Making a Portwenn ‘house call’ to the set of Doc Martin

Patients of Dr. Martin Ellingham finally received word this week that the new season of Doc Martin will begin on Monday, 12 September, in the UK (ITV). In the States, on public television, we can now, with virtual certainty, announce that Dr. Martin Ellingham will resume making house calls in Portwenn beginning in April 2012.

Recently, Eric Luskin, Vice President of Syndication and Premium Service for American Public Television (where KERA and other public television stations acquire the broadcast rights to Doc Martin), suffered at great length on behalf of all Tellyspotting readers on both sides of the pond to file this report and give us a brief glimpse of what it was like on the set as filming concluded in the town of Port Isaac earlier this summer.

I boarded the First Great Western train to Cornwall at 12:06 on a Saturday from Paddington Station in London. Paddington Bear station, my daughter calls it. And indeed there is a kiosk there selling all things Paddington. Bleary from my overnight flight, I barely noticed it. The destination: Bodmin Parkway, some place four hours west I’ve never been. That would be the starting point for a 48 hour whirlwind adventure, getting to experience Port Isaac, the real location for Doc Martin’s Portwenn. Best of all, I would also be co-producing a behind-the-scenes of Doc Martin project for public television audiences. You can expect to see this material hitting the KERA airwaves sometime in January.

Bodmin Parkway station is in the middle of nowhere, a half hour cab ride from Port Isaac. I met up with my partner on the project, Bohdan Zachary of KCET in Los Angeles, late Saturday afternoon. The plan was for us to shoot still photos and video in the village on Sunday, using our own cameras. Early Monday morning (6:20 am) we’d meet up with our liaison, drive out to a staging encampment about 10 miles away, and then join our cameraman at a hotel location where scenes from the final episode of series V were being filmed. The following day would be spent back in the environs of Port Isaac shooting outdoor scenes, including a stunt car crash.

We had complete and unfettered access to everything on Monday. Our cameraman, Tom Harding, has worked on Doc Martin over the years and his wife is the principal sound recordist for this episode. Because of that everyone on set was comfortable with the “making of” crew. With the assistance of Molly Bolt, Executive Producer Philippa Braithwaite’s assistant, we were well looked after. Upon arriving at the Camelot Castle Hotel around 8am, I was surprised to see that tech rehearsals were already under way. Up on the second floor, a large bedroom was stuffed with lights and cameras. Sound gear was tucked in corridor crannies. And there, in costume and make up, were Martin Clunes, Caroline Catz, John Vasquez, Dame Eileen Atkins (a new cast member for season V) and Jamie Di Spirito, a guest artist playing a hotel receptionist.

We’d met Martin earlier in the breakfast line back at the staging area, sporting a vintage VW bus t-shirt. It was a quick and affable introduction. He actually apologized for the weather – as if it was his fault that there was a light drizzle – and then jumped the queue! Apparently he had something important to do… Ya think?

While Bohdan and Tom set up downstairs for interviews, I was able to lurk in the hallway and watch them prepare to film the scene, from blocking, to rehearsal, to the actual “takes”. The plot line? I’m not going to be the spoiler – but they’re looking for… something. With cast waiting for the cue to rehearse, it was time for a quick candid photo realizing not many people are privileged to see this side of a Doc Martin production!

There were plenty of cars in the Camelot Castle Hotel along with miscellaneous TV equipment, especially when they were filming a quick scene where the characters enter the hotel. The extras (playing hotel guests) depart, and Doc, a relative, Louisa and PC Penhale arrive. I’m sure it will look quite serious from the camera’s point of view, but from our vantage point….lot’s of winding up going on.

On the schedule for the afternoon was a major scene involving about 20 extras in the hotel Great Room. Shot initially with a single steadicam shot, the relatively short sequence lasting about a minute and a half (from “action” to “cut”) took perhaps two and a half hours to get right. While lighting technicians set up their gear, director Ben Bolt worked with the core cast to coordinate the sequence which starts at the top of a long staircase. A separate staffer worked with the extras in the scene, who would have to react to the action unfolding. Different colored tape applied to the carpet helped the cast to hit marks which had to be precise in order to allow the cameraman and steadicam operator to consistently capture the drama the way viewers are meant to see it.

When performing the scene, a script editor read aloud the dialogue that Doc is hearing on the other end of a cell phone. Looking back now, it was actually fairly amusing. In a pivotal scene in the episode – while the cast are performing with all appropriate energy and emotion – the voice of the caller we’re all hearing in the room is flat, unemotional and matter of fact. Just words being read off a script. It is purely a place holder. The phone voice will be added in post-production, as will all of the crowd buzz. The extras aren’t really talking either, though it looks like they are. They’re… acting!

I come away from observing this day with a profound appreciation for the craft involved in making a series like Doc Martin. In this particular scene, there are in excess of 150 cast and crew involved. Each is totally committed to achieving the objective of capturing this portion of the story in as perfect a way as possible. As one who evaluates programming for a living, and then brings the best of that material to the public television programming community for them to (hopefully) purchase, it is stunning to watch the care and commitment involved in this creative process. After the steadicam shot is in the can, there will be more time spent capturing the sequence from other camera angles, which necessitates re-lighting. The performers, after a break, need to recreate precisely the action that has been blocked out as well as the dialogue.

They’re still at it when Tom, Bohdan and I head off in the late afternoon. We drive about 15 miles to the production offices where we attempt to transfer the interviews and “making of” material we’ve shot from camera hard drives — to free up space for the next day’s schedule. It was not at all a straight forward process but, with some internet consultations, downloaded software tools and patience, we finally accomplish the task around 9 pm.

The experience of watching a major television production being shot also reinforces what is invisible to a television viewer, but is a practical consideration for a producer and subsequent broadcasters – namely the expense of creating a series like Doc Martin. Do the math based on the scenes I’ve just described. Hundreds of technicians and actors, and a remote location which happens to be a working hotel. The attendant costs of transporting, housing and feeding them. The costs of the technical support gear (lights, film cameras, audio, make up, wardrobe). And we haven’t even gotten into the editing and post production. Oh — and a full year writing and honing the scripts and laying out the myriad production details.

So the next time that Bill Young or another KERA staffer asks you to help support the acquisition of what they may describe as “programs like this one”, take that to heart. You know that you love Doc Martin. I love it too, but now for a host of added reasons. I’ve seen with my own eyes the raw ingredients that make up the feast that is Doc Martin. And I’m privileged to tell you that the superior end product is the direct result of the quality, the effort, and the passion that goes into it.

What of Martin Clunes? What was it like to hang out with Doc Martin? To stand in front of his house (with other photo happy tourists)? Where do they film the Portwenn interior scenes? What was it like to chat with the people who play Louisa, Bert, Joe, PC Penhale, and so many others that you know from on screen or the series credits? That’s a tale for another day.

Suffice it to say that not once in my 48 hours in the world of Doc Martin was there a dull or disappointing moment. Even the Tuesday 4am wake up for the taxi back to Bodmin Parkway was not without its charms. Port Isaac in the pre-dawn? Priceless. Meanwhile, Bohdan stayed on with Tom, capturing more interviews and the Port Isaac hubbub, as tourists flocked to watch the various scenes on the day’s filming schedule. Hopefully, you’ll get a sense of what we experienced when you see the “Behind the scenes” segments on KERA.

In: Actors/Actresses,Drama

  • Elaine

    I so enjoyed your and Zach’s account of Doc Martin experiences in Port Isaac and look forward to your behind the scenes segments.
    I too, as a Birthday wish come true, traveled to Port Isaac this May to watch the filming of the show. Staying in PI for 2 weeks gave me ample opportunity to meet the stars including Martin Clunes who gave me a hug and kiss for poetry I wrote about the show. I had a chance to talk to him again a few weeks ago on NPR and was thrilled to hear he remembered me and enjoyed my poetry.

    • @Elaine: How cool for you. Glad you were able to not only visit PI, but got to follow-up during the NPR interview. The behind-the-scenes pieces should begin airing in December/January on a number of public television stations across the country that run the Doc Martin series. Hope you enjoy.

  • Rob Schorry

    Thank you for the behind-the-scenes but one thing… we in the States have to wait for Season 5 until APRIL 2012?

    Bloody Hell!!!! Talk about torture!

    • @Rob: Unfortunately, that’s what we hear. Totally agree…bloody hell.

  • Cora

    Thanks for the update. Way too long to wait, but….. I’m sure April will arrive.

  • sandra

    I love Doc Martin and cant wait for the next series. When will it air in Australia?

  • Valerie

    I love, love, love, Doc Martin, and agree that it is torture to have to wait until April 2012 to begin viewing Season Five episodes. However, as Cora said, I’m sure April will arrive, eventually. Meanwhile, how can we find out when the Doc Martin “behind the scenes” pieces will air on KERA?

    • @Valerie: Current plans are for the behind-the-scenes Doc Martin pieces to begin in January immediately following the regularly scheduled series episode on Saturday nights. Hope you enjoy.

  • Dinahwriting09

    how can we see a taping of the show? we will be in the area in late August/September and would love to visit Port Isaac

  • Dinahwriting09

    how can we see a taping of the show? we will be in the area in late August/September and would love to visit Port Isaac