Martin Clunes

Martin Clunes becoming Doc Martin

He normally talks with the same confidence and efficiency as his refined TV character, Dr Martin Ellingham. But just for once, Martin Clunes is a little hesitant.

Putting down his pint of beer—which he’s been enjoying in The Rising Sun pub in Altarnun, Cornwall, close to where he’s filming the sixth series of Doc Martin—he looks positively taken aback.

“Did I really say that?” he asks.

I assure him he did.

“Well that’s what happens when they let me out on my own,” he says, letting rip with a throaty chuckle.

What Martin said, last year, was that this latest run of Doc Martin, which starts on ITV1 this month, would definitely be the last.

But it’s always ITV’s call as to how long one of its programmes survives. If the ratings plummet, we might still be axed.

“I don’t think we can come up with anything significantly fresh for the doc to justify it continuing,” was his exact comment when I met him to talk about the Lemurs of Madagascar nature documentary he’d just made for ITV1.

Now, apparently, he’s changed his mind. “We’ve come up with some fresh ideas,” he says. “But it’s always ITV’s call as to how long one of its programmes survives. If the ratings plummet, we might still be axed.”

That seems highly unlikely. Doc Martin, the story of a grumpy GP in a Cornish seaside village, has become one of the channel’s most popular dramas, regularly attracting audiences of nine million and more since it began in 2004. The blood-fearing former surgeon may now be the role for which Martin, 51, is most famous.

But the main character is, in one sense, disappearing from our screens. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that there’s less of the medic as the new series goes on. Part-way through filming, Martin was hit by a serious weight-reducing viral infection that forced him to leave the show’s Port Isaac set and head back to his home, a 130-acre farm in Dorset. There, totally drained of energy, he recuperated for a few weeks before returning to filming more than a stone lighter.

“It was pretty unpleasant and it really laid me low. However,” says Martin, who has a habit of looking on the bright side of life, “we tried not to let it affect filming too much and my absence gave other members of the cast the chance to do more than they’d otherwise have done.”

Dr Ellingham is still the focus of the series, though, particularly when he marries local headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz). The wedding is part of the process of keeping the drama fresh. That and the doctor lurching towards what seems to be a nervous breakdown.

“He slowly unravels,” confirms Martin.

Isn’t that a bit heavy for a comedy drama, set amid the gentle beauty of a West Country summer?

“Not at all. It’s always been our job, I think, to avoid being cosy. It’s why Doc Martin has always been so hard to write and it’s why Philippa (Braithwaite, Martin’s wife and Doc Martin producer) spends most of her year looking for ways to move the series on. The programme has to have an edge to it and we thought last year that finding that new edge was going to be impossible.”

When I ask Martin how he’s been preparing to play a man suffering from mental illness, he laughs it off with a flippant (and unprintable) reply, which is not untypical of the man.

Dedicated and fine actor he might be, but he’s never been too intense about his chosen profession and certainly isn’t one to go down the method-acting route. And though he’s stern and severe like the doc when the cameras are rolling, between takes he’s constantly joking and enjoys having a laugh.

“I love classic comedies, such as Dad’s Army, and we enjoy watching Miranda as a family,” he says, dressed casually for our interview in a grey fleece and blue jeans. “And I love Would I Lie to You? I think the three of them together—[host] Rob Brydon [and team captains] David Mitchell and Lee Mack—are so funny. You wouldn’t imagine David and Lee being amusing together, but they are. I’ve been a guest on the show, but I don’t want to do it again as I enjoy it as a viewer and appearing would spoil things.”

I am quite OCD. I like things to be lined up neatly,

But Martin does admit to being similar to Dr Ellingham in some ways. “I am quite OCD. I like things to be lined up neatly, whether it’s pens or books on a shelf. And I suppose we are both practical people, hands on, him with his patients, me with my woodwork tools.

“I had more time at home earlier this year, because of my driving ban, so I got lots done.” (Martin was banned for six months after reaching 12 penalty points.) “I made an ottoman for the end of our bed from which the TV lifts up. It just needs upholstering now.”

After almost a decade as the doc, Martin has picked up some medical knowledge from his character. “You have to remember that British medical dramas are obliged to be accurate. You can’t just make things up as they do on American shows. So we have a medical expert on the series and I have learned about certain conditions and procedures.”

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