<div style="display:inline;"> <img height="1" width="1" style="border-style:none;" alt="" src="//googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/viewthroughconversion/1028731116/?value=0&amp;guid=ON&amp;script=0">
6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Devon Life today click here

How a donkey brought Midsomer Murders star John Nettles to a new life in Devon

PUBLISHED: 14:50 20 November 2014

John Nettles with Hector the donkey

John Nettles with Hector the donkey

Matt Austin Images 2013

Bergerac and Midsomer Murders star John Nettles welcomes CATHERINE COURTENAY to his home near Holsworthy

Actor John Nettles pictured at his home in Devon Actor John Nettles pictured at his home in Devon

A donkey named Hector wasn’t the only reason which prompted a move to Devon for actor John Nettles - but he was the noisiest.

“Hector’s a delightful little fellow, a rescue donkey from Galway. We’d put him in the garden of our rather posh house near Stratford, but he made a lot of noise and our neighbours, quite rightly, weren’t happy.”

John is recounting how he, his wife Cathy, and Hector, “who could stand on Drake’s Island and do service as a foghorn”, ended up living in a small village near Holsworthy.

Hector aside, he admits other factors were involved in their move from Warwickshire - one of them being his official “retirement”.

JohnNettles-MattAustin-6 JohnNettles-MattAustin-6

The 71-year-old star of the Midsomer Murders TV detective drama attracted a fair amount of media coverage when he decided to quit the programme after 17 seasons and 81 episodes. Indeed, he’s become so associated with the role of DI Tom Barnaby, the amiable detective who lives with his wife and daughter in the picture perfect but murder-filled English village setting of Midsomer, it must have been quite a surprise for locals to find him handing out glasses of Pimm’s and selling £1 bags of fish food (his farmhouse home came with a large pond), at a fundraising open gardens event.

Rather like his TV alter ego, John Nettles seems fully immersed in rural village life - with its fetes, shows and traditions - but thankfully there are no bodies.

“I couldn’t help but respond to the people round about here - and they’re so talented too,” he says. “And I don’t really see the point of being a hermit.” But he adds: “A certain something does happen to you when you’re on TV. People tend to think they own you, you become part of their lives and this tends to generate a defensive attitude to your own privacy. I can understand that, but I’m not that way inclined. Besides, I’ve played user-friendly characters, so people tend to have a positive response to me.”

Rural North Devon isn’t too far away from his Cornish roots. A foster child, he grew up in St Austell, the clay mines and hard working but poor community etched forever in his memory. A trip to Plymouth was a treat and school holidays were often spent on Dartmoor.

A teacher first kindled his love of the theatre but he initially went to Southampton University to study history and philosophy. “Why did you decide to become an actor?” I ask. “It was a way of showing off,” he replies, as if it’s obvious.

He’s since appeared on almost every stage in the country, including work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of his first jobs was in rep at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre and as he recalls a joke played during a production of Hamlet - involving Derek Fowlds, a gravedigger and a Basil Brush puppet - he starts to laugh, a big, loud, infectious laugh. It’s not the first time John roars with laughter during the interview. Quick-witted, observant and with enough stories to fill several autobiographies, he’s hugely entertaining.Suddenly he’s slipped into an impersonation of Les Dawson. Sounding uncannily like the great comedian, and complete with regional accents, John repeats some words of advice Dawson gave about telling jokes in Manchester, Birmingham and Plymouth. No quick one-liners in Devon: “They go for the long, narrative stories that’ll go on for at least two pints.”

His years spent living on Jersey may also have appealed to his innate love of community life. The island became his home when he took on the hugely successful role of Jim Bergerac, the heart-throb TV detective solving crimes throughout the 1980s, and it’s still home to his daughter Emma and her family. John says he left theatre having been “seduced by the siren song of TV”, but goes on to say: “I had great fun for ten years - sun, sea and sand - it was like being asked to sit down in front of ten tons of excellent chocolate!” He still holds a strong attachment to the island; he’s written books about its wartime history and is an avid collector of paintings by Jersey artist Edward Blampied. “It’s a very small community, but it felt like a family. The locals were just wonderful - eccentric, saintly, rough and cultured - they’re a good lot, and they were very good to me.”

He reveals a somewhat surprising inner melancholy when asked why he didn’t stay there. He talks of actors who’d stayed, of “too many personal tragedies”.

“There’s just no work for an actor there,” he says. Did that matter? He was 50 at the time, couldn’t he just retire from the screen, pursue his interest in writing and history? “Once you come across the classical texts and drama, ‘the greats’, you don’t ever want to leave them, you want to get back into their company. It’s like going home.”

So when Bergerac finished he did indeed ‘go home’ to return to the stage, once again with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He seems at his happiest when talking about Shakespeare’s plays and the great actors who performed in them, “The kings” as he calls them.

As he sits there, pondering the mysteries and majesty of these texts, delving into questions that have plagued and intrigued generations of actors, I can’t help but feel a slight sadness when he says he’s retired from the stage. Drawing on his love of history, he recently researched and wrote a programme on Devon and the First World War which was broadcast on BBC Radio Devon this summer, so there are still projects in the pipeline - despite the ‘retirement’.

And of course there are the animals. Hector has since been joined by Achilles, and John has become a patron of The Mare and Foal Sanctuary in Newton Abbot, so there are already six horses to accompany the dog, two cats, geese and half a dozen hens.

As we walk back to my car, John surveys the outhouse wall he’d been painting earlier.

It’s been raining, and for a moment I see DI Barnaby quietly despairing at the vagaries of the weather and his own DIY ineptitude, but the moment passes and John Nettles is back - laughing as he recounts another tale of local Devon life.

1 comment

  • John Nettles, a great Actor and now very much missed now that he retired, wish him a long healthy happy retirement.

    Report this comment

    Frank Weatherall

    Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

More from People

Yesterday, 12:03

A very familiar face from our television screens is coming to the county soon in a completely different guise to his acting work

Read more
Friday, March 9, 2018

Devon has produced some of the world’s best talent when it comes to film, music, sport, TV or pretty much any other field you can think of. Here are 18 celebrities that have shaped popular culture in their own unique way

Read more
Thursday, March 8, 2018

From nurses to TV stars, chefs to campaigners and runners to cider makers, Devon’s women are some of the most inspirational people you’ll meet in day-to-day life. We celebrate 12 who’ve made a mark on our county’s cultural and social landscape

Read more
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A unique steamship is being restored at Bideford for a new educational role, writes Owen Jones

Read more
Friday, March 2, 2018

Rural communities throughout the UK could be eligible to receive funding via the Calor Rural Community Fund from energy provider Calor

Read more
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Photographer Lee Pengelly urges everyone to get out onto our moors at night and looks upwards with their camera

Read more
Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Branscombe residents have seen it all over the years: smugglers, ghosts and one of the most extraordinary shipwrecks the world has ever seen. Chrissy Harris meets a woman helping to preserve the history of this fascinating village…

Read more
Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The South West Coast Path has led to romance for many couples. Now Becky Millington wonders, will she be next?

Read more
Thursday, February 8, 2018

We reveal the finalists of this year’s Devon Life Landscape Artist of the Year. All finalists will now display their work at Mayne Gallery in March with the winner revealed on opening night

Read more
Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A new fashion exhibition at a landmark Devon National Trust property will give a timely insight into the links between fashion and suffrage

Read more
Monday, February 5, 2018

A century after the Representation of the People Act was passed, author Tracey Glasspool reveals how the campaign for women’s suffrage had been bitterly contested in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

They get to pose the difficult questions and put interviewees on the spot every day in ITV’s regional news programme, Westcountry News, but especially for Devon Life Kate Haskell turns the tables and gets the lowdown on presenters Ian Axton and Kylie Pentelow

Read more
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Recently we covered 13 celebrities you never knew were from Devon, because Devon is home to so many famous faces here are eight more that we missed…

Read more
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Founder member of Police Dog Hogan, James Studholme, tells Judy Spiers the story of how the country band got their most distinctive moniker

Read more
A+ South & South West
Great British Holidays advert link
Pure Weddings advert link
South West Life advert link

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Devon's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area

Property Search