One of the most prolific, versatile and enduring performers ever to grace British television, for over forty years writer, actor, presenter and performer Martin Clunes has been entertaining audiences in their millions with his quintessentially British sense of humour. Whether it’s drama, comedy, sitcom or documentary, Clunes has been a mainstay in our living rooms for four decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Beginning his career as a stage actor, he quickly learned the disciplines of drama before landing a supporting role in the TV adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The White Guard for the BBC Play of the Month. At such an early stage in his career, it was impossible for the young supporting actor to imagine the entertainment journey he was about to take. For this reason, he has little to no recollection of this part but it was sure to spur him onto bigger and better things.
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These were the antiquated days of studio based drama and the BBC opted into the money saving scheme of not shooting drama on location but instead in the safe confines of Television Centre. In 1983 Martin starred in the now iconic episode of the BBC heavyweight series Doctor Who playing Lon alongside Peter Davison’s incarnation of the Doctor. Having never stepped foot inside a studio and being comfortable with the sights and smells of a theatre, this was really alien to the young actor who had grown up watching this iconic show. Being such a tender age, Martin was so naive to the discipline of the industry and was still learning how to be an adult. Therefore this proved a natural rite of passage and vital step on his journey through entertainment.
Meeting Harry Enfield during the late 1980’s was another significant milestone in a career that has spawned so many. Following starring in the ITV family sitcom All at No. 20 alongside Maureen Lipman and Gary Waldhorn, Martin teamed up with Enfield to make a pilot for a further ITV sitcom. ITV commissioned a pilot that never made it to air which was a relief to Clunes and his cast members because everyone agreed that it was awful. However, the duo then starred in the series Gone To The Dogs alongside a stellar cast including Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent. It was as a result of this, together with Enfield’s rising status within the comedy world that ITV decided to commission a series of the sitcom entitled Men Behaving Badly.
The series followed the lives of two twenty somethings men attempting to get to grips with adulthood on the backdrop of nineties Britain. This was the period of ITV’s substantial involvement into comedy and Light Entertainment. Former BBC senior management had been hired to reinvent commercial television’s role in the production of comedy and figures like John Howard-Davies were given a very definite aim. They were looking for conflict, slapstick and elements of Basil Fawlty which weren’t really akin with the Britain of the nineties. Harry Enfield is a supremely talented character actor and one of the sharpest minds in British comedy yet struggled with the fixed parameters of the sitcom format. Running for two series on ITV, Men Behaving Badly was promptly cancelled by the broadcaster. However, the legendary Beryl Vertue was about to do something extraordinary…
It’s very seldom for a rival channel to re-commission an unsuccessful formula but with the genial persuasion of Beryl Vertue, Men Behaving Badly was refined and given a new lease of life on prime time BBC1. The first change was to move the demographic from a family sitcom to post watershed which automatically increased the scope for humour and to seize upon the cultural zeitgeist of the time. With the inclusion of Neil Morrisey’s Tony who arrived at the start of series two, the show now had potential to be very silly as the relationship between Gary and Tony grew ever stronger. From farting into a birthing pool to faking orgasms, no subject matter was ever off limits in this postmodern take on the original bedsit sitcom. These elements, together with a highly experienced cast of actors made Men Behaving Badly into one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time.
Such a juggernaut of a show as Men Behaving Badly would leave a mark on the most versatile of actors in the age old quest to be devoid of typecast. Returning to ITV in 2002 for the gentle comedy drama William and Mary alongside Julie Graham offered Martin the opportunity to return to his straight acting roots for this bittersweet drama surrounding a couple and their attempts to procreate. Being a new father around this time offered Martin an extra insight into the character of an expectant alongside the many challenges it presents. Essentially William and Mary is a touching love story about two people as they navigate the journey of parenthood and Martin was able to bring firsthand authenticity to his role. Ironically the series was forced to take a hiatus when Julie Graham fell pregnant and returned for one final series. It may not have been the longest of series but the ability for art to imitate reality is a special thing that Martin shall forever cherish.
2002 proved a significant year in the career of Martin Clunes. If starring in one brand new comedy drama wasn’t enough, how about two? The other took an elaborate and unexpected journey into production which began on a 2000 comedy movie Saving Grace starring Brenda Blethyn where Martin played the part of Dr. Martin Bamford alongside Bill Bailey and Craig Ferguson. Like Ferguson himself Saving Grace enjoyed more success on the international circuit than at home which was a great shame for Sky. Yet it did introduce Martin to the character who would define the next chapter of his career and following some subtle tweaks, the incarnation of Doc Martin was complete.
The character of a socially awkward, impatient, fierce, fish out of water general practitioner Dr Martin Ellingham attempting to monitor the ongoing health of the residents of the sleepy village of Port Wenn isn’t the obvious source for comedy. Yet introduce a handful of eccentric characters, shots of the beautiful Welsh landscape and an endless stream of captivating stories and you have an ITV ratings winner. By his very nature, Ellingham is a cantankerous, self important, pompous man but is gradually brought down to earth by the bizarre goings on in this apparently sleepy village. Throughout the ten series, his awkwardness softens and the vulnerability shows itself in the form of him falling hopelessly in love with Louisa which offers the character more of a three dimensional image. This also offered Ellingham the ability to accept some accountability for his forthright, acerbic approach which was normally part of the payoff to an episode.
Apart from Louisa, Ellingham’s frequent bouts of anger and frustration were controlled by the ever calm Auntie Joan played by the legendary Stephanie Cole who acted as the voice of reason. This was an invaluable device which writers used to show another side to the character of Martin which contrasted his cold, abrasive exterior. To work with such an enduring stalwart of TV comedy as Stephanie Cole was a real thrill for the actor who had been bred on classic situation comedy and it was a dream come true to find himself acting opposite such a veteran of the studio based sitcom. Cole’s decision to leave the show after the fifth series created a void for producers to fill and Clunes was amazed when the iconic Dame Eileen Atkins agreed to take the role of Ruth Ellingham; Martin’s estranged aunt. To work alongside two absolute icons of drama in one role remains one of his greatest achievements and is testament to the quality of Doc Martin as a whole.
Beyond acting, Clunes has always had the unique ability to step outside his dramatic shadow to become the perfect candidate to front explorative personal perspective documentaries surrounding a whole host of different topics from exploring our great landscape to wildlife. His brand new ITV documentary Britain By Book sees him unite with the remarkable talents of Mel Giedroyc for a tour of the British isles as you’ve never seen it before. A lover of literature, this has offered Martin the opportunity to visit some of the iconic settings of the classic novels and attain a greater understanding of the background to our favourite authors. This union with Mel Giedroyc has been a real revelation and one which he continues to cherish.
So, whether he’s surrounded by animals, playing a socially awkward doctor or pontificating on the size of Kylie Minogue’s bottom, Martin Clunes has built an unrivalled rapport with his audience which transcends the screen. This, combined with his infectious enthusiasm for his art, makes him one of the most enduring and versatile stars of his generation. Every Christmas, Beyond The Title relishes in the ability to end the year with a substantial figure who is universally recognised throughout the country and Martin Clunes remains the absolute epitome of this. It was an absolute privilege to welcome the formidable Martin Clunes to Beyond The Title and a merry Christmas to you all.