Martin Clunes: from man behaving badly to devoted dad
To my generation, Martin Clunes was like a cool older brother, his character Gary Strang in the Nineties sitcom Men Behaving Badly an inspiringly laddish role model for how not to grow up – live with your best friend, drink a huge amount of beer and refuse to commit to anyone or anything beyond what time to meet at the pub.
Clunes’s personal life during this period seemed a more extreme, less lovable version of his onscreen persona. A marriage in 1990, to Lucy Aston, an actress, never really got off the ground, the couple separating in 1993 and divorcing in 1997. He later described the relationship as “rotten”. She retaliated by telling a newspaper that he would “snort cocaine before work in the mornings”.
It was something of a surprise, therefore, to read an article in the Telegraph’s Weekend section last year which described Clunes as “morphing into Britain’s most unlikely Pony Club father”. By then happily remarried, to Philippa Braithwaite, a television producer, they’d moved with their 11-year-old daughter to a 130-acre farm in Dorset, where they were preparing to host Buckham Fair, their third annual gymkhana and dog show on behalf of the local community. He was also about to become President of the British Horse Society. Who, I wondered, as I went to meet him, is the real Martin Clunes?
Clunes the actor is, of course, an endurably bankable star of the small screen. Before Men Behaving Badly, for which he won a Bafta, he could be seen in everything from Inspector Morse to Jeeves and Wooster – although he once joked that the question he was most often asked by strangers was, “Aren’t you in The Bill?” More recently he has taken the title roles in Goodbye, Mr Chips, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Doc Martin, the fifth series of which airs on ITV this autumn.
An unlikely ratings success, regularly pulling in nine million viewers, this gently amusing drama revolves around Dr Martin Ellingham, a grumpy London surgeon with a phobia of blood who becomes a GP, relocating to the picturesque Cornish fishing village of Port Wenn. His abrasive bedside manner as he encounters everything from food poisoning to adder bites, his on-off relationship with the local headmistress, and a cast of English eccentrics including an agoraphobic bobby and an infatuated pharmacist have found an audience in more than 70 countries.
“People on their holidays come and watch us film,” says Clunes. “We even had one woman – from Connecticut, I think – who stayed for two weeks and wrote us poems.”
For Clunes, an outdoorsy type who takes a two-year break between series to pursue other projects, such as making documentaries about manta rays, filming Doc Martin on location in Cornwall is pretty much the nicest job in television.
He loves the medical research, even if one episode on diabetes briefly turned him into a hypochondriac; he’s made lots of friends among the cast, crew and locals; even the post-production is mainly carried out on location, in a converted grain barn; and he rents a “breathtaking” house each year where his wife, who produces the show, and his daughter can visit him regularly.
Lots of wild parties the rest of the time, then? No. “Our house is away from Port Isaac, which is where everyone else is,” he says. “I’d be lethal. I’d be in the pub every night and would get nothing done. Anyway, I have reams of pages of lines to learn every night.”
One wonders, though, just how “lethal” Clunes would be these days. He is at his most animated talking about his 14 horses, three dogs, two cats, six chickens and several hundred sheep and cows he’s left behind on his farm. Our interview is briefly put on hold while he chats affectionately to his wife about preparations for their fourth Buckham Fair. “There are going to be dodgems, dancing horses, dancing dogs – everything,” he beams after he’s hung up. “It’s gone ballistic. Mental.”
Clunes’s vocabulary appears to be modelled on that of the stereotypical embarrassing dad. While posing for his picture he jokingly tells the photographer that he is spending the day “being gangbanged” – the term actors apparently use to describe a series of media interviews while plugging their latest project. Earlier he had casually dropped the nuclear c-word into our conversation.
Somehow though with Clunes one doesn’t mind. Not only does such language seem entirely natural for this happy man-child, he is such irrepressible, likable, modest and, above all, very amusing company that you would forgive him far worse.
Does he, I wonder, watch House, the American medical drama that has made Hugh Laurie a multi-millionaire? Only once, is the answer. “Hugh Laurie isn’t funny looking, which I am,” he explains. “And that’s what’s held him back.”
In person Clunes’s famously rubbery lips and big ears are less obvious than on screen – indeed they’re somehow in fitting with his 6ft 3in frame. However, it’s still hard to disagree when he says, “I’m not a leading man; I’m a character actor.” He has no other acting work with a broadcast date at the moment – although one cannot imagine it will stay this way for long – and he says he’d be “really sad” if he didn’t work again.
The only other potential source of sadness in an otherwise enviably happy life appears to be the spat with his ex-wife. “I think she read something that I’d said in an interview,” he says, his elastic features momentary downcast. “It’s just a regrettable thing and Max Clifford is always involved in these things. So money changes hands. Whatever.” He laughs unhappily. Are you friends now, I ask. “No, well, I don’t know where she lives. I’m sure Clifford could tell me but…”
He tails off. Anxious to cheer him up, I ask if he’d consider a remake of Men Behaving Badly – perhaps Old Men Behaving Badly? “I think it’s probably quite a seedy notion,” he laughs. Has masculinity changed since those laddish Nineties, I ask. “I haven’t been looking,” he jokes, his usual knee-jerk response. “Sorry.”
But then he continues, more thoughtfully: “Yes, I’m a modern father, as are all the dads of my contemporaries. And it’s not even worthy of comment, if you know what I mean. It’s just how it works. It’s a bit wrong not to muck in. We’re more muck-iny.
“I was really delighted when Emily [his daughter] wasn’t putting on weight and had to have some formula when she was a baby because it meant I could feed her. It wasn’t just the breast owners who got that treat.”
And there, in a nutshell, you have Martin Clunes today, turning 50 this November, and talking lovingly about his daughter while making jokes about his wife’s breasts.
That evening, he’s looking forward to his wife joining him briefly in London, for “a spot of looting”. These days, however, he’s “always glad to leave” and return home.
Somehow Martin Clunes has managed to grow up – relatively gracefully and not too quickly. Whether British men have followed his rather inspiring example of behaving in an appropriate way at the appropriate age is another question altogether.