Friday, July 30, 2010

DOC MARTIN: An extremely clever television series from across the pond.

Last week it was Christmas in July at my house. I stuck in a thumb and pulled out a plum of a DVD- or at least an unexpected treasure from among the new releases at NetFlix.

You know how you feel when you’re reading a good book and don’t want it to end? Well, that’s the way I felt about the BBC’s Doc Martin series. Last year after watching the final episode of season 3, I thought it was over. After all, the series had gone off the air in 2008. The writers had― I thought―wrapped things up pretty well. The ending. clever, the future of the main characters left to the viewer’s imagination.

Little did I know that the series’ star, Martin Clunes, and his wife—series producer Philippe Braithwaite, opted to take a two-year break from filming to catch up on life, and treat their daughter to her first vacation since the show began.

And so it was that, unbeknownst to me, Season 4 commenced in 2009, and appeared among NetFlix's new releases earlier this month, just in time to liven up the summer’s dry spell.

I came to Doc Martin after enjoying another gem of a series called William and Mary. That show starred a tall, average-looking but extremely gifted actor named Martin Clunes. Equally adept at drama and comedy, Clunes has a way of disappearing into his characters. The fact that he doesn't look like a leading man, serves both him and the story well.

If you haven’t seen William and Mary, you need to put it on your ‘to do’ list. It is exceptional, and not to be missed. Doc Martin is far lighter fare, with lots of twists and turns and special moments along the way.

The funny thing about Doc Martin is that Klunes’ character (doctor/surgeon Martin Ellingham) isn’t a very likeable chap. Truth be told, he does a lot of things that annoy me. But somehow, I have grown to like him in spite of myself – or should I say, himself?

As the series opens, Dr. Ellingham (an anagram for series creator Dominic Minghella) has just arrived in the fictitious fishing village of Portwenn, having left the big city of London, where he was a successful and well-respected surgeon. Why the sudden, and some would say downward career change? It seems that out of nowhere, the doc became hemophobic, getting down right queasy at the very sight of blood—not a great attribute for a vascular surgeon. But what was a deal-breaker in London, is just a blip on the radar screen in Portwenn.

As the town’s only physician, Doc Martin's waiting room is often packed with people of all ages and medical complaints. Though his bedside manner is virtually non-existent, and he turns away more patients than he tends to, the villagers are, for the most part, quite fond of him. It is a feeling that is in no way reciprocal, as he finds the majority of his patients foolish, annoying and unworthy of his time or doctoring. Pity the poor hypochondriac who wanders in for an ace bandage or bottle of sugar pills.

On the other hand, the doc has saved a lot of unsuspecting town folk and visitors from a wide variety of ills, thanks to his quick diagnosis both in and out of his ‘surgery’ or clinic. But when it comes to personal relationships, the doc is, to say the least, socially challenged. It appears that the only two people he cares anything about are his Auntie Joan and a winsome school teacher/ headmistress named Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz).

His affection for his aunt stems from a childhood of summers spent in her care on her Portwenn farm. Though we’ve never seen him show her any kind of real affection (not a kiss, not a hug, not an ‘I love you, Auntie” in 4 years'-worth of episodes), we know by the way he acts when she falls ill or has any kind of problem, that he cares. As for Louisa, he seems unable to say or do anything even mildly romantic without screwing it up. One moment he’s kissing her, the next, he’s offering her breath mints. Not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.

So what does Louisa see in him? Her attraction to this stodgy, distant, unromantic and generally rude man is somewhat of puzzlement, but then again, 7 million viewers a week found him intriguing, so why not Louisa?

I suspect the answer lies in the hope that this curmudgeon of a man, smile-free, and totally tactless, is, beneath his highly starched collar and wardrobe full of pin strips, a good soul. There are hints of it every now and again: glimmers of hope― signs of a caring heart, and wish to do better.

Whether he will or won’t, one thing is certain: he is an exceptional physician, with a knack for diagnosing unsuspected or misdiagnosed ailments. This particular talent makes for some interesting plot twists and unexpected endings. Just when you think you know how know things are going to wind up, something happens, and all bets are off.

Will Martin and Louisa wind up together? Will he ever say the right thing at the right time? Will he ever conquer his phobia? Return to the city and leave Louisa and the good people of Portwenn behind? Perhaps series 5, which is scheduled to begin shooting in 2011, will reveal all, though I suspect not.

By the time season 5 reaches our shores, it will be 2012, which gives you plenty of time to catch up on the first 4 years of the series. Its exceptionally well-written scripts and a supporting cast are guaranteed to keep you glued to your TV, DVD player or computer screen.

Stephanie Cole’s Auntie Joan is feisty and warm, stubborn and softhearted all at the same time: a woman who has rescued strays (human and otherwise) all of her life, including her own nephew.

Other quirky but lovable characters include plumber/ restaurateur Bert Large – (who is), and his son, Al, (who isn’t), played respectively by Ian McNeice and Joe Absolom. Pauline Lamb (Katherine Parkinson), is the doc’s feisty and slightly dippy receptionist, office manager and blood-taker, while Sally Tishell (Selina Cadell), owns and operates Portween’s one and only grocery/chemist (drug store). A major fan of Doc Martin’s, she is a bit of a hypochondriac, wearing a neck brace despite the fact that there is nothing wrong with her neck. Purveyor of pharmaceuticals and other telltale items, she knows everybody’s business, and shares her opinions with anyone who will listen.

In addition to these and other series' staples, a wide assortment of characters weave in and out of Portwenn, including Dr. Edith Montgomery (Lia Williams), who appears for the first time in season 4. Aside from being sexually aggressive, she is, in many ways, a female version of the doc. How she fits into the picture is one of those surprises I was talking about that keep you guessing.

Filmed on location in the fishing town of Port Isaac on the North Cornwall coast, Doc Martin offers up an inviting picture of a near-perfect place to if not live, vacation. Seaside retreats and winding roads dotted with family farms and rows of sea-worn cottages beckon viewers from as far away as Australia to come and take a look. And many do.

If you, like me, are tired of reality TV programs and other questionable fare, take the high road to Portwenn. It may take you an episode or two to get into the series, but once hooked, you’ll be in for a heck of a ride.


  1. Great synopsis. I really like Doc Martin, too. One correction though: Al Large is played by Joe Absolom while Stewart Wright plays P.C. Mylow.

  2. Louisa Glasson -- not Glass.

    Al Large is played by Joe Absolom -- not Stewart Wright, who played Police Constable Mylow.