Words: Alison James Pic: REX
He’s been a successful actor for 30-plus years so you don’t expect Martin Clunes to have any doubts about his ability and talent. He does, though – and it kind of makes us like him even more.
Take his latest role, for instance. Martin really wanted to play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the celebrated Edwardian writer and creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, in ITV’s drama, Arthur and George. The atmospheric three-parter is the true story of how Sir Arthur and his trusted secretary Alfred Wood investigated the case of George Edalji, a young Anglo-Indian who was imprisoned for allegedly mutilating animals and writing obscene letters.
In 2005, the case was turned into a celebrated novel by award- winning writer Julian Barnes and it is this book which has been adapted for TV. But initially Martin found the prospect of playing Sir Arthur rather daunting.
“I was very, very nervous,” he says as we chat over coffee. “In fact I was terrified. Arthur and George is a hugely successful novel and Julian Barnes really didn’t need us to make a television drama of it. It was also outside my cosy, familiar comfort zone – that is, Doc Martin and a few documentaries about animals! That has been my life for so long. My wife Philippa (TV producer Philippa Braithwaite) very patiently pursued the idea about turning the book into a TV programme, always with the intention that I played Sir Arthur.”
Now Martin’s very grateful she did. “After the first week of filming I realised how much I was enjoying the challenge of doing something different and I thanked Philippa for giving me the opportunity to play this role. She told me not to be silly but I felt I had to say something; playing Sir Arthur has reminded me how much I love what I do and that’s been so refreshing.
“He was quite a dandy, was Sir Arthur. Other gentlemen of the age only had one watch chain but he – and the King, Edward VII – had two! As time went on there was less and less of me visible and more of him!”
Sir Arthur was a very famous Scot so Martin (53) had to adopt an authentic Scots accent. “I have two Scottish horses but they were no help,” he jokes. “Sir Arthur was from the east coast of Scotland and so I had to cultivate his refined Edinburgh dialect. In TV and film, we’re rather more familiar with the Glasgow accent, but I had a great dialect coach and maintained the accent in my breaks from filming.”
Martin isn’t the only member of the Clunes family appearing in Arthur and George. His five-year-old Jack Russell terrier, James Henry (the baby in Doc Martin was named after the dog, by the way) made his television debut as Sir Arthur’s pet.
‘The role was quite outside my cosy, familiar comfort zone – that is Doc Martin and a few documentaries about animals!’
“Our Jim was so good and looks so handsome on screen,” beams Martin proudly. “There never had to be a second take because he’d wandered off or anything. He did a lot of gazing up at the hairy microphone as if he expected it might squeak, but he was so well behaved. I had been teaching him various commands in a Scottish accent in case this helped on set. I was a bit worried because he’s never left our farm in Dorset before, but he was incredibly attentive and did everything I said.”
Martin says he would relish the opportunity to bring more real-life Conan Doyle stories to the screen. “Historically, this wasn’t the only investigation Sir Arthur became involved with. If people enjoy this and ITV are happy, I’m sure we could adapt some of those cases. He met Houdini, the world famous illusionist and escapologist, for instance. And when Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared for ten days in 1926, Sir Arthur was called for.”
But first Martin is returning to his comfort zone and the much-loved Doc Martin. “We’re about to start filming series seven,” he says. “It’s great the show continues to be so popular and we love being on location in Port Isaac in Cornwall, but we only make a series every other year to stop it from getting boring – for viewers as well as us.”
Has he any more animal documentaries in the offing?
“We did one last year that’s coming out in the summer,” Martin replies. “It’s called Man and Beast and focuses on human relationships with animals and how these differ depending on where you are in the world. Take beef cattle, for example. We farm them for food yet the Jains in Nepal view them as sacred. We also have a few other projects in development but it’s too soon to talk about them.”
What there is unlikely to be, however, is a remake of the hit Nineties sitcom Men Behaving Badly, in which Martin played Gary, despite the fact his co-star Neil Morrissey (Tony) recently told the Radio Times he’d “do it at the drop of a hat”.
“Did he really?” says Martin when we tell him. “We did a sketch together last year for testicular cancer and sitting on the sofa together with a couple of cans, well… it felt like 1995 again. A proper remake, though? I don’t know. ‘Old Men Behaving Badly’ sounds like it could be a bit seedy!”
One last question... Martin lives with Philippa and their teenage daughter; they run a farm and a TV production company together. Does it ever get a bit much?
“Not for me. We met because we were working together. That’s the way it’s always been. And I’m happiest when Philippa’s by my side.”