John Nettles: Fatal attraction

PUBLISHED: 16:06 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

John Nettles

John Nettles

Viewers of Midsomer Murders can't fail to recognise some of the village scenes. Here John Nettles speaks to Pat Bramley about why Buckinghamshire is the perfect location

THE directions to the lane leading to a church where the latest episode of Midsomer Murders is being filmed finish up with the warning 'Remember the area is quite dangerous'.
Dangerous? Deadly would be more accurate. In more than 11 series and almost 70 episodes since the first show went out on ITV 12 years ago, 209 characters have come to a sticky end ahead of their time in the seemingly idyllic villages of mythical Midsomer county.
The greatest mystery of all is why there are any inhabitants left to prune the roses and bake cakes for the village fete, given the perilously high death toll.
Fortunately Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby is on excellent form during the lunch break at the 18th century pub 100 yards from the cottage where they have been filming. This being Friday the star of the show will be heading home to Warwickshire when he finishes work.
During the week John Nettles lives in what used to be the servants' quarters of a large country house near Latimer. At weekends he goes home to the converted barn near Stratford-upon-Avon he shares with his second wife Cathy, their Welsh collie Greta and The Spice Girls. He explains, 'The dog is the joy of our lives but more important we now have five chickens called The Spice Girls. The missus thought I should take up smallholding. On days off from Midsomer Murders and digging up bodies I can go and collect eggs.'
Most of the action for the series which regularly attracts viewing figures of around 6.7 million is shot on location in photogenic villages and market towns in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
Producer Brian True-May and his wife Maureen, the location manager for the series, live in The Lee. That's why places on their doorstep like Old Amersham, Beaconsfield, Great and Little Missenden, Haddenham, Hambleden, and Long Crendon turn up on screen as Midsomer Magna, Midsomer Mallow, Midsomer Worthy and the rest. Places which have a village green, where the traffic can be cut off and where they have retained the English country atmosphere endemic to the series.
John says choosing these counties for the locations also has a lot to do with the budget. 'It's partly economy. It's partly to do with money, you have to pay overnights if you take a film unit further afield. I suggested making it in Warwickshire where I live. I love the idea of falling out of bed in the morning and being on the set but the producer pointed out that Dangerfield was shot in Warwickshire. Everybody knows about Warwickshire since Dangerfield. They didn't know so much about Buckinghamshire.'
The actor's favourite locations in the county are Denham Village, Chenies and The Lee. The church he loves best is at Bledlow 'because of its architecture and simplicity'.
'One has to say,' he adds, 'the people who welcome us into their houses and their pubs to film are almost universally kind and accommodating.
'I'd just left my digs down in Latimer this morning and a film unit for Silent Witness was rolling up - just what you need, isn't it?' he jokes. 'There was a wonderful time last year. They were shooting Poirot just up the road at Chenies. An episode of Rosemary & Thyme was being shot outside a pub quite close to Chenies and we were shooting down the road in Sarratt.
We could certainly swap casts.'
Has he bumped into Morse's sidekick Lewis yet? 'Not yet, I'm dying to meet the great man. I'm a great fan of Kevin Whately. I'd love to have him as a guest on this show.' If Lewis ventured into Midsomer, might he finish up with a hatpin stuck in his ear - John's favourite method of despatch? 'No,' he laughs, 'I don't mind the opposition.'
For cast members 'of a certain age who like their creature comforts' filming outside in winter is a challenge. Tim Pigott-Smith, who says he greatly enjoys being a guest star in Midsomer Murders because John and the rest of the regular cast always make visitors so welcome, remembers being chilled to the bone during a sequence when his character was engulfed in frozen mud.
John agrees. 'When we started filming the show in 1996,' he recalls, 'the sun always shone. They were the halcyon days. Now we shoot all year round. They originally made four episodes in a series, now they make seven and each episode takes five weeks to shoot.
'I like tense scenes behind desks,' he admits. 'Falling over on the field of battle in deep mud is not my idea of a fun day out. I've been meaning to complain to my producer about this - Midsomer Murders is filmed half the time in deep, deep winter.
'When the temperature drops to minus five in the middle of the night somewhere up Turville way, one fears for the life of these wonderful character actresses.'
No matter how cold the weather, visiting stars never moan. 'One actress - she was knocking 87 at the time - she was so cold we had to wrap her in tinfoil. She never complained.'
John grew up in St Austell, the adopted son of a miner. He got his first break in the theatre after he was spotted by an agent in a drama society play while he was studying philosophy and history at Southampton University. That led to a part in a Royal Court production in 1962 but it was Bergerac, the cop series in which he starred before Midsomer Murders, that really made his name.
Eileen Atkins, he says, would be his ideal as a guest star on Midsomer Murders. 'She's just so good. She is wonderful. One of the great things about our market place now is that actresses and actors of great quality are making themselves available for shows like this. It's the greatest pleasure I have in working on Midsomer Murders - and there are many pleasures -
to work with actors who are the very first rank.
'We had Donald Sinden and George Cole in the same episode. That's acting heaven. They come from opposite ends of the acting spectrum so to speak in terms of their stylistic approach. They first worked together in 1956. Donald is I think 82 and George is 84. They were like a couple of kids. They were witty, wise, clever - a joy.'
John himself is 65, a grandfather twice over and well past retiring age for the police, but he still gets lots of fun out of playing Barnaby even though they're not far off completing the 12th series and the schedule for the 13th is being drawn up.
'I don't think anyone takes the deaths in our show seriously,' says the detective chief inspector who has remarkably held on to his job despite 188 murders, 11 accidental deaths and ten suicides on his patch. And the viewers aren't put off by the gruesome story lines, he says. 'They don't take the murders seriously. It's not in-your-face violence. It's a gentle series. The murders are sanitised. We're trying to think of new ways to bump people off.'
Does he have any plans to give up the role? 'No,' he scoffs, 'I've got a wife, a dog and five chickens to support.'

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