"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.