see him act.
I would also add that in Judge John Deed, there has been controversy. We are told that the episodes have taken many liberties with how the British Court system actually works. And there is certainly a point of view about social issues that come through. I have to admit that part of my enchantment with the series is that the points of view are usually very close to my own.
But there are two points I'm trying to make, I guess. One is that the actor (or actress) still makes a huge difference. And Martin Shaw is equal to any of the fine, sirs and dames Great Britain has produced. If you haven’t added Judge John Deed or George Gently to your viewing list, you might want to.
CAPTION: English actor Martin Shaw