It’s rare that a woman gets to see her future husband without a stitch on before they’ve started dating, but that experience befell producer Philippa Braithwaite during the production of the 1994 comedy Staggered.
The film starred Martin Clunes (who also directed) as a hapless bridegroom-to-be who wakes up naked on the beach of a remote Scottish island after a particularly strenuous stag party. “What an introduction,” says Braithwaite, laughing – which she and Clunes do rather a lot. They’re giggling together on a sofa at the London offices of their independent production company, Buffalo Pictures, when I meet them to talk about the power dynamic of running a business together as a couple in real life.
A sense of humour certainly helps for Braithwaite, since it was she who finally sent her actor husband as uptight doctor Martin Ellingham down the aisle with Caroline Catz’s extremely attractive headmistress Louisa Glasson in series six of Doc Martin, ITV’s long-running Cornish comedy-drama whose swansong series has just begun. “We had to – it was time,” the producer explains of her executive decision to resolve the most protracted will-they-or-won’t-they situation since Miss Adelaide’s 14-year engagement to Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.
As Clunes gleefully puts it, “The greatest pleasure of my working life is being allowed to fall in love with Caroline over and over again.” Having to watch your husband kissing another woman on set, even if it was your idea in the first place, might seem odd to those outside the industry, but as a smiling Braithwaite explains, “I manage to put up a barrier – you are looking at an actor doing something…”
It’s relatively uncommon in the world of entertainment for couples to run a production company together, especially if the man is the star but the woman is in charge; the only examples they know of are Hollywood A-lister Robert Downey Jr and his film producer wife, Susan. Braithwaite’s approachable demeanour doesn’t scream Big Boss Lady; instead, she says their working partnership is “a collaborative affair. Martin and I discuss decisions together, though not 24/7; we try not to let it encroach on our weekends.
“Who is the calm one? We take it in turns… I worry about budgets and I put out fires, so I think it helps to be married to someone who understands the business. But then I’ve never been married to anyone else, so I don’t know,” adds Braithwaite, 58, whose CV includes 1998’s Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow.
Clunes, still baby-faced at 60, with those expressive rubber features, maintains: “I do the dressing up and farting around. At the end of the day, I eat, learn my lines and fall asleep. But marriage is a partnership of many sides, isn’t it?”
In a business with its fair share of prima donnas, the Cluneses come across as a grounded, very ungrand pair. They run their own farm near Beaminster, in Dorset, where they keep five cattle, six horses (a particular passion), five chickens, four dogs and two cats after downsizing from a bigger menagerie. So embedded are they in the county to which they return each weekend after filming in Cornwall that Clunes has been made a Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset, which involves representing the Crown at various events.
They have been married since 1997 and have a daughter, Emily, who is 23 next month and manages a horse rehabilitation centre, as well as competing in riding events. “She’s our expert in all things equestrian. We were thrilled that the acting gene hasn’t been passed down to her,” says Clunes, son of the late actor Alec Clunes but not one to view thespianism through rose-tinted glasses.
“Because of my involvement as co-director of Buffalo, I really understand what everyone does on the set – which not all the entire acting profession does,” he says drily. “They can sometimes walk on set in mid-anecdote in an actor’s bubble and just assume that theirs is the only work going on that day. I’m aware of that and I don’t subscribe to that; I like to be businesslike.”
Doc Martin’s eccentric Cornish escapism, originally created by Anthony Minghella’s younger writer brother Dominic, began in 2004 with the story of a gifted but grouchy GP who gets every diagnosis right while infuriating many of his patients with his lack of interpersonal skills.
He’s the grit in the oyster of Portwenn, the fictional hamlet played by the real-life Port Isaac, on the north Cornish coast, which has received such a boost to visitor numbers that Cornwall Tourism bestowed a special award upon the show. In a county that has often seen Nimbyist battle lines drawn up between locals and newcomers, Buffalo Pictures has put something back into the community by making regular contributions to Port Isaac’s village funds.
As for the doc’s brusque refusal to cosy up to his patients, Clunes says with relish: “Some doctors have even contacted our show to say that my character is actually too nice.” That uncompromising “alpha doctor” attitude seems to have struck a chord with viewers, who want decisiveness in an uncertain world, not dithering. “A doctor like that keeps people on their toes,” says Braithwaite. “When you go to the doctor now, they ask you to make decisions for them by asking which treatment you would prefer, which I hate. When I broke my ankle while horse-riding, the anaesthetist said I had three choices and which one did I prefer? I said, ‘The one that doesn’t kill me!’ But handing responsibility for the decision to the patient seems to be the culture now.”
They feel particularly gratified that the show has been a life-saving one for the viewer who wrote to thank them for the storyline in which Doc Martin yells at a laboratory technician down the phone, “He’s a smoker with a lump in his throat, would you like the tumour to write to you?” A man watching was a smoker who realised he had the same symptom and rushed off to his GP, eventually being successfully treated for throat cancer. “Our medical adviser Dr Martin Scurr comes up with all the conditions featured in the stories and insists on absolute accuracy, because these things matter – even if it’s comedy-drama,” explains Braithwaite.
The show has sold all over the world, especially in America and Australia. Among its celebrity fans are the Queen consort, who paid them a set visit with King Charles; Anthony Hopkins, who asked to guest-star (but couldn’t make the dates work out); Sigourney Weaver (who did appear, twice); and singer Sir Tom Jones (who binge-watched it in LA during lockdown). “Camilla was thrilled to meet all the characters,” recalls Clunes of the royal visit. “Charles was a bit bemused. He said he does watch it, but didn’t know as much as Camilla about it,” adds Braithwaite, only for Clunes to retort: “But he liked meeting Jessica… [Ransom, who plays the eye-catching former surgery receptionist Morwenna].”
The show has attracted more than 10 million viewers over 18 years, and its 10th and final series began on September 7 and will be rounded off by a Christmas special in December, with Claire Bloom reprising her guest role as Doc Martin’s mother.
“I know I’ll never have another job like it again. It’s a dream job, working with your spouse. This industry takes people away from their families – but not in this case,” says Clunes. Everything has been filmed down in Cornwall, with a grain barn used as a studio for interior shots, so Braithwaite has been there for the entirety of each four- to five-month shoot – which has taken place every other year.
Yet theirs is not always a 24/7 working partnership, since she doesn’t often join Clunes for the filming of his globe-trotting Islands documentary series, which their company also makes. “It’s such a small crew,” she explains, only for her husband to weigh in with a teasing chortle: “Nothing to do with sleeping in hastily built huts in remote locations… But the island of New York and its shops? Oh yes!”
The happy marriage of its makers is central, it appears, to the way that Doc Martin has panned out thematically over nearly two decades. “No other long-running series like this had a love story like the Doc and Louisa at its heart,” says Clunes, who admits to “loving love stories. You don’t have that in Morse or Endeavour or Midsomer Murders or other long-runners. I think it’s quite clever to keep that element alive for so long, because people really tune into it. Other shows I’ve made, such as William and Mary, have been love stories; so was Staggered, in a way – and even Men Behaving Badly.”
Yet the couple feel that the current fashion for darker TV fare makes it harder for family-orientated shows such as Doc Martin to be made these days. “People can sit down with their children and grannies and watch it, which is now quite unusual. There aren’t enough of such shows, but they always do well in the ratings,” says Braithwaite.
“It’s quite hard to manufacture drama out of humour and wit when you’ve got the easy option of holding a gun to someone’s head,” remarks her husband. “It’s the cruelty in some current drama that I find more and more that I can’t stand. A way of licensing people to show such cruelty is to say that it’s depicting a fictitious state, or that they’re zombies or vampires. But it’s still human cruelty – and fetishising violence.”
They themselves have their own thriller series already commissioned, Out There, about the county-lines network of young drug runners across the country, with a central role for Clunes; I’m intrigued to see their depiction of this very dark subject matter. Two other projects in development are Biba, a dramatisation of the colourful life of the Swinging Sixties clothes designer Barbara Hulanicki, and Lone Ranger, a comedy-drama with Clunes’s former Men Behaving Badly co-star Caroline Quentin as a forest ranger.
Does Clunes stamp his foot and insist on his wife letting him have a starring role in everything they make? “Nah, Philippa is always trying to elbow me out to make way for the younger folk,” he jokes. “So I think my love-story days are over…”
Doc Martin is on ITV on Wednesdays at 9pm, with a Christmas special and a documentary to follow in December