During a career that started in 1967 with Love on the Dole, actor Martin Shaw has become a familiar face to British television viewers through more than 100 onscreen roles in programmes including Coronation Street, Doctor in the House, The Last Place on Earth, Cassidy, Ladder of Swords, The Chief, Rhodes, Always and Everyone and, of course, the seminal Seventies detective show The Professionals.
For the past several years, Shaw has appeared regularly on screen as the eponymous lawman in the continuing TV series Judge John Deed.
Throughout his career, the actor has also appeared regularly on stage at the National, the Royal Court, Bristol Old Vic and in the West End. His first major stage role also came in 1967 when he starred in the first major revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which transferred from the Royal Court to the West End.
Shaw’s other West End credits have included Rough Justice, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Big Knife, Are You Lonesome Tonight?, The Duchess of Malfi, The Battle of Shrivings and An Ideal Husband, which subsequently transferred to Broadway where he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor.
Elsewhere, he’s appeared on stage in Vertigo, Sienna Red, Betrayal, Miss Julie, The Bacchae, Cancer, The Contractor, Julius Caesar, The Government Inspector, Celebration, Loot and Hobson’s Choice.
Shaw is now back in the West End starring as Sir Thomas More - the 16th-century scholar and statesman who was executed for his failure to publicly endorse King Henry VII’s decision to break from the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce and remarry – in A Man for All Seasons. Robert Bolt’s play was famously made into a 1966 film, starring Paul Scofield as More. Following a regional tour, Michael Rudman’s revival of the stage play transferred to the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it opened last week.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 January 1945 in Birmingham.
Lives now in
What made you want to become an actor?
What makes you choose chocolate over vanilla? Why this car versus that car? You make a choice. I don’t remember why I wanted to be an actor, I just wanted to.
First big break
I would think that would be the first revival of Look Back in Anger, which transferred from the Royal Court to the Criterion. That led to a new Peter Shaffer play called The Battle of Shrivings in 1967 with John Gielgud in the West End, which led to other things.
Career highlights to date
Roman Polanski’s film Macbeth. He was absolutely wonderful to work with. Playing Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband was very satisfying and it was wonderful to do it on Broadway. Also, The Country Girl in 1982. That was the start of my working partnership with Bill Kenwright (who is also the producer of A Man for All Seasons). It was a big hit for him and for us, and was the first of many productions that we’ve done together. I love working with Bill. He’s a mate and very generous.
All of them! Gielgud and Laurence Olivier – who I worked with at the National - stand out. They were very different characters, of course, but both wonderful. Olivier was just an extraordinary character to be around. He was a really lovely man, a great boss and a wonderful actor to watch. Gielgud was very, very sweet. I spent a year working with him because immediately after The Battle of Shrivings, we did a TV play (a production of Hamlet) together.
Lindsay Anderson, Peter Hall and an American called Edwin Sherin, who directed Claire Bloom and I in A Streetcar Named Desire – that was another highlight, by the way. Playing Stanley Kowalski was a bit of a challenge! A good director is someone in whom you have absolute confidence, someone who is able to teach you as well as direct. It’s not that common.
You work extensively on television. Why do you like to return to the stage?
It’s simply part of the job, part of the craft, it’s what one does. If you don’t do theatre, you’re only ever doing part of the job of an actor. In theatre, there’s a direct relationship between actor and audience, it is genuinely a shared experience. It’s not always a satisfying one, of course. If people could learn to be as restrained with their coughing in the theatre as they are at home, life would be a lot easier, not just for the actors but also for other theatregoers. And it’s different every time you do it.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Just realise how precious it is. The arts are absolutely vital for the emotional health of the British people as well as the financial health of London’s West End. We tend to be governed more and more by cultural pygmies. Having said that, it’s not as bad as it used to be. It was worse in Thatcher’s time.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Anything by Tom Stoppard. I’ve never done one of his plays and I’d love to. Also, as much Shakespeare as possible.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
A pilot probably.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d swap with the boss of Number Six Squadron at RAF Coltishall. That’s a guy named Willie Cruickshank, who happens to be a friend of mine.
All of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels (about seafaring in the Royal Navy).
Favourite holiday destination
Why did you want to accept the part of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons?
It’s a play that I’ve admired for a very long time. Like most people, I saw the film first and then saw the play. It’s just wonderful writing, very skilfully done. It manages to encompass both historical accuracy and an interesting story, but it’s also very witty – which is not expected in something that ends tragically. The film was one of the most perfect pieces of filmmaking. Paul Scofield’s performance was perfect, unmatchable. I did feel daunted by that initially, but after awhile, by some process of absorption, the role becomes your own.
What research did you do for the role? How would you describe Thomas More?
With a script as good as that, you don’t have to do much research, but I did anyway because I wanted to so I dipped in and out of various biographies. Still, the best research for a part is to study the script and know it inside out. More was called ‘a man for all seasons’ because he was able to be truly and entirely true to his Self (with a capital S) but also to be a great statesman. That’s what made him so valuable and so unique. But as we know, one can’t inhabit the world of politics and be entirely true to one’s self and, in the end, it cost More his life.
Why do you think now is a good time for A Man for All Seasons to be revived?
Any time is a good time, because it has a message for all time. Wars are always being fought, politicians are always not being straight with us. I suppose, now is also good because it hasn’t been done for a long time.
More was beheaded for his beliefs. Is there anything you believe in so strongly that you would make huge sacrifices to uphold it?
We never know until we are confronted with that kind of choice. At his trial when he was condemned, More said he had tried to avoid this fate. He was not a willing martyr, he did everything he could do to escape. But anyone, like More, who has identified who their true self is cannot be diverted from it, even if does mean huge sacrifices.
Following a regional tour, A Man for All Seasons opened at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket on 3 January 2006 (previews from 21 December 2005).