John Nettles lends his voice to a new show exploring his home county of Cornwall
PUBLISHED: 15:03 22 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:11 22 June 2020
TV’s favourite detective returns to his home county of Cornwall in a new show exploring the traditional side of life in the UK’s favourite holiday destination
More often associated with the Channel Islands and the fictitious town of Midsomer, actor John Nettles hails from Cornwall where he first tread the boards at the famous Minack Theatre.
Brought up in St Austell, where he attended St Austell Grammar Schook before heading off to University of Southampton, John has returned to lend his distinctive voice to the second series of the hit Channel 4 show Cornwall and Devon which explores the people of Cornwall (and Devon) and their ties to the landscape.
The appeal of the show? “It’s about Cornwall and Devon,” says John who now lives on the border of Cornwall and Devon. “The South West generally is a wonderful place to live. The programme explores the lives, the ambitions, hopes and dreams of many, many people down in Cornwall and Devon – just absolutely splendid. I thought it was a terrific programme and shot beautifully and the stories they found to tell are of great interest and very moving.”
“Cornwall has changed its nature so much over my lifetime certainly,” says John. “When I was a kid you had 24-hour drives lorries used to roar down to Fowey and Par every hour of the day and night and everywhere was dressed in white dust. The clay slurry used to drain into St Austell Bay and it used to turn the water a beautiful turquoise blue and the visitors used to say ‘ooo, look at that isn’t that lovely it it’s the most beautiful blue sea we’ve ever seen’ and of course it was clay slurry mixing with the sea.”
The show brought back memories for John, who recognised many of the families featured in the show and which featured Cornwall’s unique Minack Theatre. “I remember one of the first shows I was ever in as an actor was down at the MInack Theatre when Rowena Cave who built that theatre herself was down there - that was a beautiful trip down memory lane for me.”
The show aimed to introduce people to the Cornish and Devon communities that still exist but for many of the visitors, are unknown. “In a world full of insecurities, there’s something reassuring about people who do feel confident and comfortable in their own world,” says the show’s producer Andrew Sheldon. “For us it was about trying to find people and let them explain their own lives and what they liked about their lives.”
John has seen many attempts to regenerate his corner of China clay country over his lifetime including a plan to turn the largest gravel pit, Blackpool Pit, into a leisure lake for watersports. “It’s a long, long way from when I was a kid the flooded pits were used by hooligans and layabouts of St Austell, myself included, to try and float across it on the tops of cars and things like that.
“Every square foot of the place holds a dear memory for me and all the places when I go down there they remind me of people I knew now gone and that I loved and so on, so it’s a sweetly melancholic visitation,” explains John of St Austell and its surrounding area.
John remains supportive of Cornwall’s arts community – he is president of the Duchy Opera Company. “When they open their months there is not the slightest doubt that they Cornish.”
John’s voice is instantly familiar – but you’d be hard pressed to hear his Cornish roots. “When I first started, having a Cornish accent was a definite bar to getting any work. If you spoke with a South West accent generally speaking you were regarded for whatever ridiculous reason for being thick or being a yokel not being important play a servant or a farm boy but you couldn’t play a duke or a lord or anything like that. And so it was incumbent on the actor to find a way to speak RP. I’ve largely lost my Cornish accent apart from the occasional Arrr.”
John garnered his fair share of lifelong fans as the eponymous detective in Bergerac and as Inspector Tom Barnaby, the first copper in Midsomer Murders. But his career has encompassed the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre as well as plenty of memorable TV cameo roles throughout his 50-year career which began in 1969 in repertory at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. More recently he earned new fans in the last series of BBC’s Poldark – playing gruff landowner Ray Penvenen - who prefers cows to people.
“I took the part in Poldark because I thought I could get out of bed from where I live and be on the set in half an hour, because I assumed thy filmed in Cornwall,” he says. “I can get down to Charlestown on a boat, say a few words – easy money that. But no, they film thousands of miles to the north up beyond Bristol - it was a terrible journey! But the actual shooting was a great, great pleasure; the cast were lovely to a man to a girl, they were smashing people.”
“It’s almost therapeutic to be there,” says Andrew of the South West. “To a man and woman, everybody has been very positive, very genuine, with a real sense of identity and where they are from and quite proud to be from that place. So much of what we’ve done in the series is based around communities whether wild water swimming event or whether it’s a fish festival, they are based around community. People are quite proud of being from there and don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Producer Andrew adds: “The sorts of stories that we picked up on there were a different set of values to those you find in more urban areas, that time is a different concept, weather actually do makes a difference to life and the seasons still make a difference to life.
“The traditions, the values are slightly different. There is a kind of slower approach to a lot of life than in the wider world these days.
“Cornwall and Devon are genuinely lovely places to film because you do turn every corner, every hedge, every time you climb a hill or every time you walk to a beach you see beautiful scenery pretty much most of the time.”
Devon and Cornwall runs on Channel 4 Monday nights at 8pm.