Martin Clunes interview by Karen Shaw
by Karen Shaw
Doctor Behaving Badly!
Nothing much has changed for Martin Clunes, first he was a man behaving badly and now he’s a doctor behaving badly!
Doc Martin graced our screens in 2004 and in the same year walked away with the Best TV Comedy Drama at the British Comedy Awards. Nine years on it attracts over seven million viewers in the UK with an army of fans as far afield as China and America. Even on his own wedding day Dr Martin Ellingham can’t raise a smile but following a honeymoon filled with disaster they struggle to live together, raise a child and manage their careers. It proves to be a big challenge for them especially the Doc who is unaccustomed to clutter and noise, then factor in Martin’s usual string of offbeat patients, the hypochondriac, the hoarder, a clumsy constable prone to self-inflicted injuries. At the end of series six we see
Doc Martin wave goodbye to his on-screen wife Louisa (played by Caroline Catz) and son as she jets off to sunny Spain to consider their future…
I caught up with actor Martin Clunes at his home, a farm, high on a hill surrounded by Dorset countryside, a far cry away from the imaginary village of Portwenn filmed at Port Isaac. He may be relaxing now, but this guy has 180 sheep, 14 cows, 13 horses and a few chickens thrown in for good measure. Old MacDonald has nothing on this chap.
“I never saw this coming,” smiles Martin. He’s referring to his farm. He goes on to say: “but I love it, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“We used to live in a village,” he says, “but we’re just outside of a small town which I feel a part of.”
It’s always easy to make comparisons to their character when I interview an actor, and on this occasion Martin bears no resemblance at all to his emotionally detached Doc Martin. I’m a massive fan of Doc Martin, but his lack of sensitivity often has me believing that his character shows levels of autism…
“I like to think he’s au-tastic.” He laughs. “A lot of American doctors have written in and said this is a study of someone on the autistic spectrum. He seems to have got worse as times gone on.”
Although the Doctor suffers from hemophobia, (fear of blood) no one can deny that he’s a fantastic doctor. Not only does he saves lives with his quick thinking, you can also get an appointment with him, a rarity in today’s society. Martin hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting Port Isaac’s real doctor to compare notes but goes on to say: “I always feel slightly shame faced when I see my GP. I hope they don’t think I’m commenting on them!”
Filming Doc Martin in the picturesque village of Port Isaac has certainly had an impact on the local community.
“It’s done a number of things over the years. It’s swollen the footfall considerably and it’s sort of changed it. We didn’t make it pretty, it was always pretty and cottages have always been for hire in that season and then it would go completely quiet for the rest of the year but now that doesn’t happen.” He adds: “They’ve got pretty much annual visitors from America and Australia, which brings in a lot of money but at the cost of some peace, but none of the people who live there are that bothered. We film there every other year and we spend four months filming. My daughter Emily sometimes joins us, that’s why we do alternate years so that she doesn’t lose both her parents every summer!
“We are donating a percentage of the profits from the series to a special trust fund set up to benefit the community. “We felt we should give something back to the village. It’s mutually beneficial.” A primary school in the nearby village of
Delabole, which is used to film the classroom scenes for Portwenn School, was also given a donation to create a nature trail, which Martin officially opened.
Doc Martin has grown a massive following in the States. Many have travelled across the pond to watch the filming, I was curious to discover why Martin thought this was.
“I don’t know. It’s a very different audience. In the states people have to search it out, they discover it and tell their friends about it and they have forums and chat rooms where they discuss it. The mail we get from them is fantastic. We have loads of people who come and watch. It’s weird. It can be off-putting and I know if you shoot in central London you feel very self-conscious but it’s never bugged me there.”
The setting may be idyllic but the relationships at PortWenn are far from it. Bumbling policeman, PC Penhale is always reaching out for a friendship with Doc Martin and never gets anywhere. Does the Doc view him as a hindrance?
“Yeah, he’s an idiot. He’s never going to stop being an idiot is he? he laughs. “You can’t fix the doctor, you can’t have him going round being nice to people who are ghastly.”
He has been quoted as saying that we’re not really supposed to like the doc, Heaven forbid if you were to warm to him yet Louisa does. What does she see in him?
“I could tell you but you wouldn’t be able to print it,” he chuckles. Now he adopts a more serious tone. “He cares desperately for his wife and child and he’s got an immense sense of duty and his salvation is his love of her. He’s such a good doctor, but in a real crisis he would be there. He’d be banging his head on the door but he’d be there.”
On a personal level I actually like the Doc’s character and would love to go for a beer with him. When I ask Martin if he thinks he’d join me for a swift half, he laughs. “Definitely not, I’m afraid!”
On the subject of loss, one of my favourite characters to grace the Doc Martin set was his aunt Joan, played by Stephanie Cole. When she died in the series there was a glimmer of emotion displayed by the Doc. I vividly remember the touching scene when the Doc returned to her house after her death to find a gift of a baby’s outfit she had left for her great nephew…
“Well, I did that when my mum died and I found some stuff that she’d bought to give to Emily and hadn’t got around to it. I suggested we do that. It’s quite deep without anyone really having to say anything.”
The departure of his aunt Joan meant the introduction of Aunt Ruth, who shows reflections of the doctor’s personality. Relationships with the women in his life have been turbulent, and this became apparent with the appearance of his long lost mum. “She hates her son,” says Martin, “she’s always hated him. He ruined what she thought was a perfectly good relationship which she had with her husband without a child. Her husband died in the last series and there was another rather touching scene where he attempts to mend his father’s broken clock…
“Yeah, and then his mother nicks it!” he laughs.
Entering the acting arena was always the obvious choice for Martin, whose father was the classical actor Alec Clunes, “It’s sort of what we did in my family,” says Martin. “My dad was an actor and I just sort of drifted into it without thinking really. I’m still not really thinking about it!”
It may have been his father who was the thespian but it was his mother who would drag him backstage after shows.
Amongst running a successful farm, a production company and maintaining an acting career, Martin is just about to start playing the role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an adaptation by Julian Barnes, due out in autumn, for ITV and thankfully he’s also about to start work on series seven of Doc Martin.
His first successful role in the ground breaking comedy Men Behaving Badly as Gary Strang was down to his pal Harry Enfield, who joined him in the first ever series as his flat mate Dermot. In series two he was joined by Neil Morrissey who played hapless flat mate Tony. That was in 1992 so nearly 20 years on I wonder if there’s a chance of a return of the terrible twosome maybe something along the lines of Men Behaving Calmly?
“Not with Neil Morrissey, he replies. “Neil was down here two weeks ago and we had a great laugh. We’ve been friends for years. I knew him way before Men Behaving Badly came along. We made a documentary a couple of years ago called Men Down Under and we rode cattle. We had the nicest afternoon just the two of us because they were filming us from helicopters so it was just us with the horses and cattle.”
Martin is obviously a keen animal lover and has recently just returned from filming with Tanzanian conservationist Tony Fitzjohn, whom he met 17 years ago when he travelled to East Africa to release an elephant into the wild. “It’s an ever changing thing, wildlife. It wasn’t what we expected. It’s really hard; the notion of freedom for the wildlife has changed in Kenya. I think it’s a freedom that now has to be protected because there isn’t a great wilderness for animals. I’m working on a documentary about this very thing called Man and Beast, how we relate differently to different species and cultures. One animal’s food to one culture is a treasure to another. We’re very schizophrenic about how we viewanimals, I know I am.
“I had a lamb at the weekend and we sell everything we make as well. You can get our lamb and beef from the Frampton of Bridport’s website.
“I love dogs and I love horses. I like animals I can relate to. I’ve got sixty ewes in a shed at the moment they’ll start lambing soon. I love the maternity side of it.”
Like many I’m an ardent fan of Doc Martin but every time I settle down to watch it, I always end up perplexed by the theme tune, in my opinion the soundtrack would be more suited to a Spanish gangster film based in Benidorm…
Martin laughs: “The idea of it being foreign seemed right because everything about the doctor’s presence there was wrong so the wrong music seemed right. He’s wears the wrong clothes, he drives the wrong car and says the wrong things. He’s just wrong!”
On that account Martin’s right, Doc Martin is wrong, which makes him all right in my book!