If one ever needed proof that actors are not the people they play, Martin Clunes is the pudding. Best known in the U.S. as the star of the globally popular British import “Doc Martin,” which streams on Acorn TV, he is hanging up that shingle after 10 seasons stretched over 18 years. The series finale premiered in late November, but there is a Christmas episode coming Dec. 29.
Clunes’ Dr. Martin Ellingham — a talented surgeon who acquires an aversion to blood and relocates as a GP to the eccentric seaside village in Cornwall where he spent summers in his youth — is a tight sort of person, uninterested in humor and reasonable to a fault, in that he finds fault with anyone incapable of reason. He is nevertheless a sort of medical superhero, sympathetic, even lovable, if in a highly frustrating way, and a partner in an unconventional romance, then marriage, with local schoolteacher (later therapist) Louisa, divinely played by Caroline Catz.
In contrast to his character, Clunes is warm and jovial; he laughs easily and often. (To imagine him laughing at any moment in the conversation below would not be far off.) Viewers may be familiar with that friendly person from the numerous documentaries he’s made, including series on the islands of Britain, America, Australia and the Pacific (when we spoke recently he was about to leave for Guam and Palau, having just returned from the Philippines), and on animals, including lions, lemurs, manta rays, dogs and horses.
“We just had the World Clydesdale Show in Aberdeen for the first time in the U.K., and I was involved in it,” says Clunes, who has two on his Dorset farm and is also president of the British Horse Society. “It was five days of solid Clydesdalery, and there were moments I was in floods of tears. They just move me, the very shape of them.”
Clunes spoke with The Times from said farm, where he lives (among cattle, sheep, chickens, cats and dogs) with his wife and producer, Philippa Braithwaite. Braithwaite has overseen “Doc Martin” from the beginning, which Clunes calls “a testament to my wife’s genius.”
“I don’t think any one producer has procured quite so many hours of television on her own as she has, and kept her standards up,” he added.
Their upcoming projects include a drama about the “county lines” drug-dealing business on the Welsh border (with the team that made “Manhunt,” in which Clunes plays real-life Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton) and a documentary on a guide dogs charity.
Over Clunes’ shoulder are two photographs of dogs. “That’s Mary Elizabeth and Tina Audrey, neither of them with us, sadly.”
I’ve seen you bring dogs into TV studios when you’re interviewed. In so many respects, you’re the exact opposite of the person you play on “Doc Martin,” who hates them.
I realize, now I’ve I’ve stopped having to keep inventing him, the key thing with the doctor is wrongness. It’s the wrong car, it’s wrong to wear a suit in the sea, it’s wrong to be that rude to people, and it’s really wrong not to like dogs, especially when they like you. I remember early on [someone saying], “You can’t just have the dog there if it’s not going to do anything.” Well, you can if its very presence is doing something — it’s winding the doctor up. So, yeah, it does make me laugh that he doesn’t like dogs.
In the early episodes, you play him with a different body language, a little bit looser.
He’s more comfortable in his own skin. I noticed that. Weird, isn’t it? Again, it’s just adding more and more to him. I was finding my way in the beginning because none of these things were on paper.
What was on paper? What did you add?
It was very hard early on. It wasn’t until we got a couple of script doctors in and they added some quite sharp lines. I think there was one, “You get a free coffin with every patient” or something — smart-ass cutting remarks. But also one of the things that I learned that was useful about him, in the very first episode, just after I’ve diagnosed Louisa’s eye condition I walk into the edge of a door — and that was just me being me on the day. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I walked into the door?” And we shot a version where I didn’t walk into the door, and we went with the one where I did, because that seemed indicative of how we could treat this man. It’s fantastic he’s got this medical superpower, but let’s smack him on the head for being so cocky as well.
This show has the world’s slowest character development.
You never expect that things are going to last 18 years, for God’s sake. But I think we realized that, because by definition, we’d created something rather immovable, the only way to drive forward is to pay out more and more information about him and more facets to his history. But also it made us laugh, in a sick way, that his parents hated him. But why wouldn’t they? He’s horrible. And people did invest in the love story, because we played out the will-they-won’t-they for years, and finally they did, and then it was like, “What are we going to do?” Well they had to bust up. But there came the time when we had to bite the bullet and say, “Well, let’s explore them cohabiting, then, successfully or awkwardly or whatever.”
I’ve said this before, but one of the greatest pleasures of my working life is to be allowed to pretend to fall in love with [Catz] over and over again. I love love stories, I love acting love stories. And we just had such fun with that journey and never felt like we were repeating ourselves. She’d fight her corner and I’d fight mine. Just a real joy. Lovely. She’s brilliant. She’s the whole deal.
Was there anything special about performing on those streets, along the sea, in the sun?
I’ll tell you one thing, we get some pretty big crowds down there, especially when we’re filming in the village in the height of summer. We can get 200, 300 people watching the filming, and I’ve never once felt self-conscious or awkward or like I have to play to that audience — even though I do, a bit, in between. Whereas I’ve filmed things in London and people will beep their car horns because they see someone’s filming, and they’ll try and mess you up, and it’s not that enjoyable. But it’s always felt very natural and easy in Port Isaac [which stands in for the fictional Portwenn]. I don’t know if it’s a testament to the place or my feelings about the place. It was always very happy. We did the film “Saving Grace” down there before doing “Doc Martin,” and that was a really happy time. Just me and this dog Mary Elizabeth when she was a puppy. Philippa was busy, so I just took the puppy with me. I had a Volkswagen camper van. And that was a lovely job; I didn’t have to learn any medical words.
Did you know the shape of this last season at the end of Season 9?
No. We said, “Right, the next one will be the last.” And ITV [which commissions the show] was sort of unhappy about that and said, “Would you do a Christmas episode as well?” But a lot of thought went into the arc of the series and the arc of the individual characters to make sure everyone was heading in the same direction and we didn’t just fizzle out like a bad firework display. But, no, we didn’t know that everything that happens in this series was going to happen by the finish.
Are there things you requested for the story or did you take what you got?
Pretty much. Sometimes I’ll tinker with the rewrites and little scenes here or there and have suggestions. I solve certain problems. It’s very easy for the writers to write him as long-winded, which he never is. Or make him cruel, which he isn’t. So I’ve got the ultimate custody of those kind of tonal tweaks. Tone is everything.
Were there any twists in the series that surprised you?
Well, there’s a certain element to the Christmas special — something happens in that that really surprised me, but in the nicest possible way. I just thought it was a stroke of genius that makes it uniquely “Doc Martin” and very Christmas-y as well, which is quite hard when you’ve got a Scrooge-like main man. Who doesn’t like Christmas because he remembers that his parents abandoned him [laughing] every Christmas.
That’s the first time we’ll see Portwenn in the winter.
Yes, I know, and the genius art department filled Port Isaac with a lot of twinkly lights, and there’s a lot of fake snow and a turkey. It’s very good, the new fake snow; it even squeaks when you walk on it.
What does the show mean to you in the body of your career?
The best job I’ll ever have, I guess. To shoot in a holiday location, with my wife, from my own company, it just doesn’t happen like that, does it? We’ve been through four different managements, and we don’t even get script notes or notes on edits or anything. We’re completely left alone. We don’t take up anybody’s desk time, and it still seems to outperform most of the competition. That’s never gonna happen again. So yeah, it’s been an amazing job. And it bought us this farm.
Were there any last meetings with the cast, a wrap party?
Well, no, it was quite hard because very seldom are we all there on the same day anyway. Unless there’s a wedding or a funeral or something. And so there was a rather staggered finish. I know there was disappointment from some members of the cast about that. But what can you do? Also, I was absolutely exhausted. This was a six-month shoot, because we did the Christmas one first in February and we never used to start until the end of March. And I got COVID in March and was off for two weeks, which meant they used up all the bits I wasn’t in, so when I came back, I had no gaps. I’m not complaining, but five or six pages of dialogue a day is quite a pressure, and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it. I’m not getting any younger.
We have a quiz night every Wednesday in Port Isaac on the job, which is a riot of beer and pizza and shouting. And [my daughter] Emily came down for [the last] quiz night, and she said she was driving up the lane from the cottage to go to work and she was in tears because she realized it was the last time she was going to do that. But, of course, she was born during the filming of “Saving Grace,” and when we did the two Sky films [“Doc Martin” and “Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie,” featuring an early, much different version of the character], she was a babe in arms, and then she came down here all those summers, went to the seal sanctuary over and over again. She grew up coming down here, and I hadn’t for one minute considered that it would have an impact on her that we were leaving. Mainly because she never shows interest in anything we do.
But you had no feelings of regret.
Nope, not a bit, no. Which isn’t to say, “Goddamned it, I hated that job, I’m glad to be out of it.” It’s not that at all. It just feels quite organically right to stop, and I think everybody felt that in a way. But I’ve had quite a bit of street grief from people saying how disappointed they are it’s finished.
Do you have memories of your last day on set?
Yes. Very happy. We were filming a scene from Episode 7, where Chris Parsons [played by Vincent Franklin], the medical director guy, is in the rock pool and gets his foot stuck, and his wife’s having a seizure. And Jess Ransom, who plays Morwenna, and Joe Absolom, who plays Al Large, were in the scene. And we had an amazing summer this year, and the ocean was the loveliest blue, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. And to our left out of shot was a beautiful Cornish beach with people doing what they’ve done in Cornwall for years, which is families and their dogs and their children just having a fantastic time. And it seemed to sum up our experience. It wasn’t too taxing a day; I didn’t have to say any long medical words. Just a quick defibrillation. It was quite easy. So it was really great. It was a feeling of real elation. But I’ve always loved finishing jobs. I’ve always started jobs with the intention of finishing them.
‘Doc Martin Season Finale’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)