Martin Clunes

Some actors love to talk about ‘the process’. Others, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro, favour the full immersive approach. And then there’s Martin Clunes, who describes his day job as ‘dressing up and pratting around’.

Clunes has been doing both these things, to profitable return, for more than 35 years now, having ‘sort of wafted into it without really thinking about it’. 

Despite being the son of the distinguished classical actor Alec Clunes, he didn’t consider it a proper job, even after leaving drama school. ‘I thought I should probably go and do theatre in education, because that was somehow more worthwhile than just entertaining people,’ says Clunes, speaking to Weekend, obligingly, froma Waitrose car park in deepest Somerset. ‘But I changed my mind.’

Lucky for us that he did. With his natural warmth and endearingly daft face, Clunes brings uncomplicated pleasure to millions, even managing to make the choleric Doc Martin – the GP with the worst bedside manner in Cornwall – strangely lovable.

It’s a trait much in evidence in his latest role in ITV’s glorious new adaptation of Vanity Fair. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, debt-ridden baronet Sir Pitt Crawley is presented as a cruel and boorish miser. But inClunes’ hands, he has an irresistibly bumptious charm. Was that a deliberate choice, asks Weekend – or is he just naturally bumptiously charming?

‘I think the latter, probably– I’m not that good an actor!’ says Clunes with a hearty laugh (he laughs a lot). ‘I’m not that good an actor! No, I liked him, and the way Gwyn [Gwyneth Hughes, writer] has done it, seems to warrant playing it that way. It’s a really fresh script that captures the essence of the book, without the density.’

As well as Clunes, the all-star includes Michael Palin, Suranne Jones and Simon Russell Beale. But it’s Olivia Cooke who steals the show, with a career-making turn as the witty and wily social climber Becky Sharp. ‘She’s stunning,’ raves Clunes. ‘Becky Sharp is possibly the greatest woman in English literature, and Olivia could have been made for it.’

When we first meet Sir Pitt, he’s at the reins of a horse-drawn carriage – for which no stunt driver was required, Clunes being an expert horseman and, indeed, president of the British Horse Society. 

For the past decade or so, his 130-acre Dorset farm has been home to more than a dozen horses, as well as dogs, cats, cows, chickens and up to 300 sheep – though he and his wife Philippa Braithwaite (who, as the producer of Doc Martin, is also his boss) are slowly pulling out of animal farming as the figures ‘just don’t add up’. ‘I naively thought I could make the land pay for itself,’ he explains. ‘If I didn’t employ anyone and it was all I did, then I might just make a tiny profit. But on our scale, it just doesn’t add up. So rather than worrying and knackering myself over the land, I’m just going to enjoy it more.’

Fortunately, he still gets to indulge his passion for fantastic beasts making ITV documentaries about everything from cats and dogs to heavy horses and lemurs, while his telly travelogues have seen him touring the islands of Britain and Australia, and he’s half way through filming one on America.

‘Everyone thinks they’re a holiday, but sometimes it feels like hard work,’ he insists. ‘Then I have to pinch myself and remind myself I’m really, really lucky. ITV are terribly good to me. But I suppose they’d say I was good to them.’

Of that there’s no doubt. Doc Martin, in particular, has proved a reliable ratings smash since launching in 2004 (as a spin-off from the film Saving Grace), its mix of light comedy and sun-drenched Cornish scenery attracting 10 million viewers at its peak.

A ninth series will air next year, and Clunes has previously said he’ll wait to be pushed, rather than jump. But today he’s not so sure. ‘Maybe I’ll jump, I don’t know,’ he muses. ‘I’ve been saying “That’s the last one” for a while now.’

When it is over, he’ll miss filming in the gorgeous fishing village of Port Isaac, which doubles for the fictional Portwenn. ‘My daughter [Emily, 19] was born during the filming of Saving Grace, and when we started making Doc Martin we put her in a nursery down there. Last year she drove herself down there, so it’s been the whole of her life. Maybe when it’s finished I’ll do what the rest of the world does, and start taking holidays in Cornwall.’

After Vanity Fair, he’ll be seen in an ITV drama about the hunt for Levi Bellfield, the serial killer responsible for the murders of Marsha McDonnell, Amélie Delagrange and Milly Dowler. The role of DCI Colin Sutton is something of a departure from his recent comic buffoonery – one he admits has been ‘quite a rollercoaster. There’s a duty to tell the story well and responsibly, which I think we’ve done. It’s not violence porn in any way. There’s no blood. It’s about the dogged police work carried out by Colin and his team.’

Despite his theatrical heritage, Clunes isn’t the sort of actor who feels the urge to slip in an edgy play at the National or the Donmar between TV jobs. In fact he’s barely done much theatre at all. Why is that? ‘Because I don’t live near one,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Plus I’m one of those people who needs to be busy. What would I do in London all day? Where would the sheep go?’

Clunes was just eight years old when his father died. ‘I think perhaps my dad’s absence added to my decision to be an actor,’ he reflects. ‘I don’t how it would have been if he’d been around and working.’

Years later, he discovered his father had abandoned him, his sister and his mother shortly before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Did that colour his memory of him?

‘I think it did for a while, yeah,’ he says. ‘But I’ve sort of got through that and out the other side. He was his own man, and those were his decisions to take.’

One immediate consequence of the tragedy was his grandparents and aunts stepping in and insisting he be sent to boarding school, despite his father’s oft-stated opposition to private schools. It was far from an enjoyable experience. ‘I felt a little adrift at the age of nine,’ he recalls. ‘I was also a massive bed wetter, and they are not really cherished in the boarding school dormitory.’ (A few years ago, his own daughter elected to go to boarding school. ‘That was a smack in the face!’ he guffaws.)

An influential figure in Clunes’ early life was his mother’s cousin, Jeremy Brett – a huge star of stage and screen, now best remembered for his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in 41 films for Granada Television.

‘Oh my god, he was fabulous,’ says Clunes. ‘He was just fantastically supportive and encouraging. If you ask anyone who knew him, he just had a gift for making you feel special.’

Is it true that, when you were starting out, he offered to pay for you to have your ears pinned back?

‘Yes, he did. He said he’d give me the money. But surgery seemed a step too far. I think I’d probably have starved, anyway, without them.’

It’s true those famous lugs haven’t done him any harm, even providing the punchline to the occasional gag in Men Behaving Badly, the 90s flatshare sitcom that turned Clunes into a star (and earned him a BAFTA).

Oddly, the show is often cited as an example of that decade’s pervasive, Loaded-sponsored ‘new lad’ culture – despite writer Simon Nye clearly intending for viewers to find Gary (Clunes) and Tony (Neil Morrisey) laughably pathetic. ‘We were forever being dragged into arguments we didn’t belong in,’ its leading man laments. ‘At the end of the day, we were just trying to be funny.’

Were they wild years, off screen?

‘I don’t know, maybe,’ says Clunes, who was married to first wife Lucy Aston from 1990 until 1997. ‘When it suddenly took off the way it did, it certainly put us all on the map. I guess that was quite heady.’

These days, he’s happier bailing hay or up to his elbows in muck down on the farm (where he also hosts an annual charity fair, including a Dog That Looks Most Like Neil Morrissey competition that his former co-star sometimes judges in person). But he’s not ready to stop dressing up and pratting around quite yet. So what’s next for Britain’s least starry TV superstar?

‘Next,’ he says, decisively, ‘I’m going into Waitrose to get the chips.’ 

Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 23, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend