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John Nettles: My growing pains; I have never been able to talk about my grim childhood before..it's so upsetting, says John Nettles.

HE HAS a privileged lifestyle that millions will envy.

His love of expensive cars, fine wines and holidays overseas never goes untended.

But Bergerac actor John Nettles has a constant nagging worry - that the money will run out.

At 52, he is still haunted by his deprived childhood, terrified of the tax man and scared that the bailiffs will knock at his door.

He has a chronic fear of poverty inherited from his parents, which has had a devastating, life-long effect on him.

"I'm frightened of money - scared that I might end up without the stuff like my parents," he admits for the first time, tugging on a gold stud in his left ear.

He believes that his parents' constant money worries drove them to an early grave.

Now the twice-married actor - back on ITV as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby in a new series of The Midsomer Murders, which starts tonight - lives with second wife Cathryn in a huge converted barn in the Warwickshire countryside.

And he flies regularly to Jersey to visit his daughter Emma, 28, and her husband.

It's a far cry from the run-down council estate in St Austell, Cornwall, where his father Eric was a carpenter with his own little business and his mother Elsie cleaned hotels and mended stockings to bring in much- needed cash.

John is still haunted by memories of his parents' hardship as they struggled to keep the bailiffs from the door.

"To have money like I have now is difficult to get used to because I knew great poverty as a child," he says.

MY PARENTS were poor and my father went bankrupt for some ridiculous sum like pounds 600."

His father fell on hard times after building caravans and charging the customer less than they cost him to build.

"He was hopeless with money," sighs John.

The actor, who narrates the TV docusoap Airport, was about nine when his parents went bankrupt and he still remembers his mother's tears.

"It still pains me when I think about it, let alone talk about it - which is why I have never done so before now," he says, quietly.

"It affected her greatly, especially being the target of all the petty insults. It hurt her a lot. She tried to hide her tears but I saw them.

"She did everything she could to earn money. She waited on tables, that sort of thing, but it was never enough, and I think she knew that."

As a small boy John lived in fear of the bailiffs coming to take away the furniture.

"I tore up pieces of paper and wrote messages on them saying: `This furniture is the property of my uncle and aunt', so the bailiffs couldn't take them away," he recalls.

"My dad's decline really started from then. He did try to earn money for us - because, to him, money was the visible symbol of success.

"He was a skilled craftsman but, in times of calamity, he was forced to do other things. He'd take work on a building site, but he was really far too old and far too ill to do so. The money he earned was scarcely enough for us to live on."

Last year, the memories came flooding back when John returned to the town.

"I drove down to see all the terraces overlooking the sea where we used to live," he says. "But the lane was so small and narrow I couldn't get my car, a normal family saloon, down there."

John explains how he stood at the bottom of the lane and stared at the little house where the Nettles once lived.

"It all came back to me," he says. "I could see my parents as clearly as if I was a little boy again.

"Always, long before the bankruptcy, there was this nagging fear of poverty. The fearful atmosphere that that created in our home never went away.

"There was this incessant serious conversation about money, or the lack of it. My parents had been brought up in the shadow of the Great Depression. My mother's father had been out of work for 15 years.

"All that's going to make you bitter and twisted, and so my parents inherited a lot of that, which merely added to their own financial worries.

"My dad became solitary and increasingly bitter. Being a proud man, he nursed an overwhelming sense of failure. He felt he'd failed not only himself but his family.

"Okay, I might have gone without, but I'm sure nobody noticed. Some of my friends might have had better blazers than me, but it didn't really matter, not to me. But it mattered to my father. He had such pride that he used to dress up in a tie and polished shoes just to go to the darts group."

John drifted into acting while studying philosophy and history at Southampton University.

He started his career as a standard bearer in Macbeth, opening doors for Sir Alec Guinness.

"I'd planned to be a minor academic, but wanted to be loved," he says. "The easiest way to be loved is to appear on stage."

During the holidays he'd work in the local clay mines. Such holiday work would draw attention to his father's inability to earn money.

"On one occasion I collected my pay packet and put it on the table - and it was more than my dad had earned that week.

I felt terrible because I knew how it seemed to underline, in his mind, his sense of having failed."

His father Eric died in 1970.

"My father wasn't very old, just touching 60," he says. "He died because he was chronically worried."

HIS mother Elsie died from cancer in the mid- Eighties, aged 64.

Today, after years of trying to come to terms with a disastrous personal life, where romantic relationships never lasted, he has a pretty wife and two adored dogs to go home to.

He is about as secure as an actor can be.

"My first marriage ended in divorce, but my second one is doing very well, thank you," he says. "I think I've learnt a few lessons along the way, which is why I didn't rush into marriage the second time around. After the First World War you're not too keen to start the Second World War. So I had a nice interim period, after the first war, of peace."

John and second wife Cathryn Sealey, a former nurse, were married three years ago in a quiet ceremony near Stratford-on-Avon where he was playing Brutus in Julius Caesar.

They met when he was working with the late comedian Les Dawson. The rubber- faced comic was practising an old joke on Cathryn and John felt honour- bound to rescue her.

"This is the happiest I've been in all my life," he says. "I never thought I'd fall in love again. I was very bitter and cynical when my first marriage broke up. I thought I was set to be a bachelor for the rest of my life. But I finally found a lady brave enough to take me on."

His first marriage, to top casting director Joyce Nettles, ended in 1984.

"But truth to tell, the marriage had been over for many years before the official separation."

Now he gets on so well with Joyce that they even work together. She's the casting director for Midsomer Murders.

John fell for Joyce at university but, as time wore on, he grew more and more "difficult".

"I was bloody arrogant - what you might call a big head," he says.

"My tendency was to measure everything in terms of money, because it had caused my parents so much unhappiness. I started to judge people in terms of what they were worth. I developed an attitude of believing that money was the be-all and end-all."

When the BBC's Channel Islands detective Jim Bergerac entered his life and changed his fortunes, the former loving relationship with Joyce was by now so much emotional debris.

"My preoccupation with striving for success no doubt ruined many a relationship," he says. "Until Bergerac came along, I just wasn't getting anywhere. I'd appeared in some 20 or so productions with the RSC, but without any great impact.

"I thought my big break had come on TV when I played the impotent gynaecologist in Family At War, but nothing happened.

"I then hoped my role of love-sick Paul in The Liver Birds would be the turning point, but it wasn't.

"When I was short-listed for the title-role in Hazell, I thought I had it sewn up, but Nicholas Ball got the part.

"Until I was asked to play Bergerac, I'd become gloomy and despondent about my future prospects as an actor.

"I was frustrated, full of complexes and neuroses. I began to lose my self-confidence, and that's fatal for an actor.

"In the end, I wasn't nearly as attentive towards Joyce as I should have been. It's part and parcel of this business."

EVEN today he's never sent Cathryn - or anyone else - a Valentine's card. And he always forgets wedding anniversaries.

"I'm not sentimental. I'm not a romantic," he says. "It all stems from my background. The Cornish are conservative emotionally. When they do have something to say, they're not given to opulent gestures of sentiment."

Although it's six years since the BBC pulled the plug on Bergerac, John still cannot forget how the series' unlikely hero - an alcoholic with a bad leg, a broken marriage, a vintage car and a millionaire father-in- law - saved his life.

"Bergerac gave me two things," he says. "First, a degree of financial independence, which, God knows, I needed. And secondly, it gave me a renewed confidence and self-esteem."

With Cathryn by his side, the former "big head" also seems to have mellowed - and become a home bird. He bought a converted barn.

"It's rough and handsome and, above all, it's big. The missus and I can shout at each other, the dogs can bark themselves silly, and it's isolated enough not to be a nuisance to any of our neighbours.

"I like space - maybe because my childhood home had so little of it."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 20, 1999
Words:1698
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