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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 DevonActor 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-6JohnNettles-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.

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