Meeting up with John Nettles on a rainy afternoon in Jersey seems perfectly normal. After all, as Bergerac, he’s such an iconic Jersey character you almost expect to see him out and about around the island, speeding down the Avenue or in a corner of the Old Court House, taking a break from tracking down criminals.
The truth is, he’s still piecing together convoluted stories and uncovering the truth, but this time it’s not about glamorous jewel thieves or corrupt millionaires, it’s the real story behind the island’s five years of Nazi occupation. ‘The Channel Islands at War’ a series about the occupation, written and presented by John Nettles, is now available on DVD.
A history graduate himself, Nettles explains the desire to produce the documentary, which ran on the Yesterday channel and was seen by 2 million viewers, grew after writers like Madeleine Bunting and David Fraser had presented their own takes on the islands’ occupation. “They blew the whole world of the occupation wide open. There seemed to be a need for a reappraisal of the whole period here. That was the academic reason, the other reason was that I wanted to find out exactly what it was like during those seminal years and talk to the survivors and find out what actually happened.”
The occupation is still a controversial subject with plenty of questions surrounding the years between 1940 and 1945 with a particular focus on whether the island collaborated with the occupying forces. But for Nettles, the real discovery was that conditions in the islands were far worse than the picture painted by official reports immediately after the occupation. “Much, much worse. It was the suffering that appalled me, the sheer bloodiness of it, the casual savagery and the extraordinary fear.” By including eyewitness accounts, archive footage and recently discovered documentation, Nettles hopes the series will bring an accurate insight into the events of the time. “A relation of what happened during the war through the eyes of the people who were actually there at the time, that’s the main thing.”
He talks with great warmth and feeling about the survivors he interviewed, and you get the impression he feels a certain responsibility to ensure their story was told and get out of the “cocoon of unreality which is TV” as he describes it, “and talk to real people in the real world”. He pauses for a moment as he relates how when he found himself on the Honours List recently, he was saddened by the media reaction. “Her Majesty by some oversight gave me an OBE and I was delighted to receive it, although I found it rather depressing that the only person the media wanted to talk to was me. I was there with brave men and women who’d done extremely brave things, but they wouldn’t talk to them. It’s a great sadness.”
A fair point, although in the public’s imagination, John Nettles will forever be the super sleuth DCI Barnaby, catching criminals and battling Midsomer’s alarmingly high murder rate. But it’s the character of Bergerac he has a soft spot for. “In my head, old as I am, I identify with Bergerac, because inside I’m really still driving silly cars, rescuing beautiful maidens on cliff tops. You see, you don’t want to let go of that dream do you!”
Filming Bergerac in Jersey was memorable because as he says, “I was relatively young, I was in Jersey and it was glorious. It was like one endless summer”. Fast cars, plenty of on-screen love interests, and stunning island locations, you can see why John Nettles might have fond memories of his time as Bergerac. “There’s one scene I particularly remember of an E-type Jaguar taking off up the Esplanade, and Bergerac in the red 1947 Triumph – falling to bits – but overtaking the Jaguar and running it off the road – it’s wonderful stuff! But in the real world of course, Tom Barnaby’s much more like me, he’s kind of getting on a bit.” Despite ‘getting on a bit’ as he says, there are plenty of Bergerac and Barnaby fans, and some have been known to take their obsession a bit far. “Ah yes, there are quite a few stalkers. There’s a Norwegian one who sends me diet sheets because she thinks I’m too fat. She’s a karate expert too and she wrote me a long list of what she’d like to do with me. And… no. It wasn’t fun at all. But most of my admirers are old and withered, rather like me and that’s a bit depressing.”
Nettles is a frequent visitor back to the island he’s had so much to do with – his daughter and grandchildren live here. After having filmed island-wide for so many years, I wonder where his favourite spot is. He answers straight away. “Beauport. I like it because it’s utterly unspoilt – apart from the steps of course. I remember once when we were filming with Richard Griffiths (Pie in the Sky and Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films), he thought he’d treat us all to some champagne down on the beach. He buried it in the sand at Beauport in the morning, but of course while we were filming the tide came in and when we got back down there – did he have any idea of where he’d buried it? None at all. They are probably still a couple of bottles of champagne, under the sand somewhere down there…”