By Juliet Gellatley
As you enter the Bushey production office of the TV drama Judge John Deed, you’re left in no doubt about the ethos which underlies it. “Please note – all the catering on this production is vegetarian.”
Starring in the title role is Martin Shaw, co-star is Jenny Seagrove and the writer is G F Newman – all committed veggies. And the plots and sub-plots weave their way through issues such as vegetarianism, vivisection and animal cruelty. This is one of the most cerebral TV dramas for many years and it is all the more entertaining for it.
In an age when celebrity is all and the third world war would probably be cancelled if Posh or Becks could not put in an appearance at its declaration, it comes as something of a shock to realise that Martin Shaw avoids publicity like the plague. Although he and his beautiful TV presenter wife Vicky Kimm have the looks and charm that could keep them on the front cover of OK! or Hello magazines, they don’t even appear in the classifieds. There are clearly far too many important issues in their life for them to waste time on this trivia – like flying an old bi-plane, for instance. The fact that they live in the sticks – in Norfolk – places them way outside the London celebrity circuit.
Judge John Deed is filmed on the rambling acres of a massive, disused Victorian school near Watford, part of which also now forms the International University. In exterior shots, careful camera angles hide the fact that there is virtually no traffic on screen other than the vehicles directly involved in the story. That’s because there aren’t any! Once you know this, you can’t help noticing!
Judge Deed is played as a thinking man drawn from an ordinary background who, far from keeping his distance from the cases he tries, gets intimately involved in them. He’s not averse to bending the rules a bit if it aids the cause of justice and he’s kept firmly rooted in the real world by a daughter who homes rescued beagles and flirts with the slightly lawless side of life. Oh, and John Deed is a terrible womaniser.
When you meet Martin Shaw, it’s at first difficult to disentangle the actor from the character – apart from the womanising bit, of course. We first interviewed him for our anti-factory farming video Not in my Name during a break in filming.
When he stood there in judge Deed’s trademark collarless shirt and braces, it at first sounded for all the word as though it was the judge who was taking the interview. Like his character, Martin never speaks in rehearsed phrases, even though he must have been asked some questions many times over, but weighs each response carefully.
When he replies it is with precision, as though this is the first time he has considered the proposition. He delivers his words in a measured way, speaking gently and without obvious emotion as though it is essential not to use a single word in the wrong place or give it the wrong emphasis so that it fails to communicate precisely what he feels. The outcome is that when Martin Shaw reaches a conclusion it has the ring of absolute truth about it and only a fool would disagree with him. He possesses an innate sense of power, perhaps drawn from deep and painful experience. If he hasn’t personally partaken in all the world’s suffering, he certainly feels it and empathises with it.
And of course, he has had some direct physical suffering of his own. In 1969, enjoying a good night out, he was attacked by drunken muggers who beat him so badly that they completely smashed his right cheek bone. Reconstructive surgery included the insertion of a plastic plate and the whole experience caused him to give up alcohol entirely. Smoking wasn’t elbowed until 1979, a few years after he became veggie. It was factory farming that brought about that change.
“I had a mixture of feelings when I first discovered what went on in those places. First of all there was rage that animals could be subjected to such suffering. It was followed by a sense of guilt that I had tacitly tolerated it for so long. Finally there was a sense of relief that I didn’t have to be involved with it at all – all I needed to do was stop eating meat.”
Of all the many horrible images of factory farming that jostle each other for attention, I wondered which one in particular stays with him, a reminder of why he has excluded meat from his diet. When Martin answers he is, as always, careful not to reach for the polemical and tries to defuse in advance the outrage his response might cause in some people:
“My answer is not only controversial but it might be offensive and for this I apologise but it puts me in mind of Belsen and Auschwitz. I’m not making value judgements about the difference or similarity between human and animal life but my sense of outrage and disbelief that we can allow this to happen is very similar.”
Both barrels of his rhetorical shotgun discharged and we’re only at the beginning. There’s more to come.
“What this says about us as a society is that we have a way of diverting our minds from things which are going to give us profound discomfort, probably in a very similar way to those people who lived near concentration camps. They chose to ignore what was happening until they were forcibly marched in and made to see it for themselves. Our society does the same thing with factory farming. If before they ate meat, people were taken to a factory farm and saw the misery, degradation and torture that they were party to, I don’t think most would want to carry on because I do believe that, innately, human beings are good.”
A devastating critique delivered with the gentleness and consideration of a sensitive man who cares about the abuser as well as the abused. Whether he realises it or not, Martin is able to play good cop and bad cop all in the same sentence and it is that which makes his words so powerful, so persuasive and utterly reasonable. As a public advocate for a more compassionate world, I cannot imagine anyone being listened to more intently or being more successful in changing hearts and minds. None so deaf as those that don’t want to hear, goes the old expression – except when Martin Shaw is speaking. I give you due warning, Martin, it is our intention to get you to speak at a Viva! rally one day!
He is a Brummie, born in 1945, who won a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and it seems that he has not stopped work since then. His list of credits is almost endless and includes great classic roles as well as a string of films, tele dramas and series. Men of a certain age go all peculiar and green with envy at the reminder that he appeared as Purdey’s ex-fiancé in The New Avengers. Purdey, of course, was played by another great veggie – and also an interviewee in our video – the fantastic Joanna Lumley.
So, hands up anyone who can remember the character Martin played in Coronation Street in 1967? If the words hippie, headband and student haven’t given it away then I’ll tell you – Bobby Croft! Bobby who?
Anonymous he wasn’t in the TV drama with which people still associate him and which took him to international stardom. It will probably hang around his neck like an albatross until the day he retires. He was, of course, the lavishly-curly-headed Ray Doyle in The Professionals, acting alongside Lewis Collins and Gordon Jackson. I didn’t talk to him about the role but it has often been reported that he viewed the character Doyle as little more than a violent puppet – and Martin Shaw does not believe in violence.
“For me it us utter conviction that by turning a blind eye and tolerating violence in one area – such as factory farming – it makes us susceptible and likely to tolerate violence in other areas, in all areas. Someone who is upset and hurt by seeing cruelty to animals would find it impossible to tolerate cruelty to people.”
Although he doesn’t spell it out, it is clear that Martin believes that the corollary is also true – people who tolerate cruelty to animals are also capable of tolerating cruelty to humans.
“I think a whole raft of our problems as human beings on this planet would be solved by being sensitive to the plight of other creatures. To me it is as clear as the fact that night follows day – if you care about animals and are kind to animals, if you don’t tolerate degradation and cruelty to animals, you won’t allow it or tolerate it elsewhere.”
It’s ironic that anyone who attends a rally or demonstration against animal cruelty will inevitably be stung by the barb from some angry, red-faced bystander: ‘What are you doing for people.’ The answer should be, ‘Plenty’.
So secretive and so locked behind closed doors is the majority of today’s animal farming that most people who oppose it have only ever seen examples on video, such as the exposes Viva! produces. Quite by chance, Martin came into contact with free-range duck farming a few years ago but the conditions he witnessed were so appalling that they might just as well have been factory farmed.
“I had a ‘phone call from Vicky to say a distressed duckling was running around in the road and would I come and help her catch it. It had escaped from a field where there were several acres of filthy, grey ducks. They should have been white but they had no water in which to clean themselves and no shade from the sun. Some were incapable of standing.”
Martin and Vicky took the bewildered little duckling and an ailing adult bird home with them after the farmer said they were going to die anyway so it didn’t matter to him.
“It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen. We put them in a paddling pool to see what would happen and they were ecstatic – I mean truly, literally ecstatic.
They went round and around like little motor boats. We have a pond in our garden and when we put the adult bird on this deeper water, she immediately sank. She couldn’t walk or stand and hadn’t been able to preen properly so subsequently had no oil on her feathers. Yet still she was ecstatic and swam with only her head above the water. I had to get in the water to rescue her.
“After that I spent about an hour a day helping her to swim, supporting her from underneath, wrapping her in a towel when she had finished. As I dried her she would immediately start to preen.
“When, because of work, I no longer had the time to continue with the regime, the wonderful people at Hillside Animal Sanctuary (Martin and Vicky are patrons) took on both ducks. They now have their own pond, can walk perfectly and are absolutely fine.”
No surprise, then, that vegetarianism is absolutely central to Martin’s life and has been for more than 30 years.
“It’s so second nature to me that I don’t think about it. But there are times when I have to check what’s in food. For example, this is a vegetarian shoot and I have to ask if their are eggs in things because eggs are presumed to be vegetables by a lot of people.” And I’m sure he does it politely, firmly and without rancour.
It follows that Martin is not in favour of what he terms powerful direct action. He believes that if you imitate the problem – and in the context of animal abuse that problem is violence – then you simply add to it. And very generously, he speaks so warmly about Viva!’s work that I’m almost embarrassed.
“You are absolutely vital! People like me, however sympathetic and however vociferous, don’t have the time. We can do only the odd ten minutes here and there, the occasional evening, the odd function, letter or photograph and it can only have a minimal effect. What we need are people like you who are committed enough and brave enough and dedicated enough to give all your time because the only way you can change society is by changing yourself and getting the information out there.” Kind words indeed.
When you are aware that someone feels as passionately as Martin, it’s impossible not to identify the little bits of themselves they bring to the characters they play. I hear sentiments and phrases in Judge Deed’s words that are pure Martin Shaw, scenarios that I know he empathises with and an inherent set of beliefs that are not a million miles away from those of the actor. Maybe that’s why it felt like interviewing the judge, maybe that’s why he’s such a good judge, maybe Martin is the judge. One thing is certain, he is the antithesis of Ray Doyle and that has to be a good thing.