Grouching Tiger: How grumpy Doc Martin became a TV phenomenon

The doctor is out: Martin Clunes is making his final appearance as Doc Martin in a new Christmas special  (ITV)
The doctor is out: Martin Clunes is making his final appearance as Doc Martin in a new Christmas special (ITV)

It was 2004 and Martin Clunes was ready for a change. As the star of riotous Nineties sitcom Men Behaving Badly, he was still widely regarded as the face of floppy-fringed, shirt-hanging-out lad culture. But Clunes was eager to show a different side: to prove he could do serious as well as frothy. At which point Dr Martin Ellingham, an emotionally repressed small-town GP with a tight smile and a big heart, walked into his life. Doc Martin had entered the building.

“It was a leap,” Clunes would reflect of the character he has portrayed for the past 18 years and to whom he says farewell with a Christmas special on ITV tonight (the series proper having wrapped in October). “I need something to act, someone to act, or something to pin someone on, rather than just open a script and a nice guy says some kind of nice things.”

Doc Martin, the lovable weirdo into whom Clunes has breathed such glorious crotchetiness, was introduced flying from London to Cornwall, where he was interviewing for a job as a family doctor. He was also gawping at the lady seated opposite. The woman, Louisa, considered this weird and creepy. In fact, Martin – who’d packed in a glamorous career as a surgeon after developing a fear of blood – had detected the early signs of glaucoma in one of her eyes. One misunderstanding led to another, and now – nearly two decades on – Martin and Louisa are married with two children.

Social miscues, an obscure-ish physical ailment, and a hint of chemistry. Here was Doc Martin in a nutshell. Ellingham got the GP gig. A few series in, he and Louisa were an item. And Doc Martin became a phenomenon, with the finale of series four drawing a blockbusting 10 million viewers.

More than that, it became – with apologies to Poldark and Aidan Turner’s tricorn hat – the most beloved screen representation of Cornwall. Each summer hundreds of “Clunatics” descend on the fishing village of Port Isaac – renamed “Portwenn” on screen – and inhale the sheer Doc Martin-ness of it all.

It achieved its blockbuster status by charming viewers with its quirky cast: alongside Martin and Louisa, there is larger-than-life plumber Bert (Ian McNeice), pharmacist Sally (Selina Cadell), who has an unrequited crush on Martin, and Ruth Ellingham (Eileen Atkins), a gimlet-eyed retired psychiatrist and Martin’s aunt.

Doc Martin also dazzled and horrified audiences with the many ailments with which Ellingham was confronted week after week. Ruptured spleens, deep-fat-fryer burns, collapsed lungs, and near death caused by an overdose of Viagra – all have been part and parcel of the Doc Martin experience. In one early episode, two men grew breasts after sleeping with the same woman who was overusing hormone replacement cream on her own breasts and passing it on to her sexual partners. “Which would take an awful lot of hormone replacement cream,” said Clunes. “[But] not technically impossible.”

What the show hasn’t done is reinvent the wheel. British television has a proud tradition of fish-out-of-water drama. From All Creatures Great and Small (Glasgow vet parachuted into Yorkshire Dales) to Ballykissangel (English priest marooned in mountainy Wicklow), the formula is part of the furniture of middle-brow telly. But none can rival the success of Doc Martin. Broadcast around the world, it has a major following in the United States (from where the Clunatics generally hail). And it has spawned local versions in Germany, France, Spain and Russia.

Such is its clout that it has also attracted guest stars such as Danny Huston and Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is a friend of Cadell (aforementioned pharmacist Sally) and, appearing on The Jonathan Ross Show, let it be known she was up for a part in Doc Martin. Its producer Philippa Braithwaite (Clunes’s wife) got in touch: a few months later the star of Alien and Ghostbusters was Cornwall-bound to play an American tourist.

Martin Clunes starred as the cantankerous Doc Martin in the long-running ITV series (ITV)
Martin Clunes starred as the cantankerous Doc Martin in the long-running ITV series (ITV)

Yet notwithstanding the guest stars and the idiosyncratic line-up of locals, the appeal of the series flows largely from its eponymous character. Not only is he vastly different from the cuddly figures Clunes played for most of his career, he is also a departure from the stereotype of the relatable hero. Curmudgeonly, lacking social skills, and indifferent to the feeling of others, Doc Martin has few antecedents on TV (his only true peer is another misfit television medic, Dr Gregory House, as portrayed by Hugh Laurie from 2004 to 2012). Those qualities were precisely what drew Clunes to Ellingham – much as they would later win over viewers. He relished playing an outsider who differed from him in every way.

“I really like the sense of liberation that I get just from playing someone who’s never polite for the sake of being polite,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “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.”

The other great strength of Doc Martin, Clunes believes, is the odd-couple romance between the buttoned-down Ellingham and the more expressive Louisa. Their awkward confrontation on that plane was the opposite of a meet-cute. And yet, week by week, they became inseparable – and the public was soon hugely invested in the relationship.

“I really think that Caroline Catz has carved such a niche for herself in that role,” Clunes would tell the LA Times. “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 tuning in to see.”

Humbug: Clunes’s last outing as the character comes in a Christmas special (ITV)
Humbug: Clunes’s last outing as the character comes in a Christmas special (ITV)

They were also fascinated by the Ellingham character. A consensus soon emerged that he was “on the spectrum”, ie autistic, to one degree or another. Nobody involved with Doc Martin has ever confirmed or denied this. The question, it was felt, was best left unanswered. “The minute you start to diagnose him then there’d be a tendency to cure him,” said Clunes. “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.”

If the appeal of the drama was straightforward, Doc Martin’s journey to the screen was anything but. The character had its origins in Saving Grace, a 2000 feature-length comedy directed by Nigel Cole about a Cornish widow (Brenda Blethyn) who becomes a cannabis dealer to save her home from repossession.

We didn’t want to do the ‘Doc Hollywood’ thing of ‘smart town city doctor being amazed and bemused by his quirky neighbours’... we kind of wanted to turn that on its head

Martin Clunes

Clunes played Dr Martin Bamford, a chatty, chummy friend of Grace who bore little resemblance to the Doc Martin character. Despite the lack of grumpiness, Clunes was a hit with audiences. So much so that the character was spun off into two prequels for British Sky Broadcasting, exploring how Bamford had ended up in Cornwall: Doc Martin and Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie (a cloutie, or clootie, being a piece of rag tied to a tree as an offering to the spirits).

Under his deal with BSB, Clunes was to produce two TV movies per year for three years. However, Sky Pictures shuttered after just two were made. And so Clunes, with his wife and their production company, Buffalo Pictures, shopped the idea to ITV. Clones and Braithwaite came up with Doc Martin in collaboration with Dominic Minghella, the screenwriter brother of late director Anthony (though he left after season two). “They said they didn’t mind me being a doctor in that place,” recalled Clunes of his conversations with ITV. “So we had the licence 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 neighbours’; we kind of wanted to turn that on its head, and that was a small community united in horror by this vile GP.”

A family man: Clunes and Co in the ‘Doc Martin’ Christmas special (ITV)
A family man: Clunes and Co in the ‘Doc Martin’ Christmas special (ITV)

This “Vile GP” would win hearts across the UK. One place where he was not universally embraced was Cornwall. Already struggling with an influx of wealthy outsiders and rocketing property prices, some locals believed Doc Martin was making their already challenging lives even harder.

“Port Isaac, where I was born and have lived all my life, has been totally ruined by Doc Martin,” solicitor Dugald Sproull told Cornwall Live in 2017. “It is now overrun by day-trippers who troop down the village to stare at various houses which feature in the series. True, they may buy a pasty or ice cream, but not a lot more.”

The detractors finally have their wish, with Doc Martin waltzing off to the great surgery in the sky following the airing of the Christmas special. Weirdly, in this, they may have something in common with Clunes, who hasn’t always been comfortable playing the lead role. “I just want to do something else as well,” he told The Times back in 2012. “I want to go back to supporting, and not having the whole thing on my shoulders playing the title role. Because I’m basically a character actor who got lucky, you know?”

The luck wasn’t his alone. Audiences will bid a teary farewell to Doc Martin on Christmas Day. But they may feel blessed that, over 18 bumpy years, they got to know this lovable weirdo, quirks and all.

The ‘Doc Martin’ Christmas special airs on ITV1 at 9.05pm on Christmas Day