‘Doc Martin’ star Martin Clunes on the making of the British series
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‘Doc Martin,’ the globally popular British series about an antisocial big-city surgeon working as a general practitioner among boundary-disrespecting neighbors in a Cornwall fishing village, has just begun its fifth season. Over the last couple of years it has become a staple feature of American public broadcasting -- the second episode of the new season premieres locally tonight on KCET -- and has been widely available online, offered free to subscribers of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Acorn Media, which has released the previous four seasons on DVD, will add the fifth in June. (I earlier wrote about the series here.)
Martin Clunes (whose ‘William and Mary,’ an earlier series in which he plays a cuddly undertaker, has also become a PBS favorite) stars as Martin Ellingham, the eponymous doctor. Caroline Catz is Louisa, the teacher he inarticulately loves, nearly marries and, at the close of Season 4, has a child with. This year also sees the arrival of the great Eileen Atkins (‘Cold Comfort Farm,’ ‘Cranford’ and a co-creator of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’) as Martin’s Aunt Ruth, a psychiatrist who shares his dry, logical, suffer-no-fool-gladly temperament.
I spoke with Clunes recently, by phone to his home in England. He is clearly a different man from the one he currently plays on television. You should imagine hearty laughter coloring his responses below.
Your character is unusual, in that it’s a variation on a different Cornwall-based doctor named Martin you played in the film ‘Saving Grace’ and two subsequent TV movies. Can you talk about how you got from there to here?
Martin Clunes: It was quite simple and sort of market-led. Sky, which is Fox I guess over here, had some money in ‘Saving Grace,’ and Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, set up a thing called Sky Pictures, which was terrific because it meant the industry was very buoyant and lots of people were making films [for television]. And we got picked up -- they did some research and thought that the character of the doctor in ‘Saving Grace’ had legs, and so they asked us if we’d make some films based on him. And then they folded while we were making them. We sort of knew somebody at ITV, which is an independent broadcast channel over here, and said, ‘Are you interested in picking up this franchise, ‘cause we’re kind of set up.’ We’d made these two films [‘Doc Martin’ (2001) and ‘Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie’ (2003)]. The tone of it, the kind of dope-smoking aspect, didn’t appeal to them, and they didn’t think it would suit their audience. But they said they didn’t mind me being a doctor in that place. So we had the license to take it apart and create something from the ground up. We didn’t want to do the ‘Doc Hollywood’ thing of ‘smart town city doctor being amazed and bemused by his quirky neighbors’; we kind of wanted to turn that on its head, and that was a small community united in horror by this vile GP.
Were you aware of the American show ‘Northern Exposure’?
MC: Well, yeah, we were, and it was tonally in the back of our minds. Although we couldn’t say it flat out loud, because if we’d said, ‘We’re going to do a kind of ‘Northern Exposure thing’,’ I don’t think ITV would have gone for it. But in our minds it was that kind of thing, and maybe a little bit of Twin Peaks,’ too. Both shows I loved, and I loved the kind of -- is otherworldly the right expression, I don’t know -- not off-planet, but its own little world.
Martin keeps so much locked in. How does one play an undemonstrative person?
MC: That’s an interesting question. I couldn’t really say how. It’s all there in the pointy shoes and uncomfortable suits and a tight tie and the wrong car, and just doggedly being at odds with everything. Maybe there’s a part of me that’s like that, I don’t know. I’m not that grumpy. I’m pretty private about the things I need to be private about. It’s just a sort of malfunction, a discordance -- discordance is the best word I think for it. When the Doc and Louisa talk to one another there aren’t violins playing; it’s more sort of bass guitar and a kazoo. It’s out of tune. I’m laughing now, which is ... smug. But it does make me laugh, to find someone so at odds. And I really like the sense of liberation that I get just from playing someone who’s never polite for the sake of being polite. I really like that. I have to ask [the actors’] permission first, but the patients I have who are elderly or very young, I really like being rough with them.
Yet he still functions as a romantic lead and a person you’re able to feel for.
MC: Yeah, figure that out.
How did you fine-tune that?
MC: I tell you what, I think the reason that people do empathize or sympathize with him is because, and I’m not just being a gushy old actor here, I really think that Caroline Catz has carved such a niche for herself in that role. And those are the scenes I love doing. This love affair -- when we were starting out we would think, rather cynically, ‘Well, she’s just a really bright, really pretty girl, and there’ll be a girl in it.’ And then very soon that little journey was the most interesting thing. To judge by the things people said to me in the street here, obviously that’s what they were turning in to see. And one season we had a proposed wedding episode that gained an extra 2 million viewers or something; so even people who weren’t interested in the program seemed to become interested in this relationship. And then the anger when we didn’t get married, on various websites and places, with the poor writer who happened to write that episode. So he had to write some really loving episodes in subsequent seasons to get his mail back into whack. But she’s so just artfully and charmingly made that character, which was never fleshed out as even the Doc’s was on the page, and embellished her with all her own inadequacies.
Well, Louisa would need to have issues of her own, to want a relationship with Martin.
MC: She’s got issues; she’s not perfect. You know those Venn diagrams where you get the overlapping circles? Her pull on him to fill that central area is where the intrigue lies, I think. I’ve been aware of it several times in my career, these actresses who can pull actors up by our socks, and they sort of drag that emotional agenda out of you.
The most common thing that people say to me is, ‘When you gonna marry that teacher?’ Or, ‘You were funny with that baby.’ A boy came up and asked me for my autograph, followed by an old man who said, ‘I don’t want your autograph but just marry that girl before I die, willya?’ That seems to sum up the level at which it hits people.
You do spend a lot of time wondering how they can possibly get together. It’s very frustrating -- I’m continually talking to the screen.
MC: The word frustration does come up a lot in people’s responses to it. They say, ‘Oh, I just want to shake him by the throat.’ But at least it’s engaging with the characters rather than just sitting back and letting them wash over you. It frustrates people for all the right reasons -- I get frustrated at things because I think they’re rubbish.
You’ve been careful not to turn his character into a pathology. There was an episode in the third season, ‘City Slickers,’ where a psychiatrist labels him as having Asperger’s Syndrome, which the show seems to dismiss as facile. You resist diagnosing him.
MC: Because the minute you start to diagnose him then there’d be a tendency to cure him. And as first and foremost a character actor, I’ve always resisted the temptation to cure any of the people I’ve played or make them lovable in any way; you’ve just got to celebrate them for what they are. But, yes, it was quite weird the Asperger’s thing -- that started to be said of him quite early on, and I had letters from societies and things asking me to speak. Because that wasn’t my intention -- I just made the guy up, you know; none of that stiffness and malfunction was ever really on the page. It seems that it’s a hard program to write, which is why we do so few, because it takes so long to get them right. Nobody just flops a complete ‘Doc Martin’ script on the desk. They all have to be taken apart and all the apologizing taken out. Because it’s hard to have a protagonist that doesn’t really like anyone and nobody really likes him; it’s a hard premise to start from.
And yet they do continue to try to like him.
MC: They’re quite supportive, aren’t they, because they benefit from his strengths. But I don’t think that was consciously ever written in; it just kind of grew organically, which is the way the best things happen.
He is a hero. He save lives all the time.
MC: Yeah! It’s cool isn’t it? Which kind of earns him the right to be rude, I guess.
What does Cornwall mean in the British imagination?
MC: It’s a mixed bag. An awful lot of people have childhood memories of holidays in Cornwall, and the holidays are old-fashioned and hugely successful. You stick a child and a dog on one of the beaches and they just light up; they just love it. It’s also England’s surf coast, the north coast of Cornwall; that tiny stretch where we set the show is the center of English surfing. They’re kind of independent to a certain degree, although they’re not like Wales and Scotland because they haven’t devolved, but there’s a kind of Cornish national movement. There’s also a Cornish word for tourist, ‘grockles,’ and a tradition of kind of loathing of tourists. But they also do really well by them; outside of the tourist season there’s not a lot of income there. They can be unwelcoming and they can be extremely welcoming. I’ve had it all. It’s a mixed blessing having a popular TV show in your town.
But in the context of the show, what would the audience take it to mean?
MC: I think they would take it to mean that somebody choosing to live in Cornwall who wasn’t born there was sort of escaping. If you look at a map of England you get a sense of the land mass shrinking either side of you as you head west and it goes down to the point. I love it. On the south coast it’s quite tropical because the Gulf Stream comes through and you get palm trees. But in the north where we are it’s rugged and there’s a lot of cliffs.
You live out in the country yourself.
MC: We have a farm which we sort of work now and we keep horses and stuff. But I’m out of London. The appeal of this job is that I can stay out of London, and to get to do what we do outside of a city is quite rare. And it’s a good gig, you know: 60, 70% of our crew comes back each year. Because essentially we’re staying in a holiday location -- that whole town was for rent long before we came there, all those pretty cottages were bed and breakfasts or holiday lets before we turned up. We just put our crew in there slightly out of season.
Can you talk a little about Eileen Atkins?
MC: Yeah! She’s amazing. With no disrespect to Stephanie Cole, who played the first aunt, we’d just run out of stuff to do with her; we were wasting her. So we killed her, basically. And Eileen -- I don’t know why we didn’t have the idea in the first place, I think we were timid, with this grumpy character -- but to have Eileen come along and be in the same vein as Martin is really fun, and she loves it. We have actors coming up and down from London to Cornwall all the time, and one of her stipulations before taking the role was, ‘I want a nice cottage and I want to stay down the whole time.’ She just adored the cast, she loved the crew. If we had read-throughs on a Sunday night for the following block’s episode, she’d come along and read in as other characters just for the fun of it.
Your wife, Philippa Braithwaite, is the show’s producer.
MC: We met working and we’ve sort of always done it. You know, we don’t have a big office of staff anywhere. It’s just us and a desk. and when we go into production we hire the people in and rent some more offices. But we’re not an entity really as a company. People keep saying, ‘You should build up your portfolio, do more programs and then sell your company.’ But then we’d have to work all the time.
So you’re very much involved in the direction of the show you star in.
MC: Not in a dogmatic way. Philippa’s the guiding light of it all. I used to see things really late and was really happy to do it that way. I overheard somebody talking early in my career, they said, ‘Performers have to keep at least one foot in the playground.’ And I do believe that, and I think there are a lot of examples of people falling foul -- you know, the movie where you see ‘based on,’ ‘idea by,’ ‘created by,’ ‘sort of written by,’ ‘starring,’ ‘executive produced by.’ Executive producer, that’s the one that really makes me laugh, ‘cause you just know that some pushy agent just got that stuck on some production. There’ll be one bona fide executive producer in there. We have a great one, actually, on ‘Doc Martin.’ But we only have one.
The show has had a worldwide success, including French, German, Greek and Spanish remakes. Are you sensible of its reach?
MC: It’s really gratifying. It’s different. I don’t know why it should be different from a domestic audience, but it’s a very pleasant bonus. You can’t really target other countries from a country as small as England, I don’t think, so to have all that is really nice. I don’t know how your TV works over there, but it’s only the last couple of years that we’ve got an audience [in the U.S.]. I’ve never had any letters from the medical profession in England but I’ve had some really sweet letters from doctors in the United States.
There’s a doctor vetting your scripts, I would imagine.
MC: Oh, you bet. We’ve got an amazing doctor who is a doctor Martin, he’s called Martin Scurr. He was the Queen Mother’s doctor and she lived into her 90s, didn’t she? I don’t want to destroy any of his patients’ trust in him but he’s a really good source of funny medical conditions. We can run things by him if we want to push the boundary a bit -- in our first-ever episode two men grew breasts from sleeping with the same woman who was overusing hormone replacement cream on her own breasts and passing it off to her sexual partners. Which would really take an awful lot of hormone replacement cream.
But is technically possible.
MC: Yeah exactly, not technically impossible. And he’s amazingly supportive of my endeavors as a doctor; he gives me a lot of encouragement. The first time I defribbed, which is a big loss of virginity for any TV doctor, he drove down to Cornwall on his motorbike from London to oversee it and make sure I didn’t kill anyone.
The machine’s not plugged in, is it?
MC: It’s not, but because it’s a battery thing, those mobile ones, there’s always a risk. And it’s sort of frowned on to electrocute actors.
-- Robert Lloyd
Top photo: Caroline Catz (Louisa) and Martin Clunes (Martin) costar in ‘Doc Martin.’ Photo credit: Acorn Media