MARTIN Clunes, infamous as Doc Martin for being so rude to everyone – women, children, the elderly, even the sick and dying – gets to be unusually nice while island-hopping around Australia.
Martin Clunes: Island of Australia is a three-parter, starting this Friday, October 7, at 8.30pm on Seven, made by Clunes’ own production house in conjunction with a Fremantle company. It’s screening here before anywhere else – ITV has yet to schedule it for Britain.
He was garrulous and amiable for this phone interview from his home in Dorset, nothing like his churlish alter-ego – about whom he chatted happily, and dropped the news that guest star Sigourney Weaver is keen to return so she can have a pub brawl and punch his face! And having heard of Weaver’s previous role, Harvey Keitel has lined himself up, insisting on a part.
Did stardom follow Clunes to the remote islands of Australia? Was he tempted to drop stakes and stay in paradise himself?
First up, an insistent editor demanded I ask a rather impertinent question, I said as a warning more to myself than to Clunes:
I’ll get this out of the way so my editor is off our backs, answer it as you will: Why on earth do Australians need an English actor to tell us about our islands? I can't answer that! [smiles] Look, it was an Australian's idea that I do it – ask him! [laughs]. I'm not even gonna enter that one!
It was produced by your company and your wife [Philippa Braithwaite] had a strong hand in it? She was involved nuts and bolts but the main company was Prospero in Fremantle. It was a co-pro [-duction] but you're getting it long before we get it here. ITV hasn't even given us a date. The idea came from a series I did here called The Islands of Britain and your editor might want to know why the English need an English actor to tell them about their islands! I don't know quite when actors got involved in these things but I'm very glad we did. Somebody at Channel Seven said “Why don't you come over here and do the islands of Australia?” So I did. And very glad I was, too. I really loved it.
In the opener we learn Australia has 8200 islands and if you saw one a day it’d take 22 years to see them all – how did you choose which 16 to visit? We had an Australian researcher who cast a broad net. You look at which islands have which stories and try to plot a geographical route. You see which ones are best on paper and someone'll do a research visit to see if we're right. Bound to be stuff we missed. More for next time maybe.
Island communities, by definition, are cut off from the mainstream – that’s part of the appeal. Did it strike you perhaps that isolation was too great a price to pay? I don't know. There are two types of islanders – the blow-ins and the guys who were born there. You get that in remote communities anywhere but I like that the boundary is just so clear on an island. That containment I think just strengthens the sense of community. The care for other islanders, the pride in their island, are a real joy.
An island escape sounds like paradise but we’re watching safely from our armchairs. The lack of services and comforts might be a harsh reality! Many islanders you met had been cut off for decades. How did you feel they were coping? Were they all the better for the experience? Yeah! Every time. You never heard complaints that they don't have multiplex cinemas. Kids might say the internet's a bit slow but I wish kids would shut up about the internet altogether and get off it [cranky Doc Martin to the fore, he catches himself and smiles]. Oh, dear. I wouldn't even use the word “coping”. For those who moved there, who made that choice, those are usually the things they wanna get rid of.
Was there at any point when you felt yes, you could do that, too? [huge intake of breath] I couldn't because I never look at anywhere else and kind consider living there because I'm so happy living where I live. I won't go anywhere else to live. But there are an awful lot of those islands I'd gladly go back to! [His nomination was unexpected:] I'm a big fan of Tasmania.
We don’t even think of that as an island! I know, it's the size of Norway, but yeah it’s an island. You been there? It's absolutely beautiful. it's stunning. I'm wary of picking favourites because it's hard to grade them but if I was taking a holiday on them it’d be easier to pick a favourite but because we were there to work, um, islands become coloured by the personalities you meet there or the experiences you have there so it’s hard to say this island's better than that one. It wasn't my first time in Tasmania and I was really looking forward to going back. Norfolk, Lord Howe, they're beautiful, and the islands to the west are even more extraordinary.
How so? The Muirons [North and South, off WA] are kind of rockier, less lush, and Rottnest is very pretty but has a confusing history. I'd go to all of them again really. The only one where there was any struggle was Restoration Island and that was just because of the Queensland climate, Sleeping at night was hard. That's where Dave lives on his own with a dingo, and he's not running a hotel. The accommodation is fairly basic.
Sounds like Manuia, in the Cook Islands – extraordinary, but basic. Oh, was it? [smiles] I’d like to go to the Cook Islands, maybe next time.
We never heard complaints that they don't have multiplex cinemas. Kids might say the internet's a bit slow but I wish kids would shut up about the internet altogether and get off it!
Manuia is amazing, off the beaten track. Not a luxury resort. You sound mildly traumatised by it! [smiles]
The stunning reality of island life, versus the romanticism of it. Wow.
And some of the other characters you met? Jack Shick on Lord Howe was a really nice guy. And his family were charming. He could shimmy up a tree as easy as look at it. He had just a nice way about him and I enjoyed his interest in us, he was quite curious about us.
You were obviously representing Greater Civilisation. [laughs] That's the first time anyone's ever said that to me! [laughs] It wasn't like a grilling, just an air of curiosity. He always had his eye on you, like a horse, very curious. And he was also just a really nice guy. Everywhere we went we had incredible hospitality. That island sticks in the memory ’cos it's so strikingly beautiful. I can't stop reaching for a cliché. It was also the first one we filmed at.
And of course you were no longer the celebrated TV star to most of the people you met were you? No, actually I was. Doc Martin has reached the world! I've never been, I’ve never felt so famous. In Norfolk Island I was like one of the Beatles. There was a crowd of women outside the airport screaming "Doc Mahhhtin!" [laughs]. It was extraordinary. It's the power of TV, I guess, isn't it. I think Dave Glasheen was the only one who hadn't seen Doc Martin. He was the only guy without a TV.
Talking of the good doctor, do you ever feel trapped by the role? [whispers] No. [normal voice] No, Ian, I love it. [laughs] It's the best job I'll ever get. For any number of reasons. You know, I get to go down to Cornwall for five months every other year. The show belongs to us, my wife and I make it, we work together on it, our daughter's grown up through it, it pays for everything, and people love it, so I’m never gonna be churlish about it, you know. It's a really good gig. And we take great pride in it.
Coming up to season 8, you must be well and truly at the point where it's a struggle to find places you haven't been dramatically? Ah, yeah, but there are a few and we've ring-fenced them in the past and you know the changes only have to be tiny and sometimes people don't even spot them but we spot them and it stops us feeling like we're repeating ourselves. That's what keeps it going I think. It's my clever wife, really.
Your character is based on a role in the film Saving Grace , with Brenda Blethyn . . . Well, it wasn't really, no, it’s the opposite of that character. Same name and same village but different man altogether.
OK. Well, if you had a bit of license to change the character why didn't you make him just a bit more likeable? [laughs] Don't mess with our premise! I know, he’s just got and nastier and nastier. Of course, that's what I like about him [he drifts off in thought]. Sorry, what were you saying?
On Norfolk Island I was like one of the Beatles. There was a crowd of women outside the airport screaming "Doc Mahhhtin!". Extraordinary!
At least it gives you as an actor the chance to be bloody nasty and brutish, not the sort of opportunity you get when you’re the star of a long-running show! I know! But yes, lucky me. I get to be rough with children and the elderly, with license. It's very refreshing. Most actors just want to be loved, I know I do. I wouldn't dream of telling anyone to shut up in real life. Consequently, you know, I spend a lot of time listening to things I don't want to hear just ’cos I'm being polite [smiles].
What's coming up in season 8? Well, we left Martin and Louisa in a good place, for once. At the end of series 7 they realise they’re sort of interdependent so we'll build from there. They have to sort out where they're going to live. Louisa is gonna look for a change in her career and I’m going to be rude to some more patients.
Naturally. What's the rudest you've ever been as Doc Martin, that even now makes you cringe? I think the rudest I was was to Sigourney Weaver [she played a US tourist in search of a prescription for medicine at Portwenn] – I hadn't been that rude to a patient in years and it felt great. [laughs] Now she wants to come back and fight me in a pub! That's all we've heard her request is! [laughs] Harvey Keitel has heard that Sigourney was in it and now he wants to be in it too.
What’ll you get him to do? I don't know. Hit me, too?! [laughs] It's always good to hit the dog.
And I had a question about the islands and it's totally gone from me, thanks to Harvey Keitel! Oh, I beg your pardon!
Things never go smoothly on location shoots like that. What sort of things went wrong for you? We once had to leave the cameraman behind because, quite rightly, he’d left his passport home in Fremantle. He said these are Australian islands, why would I need one? But on Norfolk Island they like to see your passport and because he'd left his home we couldn't take him.
So how did you shoot? Well, we had our sound recordist, Owen, an amazing man who was also a drone pilot. ’Cos everything has a drone in it these days. And you can’t use the drone and shoot sound because of the noise of the drone so he never has to double up. So we just did some drone shots for a day. We were on beautiful Norfolk and some of my favourite shots are drone shots coming through those Norfolk Island pines.
We had a drone in the last season of Doc Martin. They’re just everywhere, massively over-used as well in some places. Which is irrelevant. They’re a big help, especially with anything with a coastline.
Your next doco? I don’t have a next one. But I do have a voiceover to do in 10 minutes, Ian. [laughs]
I’d better let you go! What are you voicing? Oh dear, I can’t remember.
Really appreciate the time. Wish you all the best. Nice to talk to you again, Ian. Thank you very much.
- Martin Clunes: Islands of Australia parts 1 to 3 on Seven. Details here.
- Missed episodes? Watch them here (part 1 available to November 4, part 2 to November 11, part 3 to November 18).
- Read more. Follow-up sit-down interview with Martin Clunes in Sydney here.
- More of Ian’s star interviews here.