Saturday, 14 March 2009
Stop overlooking John Nettleton!
When you think of The New Statesman the first image to mind is probably of a wavy-haired Rik Mayall bedecked in Saville Row pinstripes, standing in front of Big Ben. And while Rik’s undoubtedly brilliant in the series, to my mind he’s totally and utterly upstaged by the inimitable John Nettleton.
His is not a name commonly bandied about. While Nigel Hawthorne and Rik Mayall are household names, John Nettleton is a name which would probably draw a blank with most people. This must stop. John Nettleton is brilliant because, frankly, there’s no-one else like him out there. I can’t think of any other actor who’s played mainly secondary roles, who so consistently outshines his fellow cast members. He is Englishness incarnate and his performances are so enjoyable that they might well be fattening.
John Nettleton’s been part of my life since childhood. As a lad I loved watching Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who, and my favourite story from Sly’s tenure in the TARDIS was Ghost Light. This particular serial is set in a Victorian manor owned by an eminent scientist of the age (well, he’s actually a shape-shifting alien, but that’s not important right now), who is visited during the course of the story’s first three parts by a mutton chop-sporting man of the cloth called Reverend Ernest Matthews. And it was as this hairy clergyman that I first encountered John Nettleton.
I’m sure it’s not just me and my brother being odd in marvelling at Nettleton in the role - anyone who’s seen Ghost Light must surely be able to conjure up his Etonian accent, his versatile expressions of indignation and the hilarious pomposity brought to the screen by Mr. Nettleton. He plays the role sublimely, being at once believable and utterly comic. Seriously, if you’ve not seen it, have a look around Google Video and see if it’s online. John’s theatrical entrance and his delightful belittling of the house’s staff are well worth the effort alone! Or get a taster - John appears 14 seconds into this trailer.
Flash forward about 15 years and I’m a 22-year-old having a drink round at a friend’s flat one night and being introduced to Yes Minister, when who should I see on-screen, this time sans-chops and called Sir Arnold Robinson, but John Nettleton! The sound of his voice was like Proust’s Madeline* to me and catapulted me right back to childhood.
But the thing is, Nettleton’s perfect in his role as the Cabinet Secretary too. The man is every bit the archetype of the English gent - his voice, his accent, his mannerisms. He’s simply a joy to watch and listen to. I can’t put it any more plainly than that. Seeing John Nettleton in Yes Minister is a real treat and I urge comedy fans to watch the opening few minutes of this Yes Minister episode and witness John in action for yourself.
But it was recently, when getting into political comedy more broadly that I encountered John in the role he was born to play. In the first two series’ of New Statesman, Rik Mayll’s Alan B’Stard and his whipping boy, Piers Fletcher-Dervish, are both under the tutelage of a wizened politician named Sir Stephen Baxter.
Lo and behold! Beneath a very convincing makeup job, a wig which looks like one of JG Bennett’s cast-offs and a hideous moustache, John Nettleton emerges again to outshine everyone else on-screen. Unlike his portrayal of Sir Arnold, which saw him playing a character in late-middle age (as the actor was at the time), John plays Sir Stephen like an ancient, crusty, slightly less senile Major from Fawlty Towers. And again, it’s difficult to find language to express the sheer pleasure I get from watching John Nettleton in this role. Again, I’ll let John’s acting express itself. In the following clip, which begins with John delivering a cracking speech, Sir Stephen is explaining to Alan why the Minister for Wales isn’t to be trusted. I won’t spoil it for you, but watch this in a place where you can laugh out loud with impunity!
I love this man’s acting and his is a voice I could listen to for hours on end. If there was a radio station which broadcast nothing but John Nettleton reading the phone book, I’d tune in. I hope, if you’ve read this and watched some of the videos, that you understand why John Nettleton’s so brilliant and so utterly deserving of recognition. And, hey, hope you had some laughs too.
Thanks for the great performances, John!
*Thanks to Colin Wilson for this, by the way. If it wasn’t for him repeating the reference in every one of his books, my attempts at pseud-hood would all be in vain.