Q&A: ‘He’s just so wrong’: A chat with Martin Clunes, star of ‘Doc Martin’
Martin Clunes is the star and co-steward of “Doc Martin,” a popular and personally beloved British import (from the commercial network ITV) about a big-city doctor whose life becomes enmeshed, to his ongoing discomfort, with the people of Portwenn, a Cornish fishing village. (He retreats there when a suddenly acquired fear of blood interrupts his surgical career.) The show’s seventh season is now streaming domestically via Acorn TV and will come to American public television early next year -- KCET will carry it locally, beginning Jan. 14.
It is a comedy of extreme frustration, in which Clunes’ Dr. Ellingham, highly competent at his job and self-defeating in life, nevertheless manages to fall in love, with Caroline Catz’s schoolteacher Louisa, have a child and marry, in that order. (There are many other characters, each frustrated and frustrating in his or her own way.) This has happened at a glacial pace and with many excruciating detours -- a pace slowed further by the fact that, though the events of one season lead more or less straight into the events of the next, the show now appears only every other year. Martin and Louisa’s son, James, born in a 2011 episode, is still a baby.
That on-off, schedule, which involves both Clunes and his producer wife, Philippa Braithwaite, has been adopted in order to not unduly disturb either the life of their daughter or that of Port Isaac (Port Wenn in the series), where the show films; its global success, which has also generated native adaptations in several other countries, has turned the town into something of a tourist destination. It’s also because, Clunes says, “We’d never get the scripts in shape in any less time. It’s not an easy show to write. However much time is never enough.”
I spoke to the actor recently, transatlantically by telephone. Though the character he plays on television is serious to a fault, Clunes himself is a cheery sort who finds amusement everywhere; indeed, he can barely speak for laughing. (An earlier conversation, from 2012, can be found here.)
It’s your show, you’re somewhat in charge of the character. But to what degree is he in charge of you?
That’s a good question. I can tell off the page just reading it to myself when scripts come in and somebody’s just gauged it wrong. Like if he apologizes, or uses the F-word -- we don’t go there. It sounds so wanky to say he lives, but I’m also very aware that I’m motivated by a huge desire to fall over and walk into things to make people laugh.
You do get into a groove, which is great, when you get to act with the same people a lot. Like with, Caroline Catz -- it’s like a duet, you’re like a duo jamming together.
How did you decide on her?
Oh, gosh, we knew she could act, right at the very beginning, and she’s so striking looking, and the camera just adores her. That’s what instantly drew us to her. Plus she’s so grounded. She really finds the truth about everything she does; she’s very meticulous, which you can see in all of her work. But the then-drama commissioners at ITV had a concern -- Carolyn had done a lot of cop shows, and really, really good ones -- that they’d not seen her in something like a comedy drama, a love story or whatever; they were concerned that they hadn’t seen a warmth in her. And I was surprised that that was an issue for them because, you get that when you meet her. And I’d read with her when we were seeing actresses for the role and she was head and shoulders the best.
I tell you, I’ve always been quite physical about acting.
— Martin Clunes, star of “Doc Martin”
You’re in your seventh season now; when you began the show, how far ahead could you see into the characters’ future? In that first year did you think Martin’s challenge was just to get over his fear of blood? How far into the future could you look -- were you allowed to work?
Well, you can be as hopeful as you like; one step at a time. But definitely we didn’t want this to be a solo series the first outing; we planned to go on. But it’s always performance related -- enough people have to watch. Of course, you could never predict that it would have the success or the longevity that it has had, which has been really delightful. Although Caroline’s husband reminded me that at the wrap party of the first series, standing outside the village hall with a bottle of beer in my hand, saying, “You know what? I’d be quite happy if I were doing this in 10 years’ time.”
Did you think back then, “We’ll get them together, we’ll get them married, we’ll get them a child”?
No, we didn’t, and that has always been a series by series challenge, what to do with them. Because, with the first series we didn’t know that that the love story was going to have the mileage that it did and that people were going to lock onto that so keenly. We just wanted a pretty girl to fight with him. Which is crude -- but we didn’t know that this was going to be the spine, really, of the show, the through line upon which everything else hangs. It’s hard enough thinking one series at a time, let alone two.
Martin is in therapy this season, taking steps to change in a way that he hasn’t before.
Yeah. He’s taken personal steps in the past, or attempted to take personal steps. He was pretty low at the end of the last series; he’s aware of that that there’s a need for change if he wants to keep Louisa, which he does, And the therapy’s been great, having the therapy which turns into the two of them going -- and it turns out that Doctor isn’t the only nut job in the show. [Laughs at great length.]
Did you know you were coming back at the end of last season, with her heading off to Spain and their future even more uncertain than usual? That would have been a terrible place to leave him.
Well, we didn’t. We never do. We still don’t. We’re dependent on that commission.
No. It’s kind of refreshing actually; it’s clear. Working the noncommercial side of things [i.e., the BBC] you can have something that’s successful in one way but not in another, and a lot of fudge gets through. But with commercial television it’s like, “Did a lot of people watch it? Yes. It can go again.” It’s black and white. But brutal.
Has the show changed the nature of Port Isaac at all? How has your relationship to the town evolved?
We’re a mixed bag. For second homeowners, it’s really intrusive to have us there when they want to go and enjoy their second homes. But for most of the people who live there, have a business there, all the businesses apart from fishing, the lobster fishing, all the businesses were seasonal and just happened in the tourist season; the co-op, the supermarket in Port Isaac at the top of the hill which is never ever featured in the program, was going to close because it didn’t make enough financial sense for them to stay open with just the seasonal trade. And we kept it open; it’s busy all year round now, with visitors from the States and Canada and New Zealand and Europe and Uruguay. A lot of businesses are doing very well.
We’ve set up a trust now for the village, where some of our overseas profits go into a trust set up to do works at the discretion of the good people of Port Isaac for the benefit of the people of Port Isaac. By and large, it’s really, really harmonious. And by now we’re very familiar, and we’re more familiar than the holiday makers they’re used to having, who come and never come back; because so many of us keep coming back. Two of our crew have moved down there. We’ve been through a lot together.
Martin is very stiff and contained; words and feelings seem to fight their way out of him. How much of the part is getting the body right?
I tell you, I’ve always been quite physical about acting. I’ve always felt about for the shape of someone or the deportment, for better or worse. Sometimes I think I’ve done it disastrously, and other times,when I’m not thinking about it so much, less disastrously, but I can’t seem to control it much. In a way, making Martin Ellingham the way he is was a corrective exercise for my acting -- to keep a bit still and show a little control. I do like it -- it’s like having an instrument that you can play and that you can pick up and enjoy playing.
You have a character whose hallmark is a resistance or inability to change, and it can be very frustrating for the viewer. I find myself continually talking to the screen. With every crossroads he comes to, everything you know about him says that he won’t take the different path, but you so want him to. Are you ever frustrated by him yourself? [Note: Clunes has laughed the whole way through this question.]
No, I love it. I think that’s the point, that sort of exasperation puts you on the front of your seat rather than the back of your seat. I shouldn’t find myself funny, should I? But I do watch it, and I do laugh, just because he’s so, he’s so wrong, and that makes me laugh. [He laughs.]
You do get into a groove, which is great, when you get to act with the same people a lot.
— Martin Clunes, star of”'Doc Martin”
At the same time, it can be very emotional. I’ve seen the show “officially” described as a drama.
I mean what do you call the bits when I’m saving a child’s life? Do you not have comedy dramas? A while ago that’s all there were in English television; actually when I started in English television, comedy dramas were what everybody wanted, because they had mileage, you know. I did one called “William and Mary” that was more like a romantic drama … comedy. But suddenly they all dried up, and now you look around, we’re the only one. But it used to be what everybody wanted.
It was the same here. “Dramedy” was the now out-of-fashion word we used.
Give me an example, what would one of those be?
Well, “Northern Exposure....”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Excellent. Those were our references when we were starting out, with, you know, remote community, blah-de-blah. “Twin Peaks” -- God, I loved “Twin Peaks,” didn’t you? I loved every minute of it. Those were our references. We’ve become sort of warm and popular over the years with our show, but every now and again they’re obtuse, and, you know what I mean, spiky. I think they are anyway.
Are you very involved with the foreign versions of the show? Or do you just license them and hope for the best?
Well, it’s not me so much as Philippa, who’s quite strict with them -- they’re not allowed to overtake us or have another child. Like, Spain’s made loads more episodes than we have, but they have to tread water in certain areas.
So they follow your lead.
Yeah, so they can have therapy now. We had a character called Roger Fenn who was a sort of semi-regular, he had throat cancer in the first series and came back in a couple of other episodes; but we ran out of things to do with him. And the actor in the Dutch version who got that gig wrote us saying, “Is that it? I really enjoyed this job.”
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