Martin Shaw is one of Britain’s finest actors. He talks to Viva! founder Juliet Gellatley about being vegetarian, changing public and government apathy and why Big Brother should be booted off our screens
Martin Shaw has theatre, TV, film, radio and narration credits spanning over 40 years. He has played the lead in many prime-time TV dramas including Chief Constable Alan Cade in The Chief, Cecil Rhodes in Rhodes), Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Robert Kingsford in A&E. In the 1980s, Martin spent most of his working time in the theatre. His roles include Elvis Presley in the critically-acclaimed Are You Lonesome Tonight?. He will forever be remembered as Doyle in The Professionals, a character worlds apart from his true self, which catapulted him to major stardom in the seventies. But he is better suited to the more compassionate, thinking and gentler title role he played in BBC 1’s Judge John Deed which has run for six series (so far) between 2001 and 2007. Last year he played the title role of George Gently in a new detective drama set in sixties Britain for BBC1, its success means he is filming again for it this year. He lives in Norfolk and has three grown up children, all actors and vegetarian since birth. Martin is a Viva! patron.
I first met Martin Shaw on the set of Judge John Deed in 2002. The first thing that struck me was his voice. Charming and masculine. A voice you want to listen to. He seemed to me to perfectly fit the title role as a compassionate, intelligent English gentleman with a strong sense of morality complicated by an under current of fun and mischief. Tony Wardle and I were interviewing him for Viva!’s film Not in my Name, a fast moving expose of factory farming which features many well known personalities prepared to make a stand against it. Six years later with groups using it across the world, what did he think of it?
“It’s an important film and I was honoured to play a part in it. I’ve long believed that if people saw the misery, degradation and torture that they were party to by eating factory farmed meat, I don’t think most would want to carry on because I do believe that, innately, human beings are good. Factory farming is a cruelty that no compassionate society should tolerate and I support Viva!’s campaign to end it.”
Martin has been vegetarian for 37 years. He is 63 but has the energy (and physique I noticed!) of someone far younger. Does he put this down to his diet and does he enjoy being veggie? He laughs:
“Being vegetarian is central to my life. I certainly do seem to be fitter, stronger and healthier than many people around me! It really helps me cope with my hectic schedule. When you become vegetarian it actually broadens your horizon rather than limits it, as it encourages you to try lots of new foods that you’ve probably never even heard of before!
“On an ideal day I'll eat fruit for breakfast, then a light and simple lunch - perhaps a salad, oatcakes, humous and sun-dried tomatoes - and something more exotic for supper, such as brown rice with roasted vegetables and coconut milk. I know I sound like an advert for a health food shop, but it's just the way my body has evolved. I don't always eat squeaky clean health food though!”
“I’m a keen cook and when friends come round it’s nice to dazzle them with impressive vegetarian fare. They don’t even notice that there’s no meat. That’s how I like to convince people to give vegetarianism a try - if you can win over their mouths and stomachs, then their heads are easier to persuade.”
Martin became vegetarian after a series of intense discussions with a friend. “I came to the conclusion that if I can live well and be healthy without killing, my only justification for doing so would be for taste, and I'm not prepared to kill and cause suffering because of my palate - my palate is irrelevant. Having said that I love vegetarian food!”
Almost vegan (avoiding cows’ milk and eggs), one of Martin’s bugbears is that many restaurants (and the UK’s top health spa where he has just stayed) offers eggs and some even fish as a veggie choice. The issue of eggs particularly rattles him – why?
“Well, because they aren’t vegetarian! It’s a chicken’s period – or a foetus! How in any way, shape or form can it be considered vegetarian?
“Also most UK eggs still come from the battery cage and what they’re replacing it with, the ‘enrichment cage’ is still a concentration camp. It’s grotesquely cruel. I used to have chickens here at home just to share the space with in the garden. They are far, far more intelligent than people think and if you see them wandering around three acres, just doing what they would in the wild, it’s beautiful to watch. When you come out with a bucket of corn to feed them, they’re like little old ladies tucking up their skirts and they all run at you. I think they are absolutely wonderful animals, very, very funny. I think caging birds for eggs is one of the cruellest things.”
When he replies it is with precision. He delivers his words in a measured way without obvious emotion. 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. For Martin how we treat animals is inextricably linked to how we treat each other. He is utterly convincing.
“I think a whole raft of our problems as human beings 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 cruelty and degradation to animals – you won’t allow it or tolerate it elsewhere in society.”
If that isn’t enough of a reason to go veggie, then saving the environment makes it imperative.
“Yes, people are waking up to the fact that we have a serious environmental problem. To be green then really you must be vegetarian, preferably vegan. I mean it’s very good to drive smaller cars and to reduce your carbon footprint as much as you can but the most obvious thing you can do as an individual is to change the way you eat. The planet can’t affords us not to.”
We talk about overfishing and how three-quarters of the world’s oceans are on the point of ecological collapse and yet there is incredible inaction by government; they bang on about quotas rather than state the screamingly obvious: ‘look it’s time to stop eating fish’. Martin is a political and spiritual animal and talks eloquently on the tragedy of short term consumerist policies.
“All governments go for the short term solution because their concern is not to actually do something, it’s to be re-elected. They won’t do anything radical as they’re afraid it will be unpopular. It’s only when the public gets motivated and says ‘save the world’ and mean it that governments will start to change. Look at the change in the American attitude to the environment and global warming. One minute the administration simply denied it was happening, and then suddenly overnight there was a turnaround because they realised that it could be a serious electoral issue for them.
“Now we can see our present government in a panic saying they will look again at the 10p tax rate, they will look again at the bin tax and the fuel tax, if all this was possible to do in the first place why didn’t they do it then? It’s only when the public say they want things to change that things will change. It’s really down to us to save the planet because governments won’t do it for us. Their priority is to look after the big corporations.”
The planet is practically on its knees. I ask Martin what I’m asked all the time. “Do you think that global public opinion is going to change in time. Will we demand action and take individual and collective responsibility?” He responds:
“Public opinion will change but whether it’s on time… none of us know the answer. We just have to pray that it does, but in the meantime the most important thing that anybody can do is to transform themselves. I think campaigns are important and I think information is vital but really the most radical changes come from people copying other people. We are all responsible for the mess and we all need to take action.”
I wondered what responsibility Martin thinks television has in the public’s general apathy.
“If we’re just given chewing gum for the eyes, if we’re given pap and aren’t allowed to think and if executives continue to dumb down programmes in order to gain more viewers then of course the population will stop thinking. They’ll be anaesthetised and if you’re anaesthetised you will be apathetic!”
Is that what he thinks is happening?
“Yes I do! Absolutely, but there are people fighting it and I shall continue to try and find that fight. At the moment the BBC are doing some extremely good work but there are still elements within it that are trying to make things simpler and easier for people - and it’s the death of civilization. Again it’s the same thing it’s short term, let’s get the viewing figures in the short term without looking at the big picture. And the big picture is like a muscle – use it or lose it! We have to use our minds, think and make choices - and sometimes we have to watch things that are difficult to understand or provocative rather than a lot of the pap that’s on the screen now.”
Sadly Viva! and all pressure groups are finding it hard to get campaigning images on mainstream TV unless they have an ‘A’ list celebrity on board. Martin has strong feelings on this – reflected in the fact that he gives very few interviews and does not play the celebrity game.
“I absolutely detest the celebrity culture and the whole concept of ‘celebrity’, it’s grotesque but I think that’s changing. I do think that light is stronger than darkness and the light will always penetrate; and we do have to try and be hopeful and take a positive view of things whilst still doing our best to change things. I mean, Big Brother is getting much smaller audiences now and the reality programmes are starting to struggle.”
Martin played the lead role in Judge John Deed for all its six series on prime time BBC 1. It was written and produced by BAFTA award-winning writer GF Newman, who also happens to be a Viva! supporter and vegetarian, as is co-star Jenny Seagrove.
"I’ve never had so many letters for a single programme in the 40 years I’ve worked in television," reveals Martin. "They all say the same thing, ‘thank God for quality television, and for programmes which treat their audiences as adults.’ Audiences don’t want to be babied, and Judge John Deed has something social and important to say."
Why don’t more dramas tackle important issues and raise awareness?
“The public should tell executives that’s what they want because the executives believe that the public don’t want it – they take the line of least resistance, the easy way out. If we were to screen public executions or wall to wall pornography then they’d get record viewing figures. It’s easy to get record viewing figures all you have to do is to put things on that are distasteful and horrible so they have to realise their responsibility to the public and I don’t mean strict censorship as I don’t like strict censorship any more than I like the stupidity. People have got to think for themselves.”
And does Martin feel that there is a feeling of individual and collective responsibility growing in the UK?
“I think it’s growing but very slowly and it’s a sort of a paternalistic issue isn’t it? If you come from a home where the parents are drunk and violent then the children are going to be damaged by that. If you come from household where the parents tell lies then you’re going to have children who don’t trust, well it’s the same with all our politics. We know that they are as untrustworthy and mendacious by and large as are our journalists. The problem is it’s so widespread that the public thinks ‘oh well, that’s just how politics is’ and accepts it. Then with young people it’s as if they think well, why should I behave well when the state behaves badly – why should I have integrity when there’s no integrity above me? And as above, so below is the rule.
“That makes it even more vital that Viva! continues to set an example for us all. Going vegetarian is central to saving animals, stopping the misery and torture that farm animals endure. It’s also essential to saving the world. Viva! articulates the hopes and the aims of people who are conscious and want things to change - and really this is the voice of kindness and compassion and somebody needs to do it.”