Martin Clunes has spent much of the last 15 years portraying Dr. Martin Ellingham, the Portwenn physician in Doc Martin who apparently skipped the Bedside Manner 101 class in medical school and has an ill-timed phobia for blood.
Now Clunes stars in the ITV drama Manhunt as DCI Colin Sutton, the detective who caught the killer of Milly Dowler, the schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. The series begins streaming on AcornTV on Monday.
Dowler, the 13-year-old English girl, was reported missing by her parents in March 2002 after failing to return home from school. It was not until June of 2011 that Levi Bellfield was found guilty of abducting and murdering Dowler after admitting the crime to Surrey Police.
Bellfield was originally convicted in 2008 of killing 22-year-old French student Amélie Delagrange, who was found injured at Twickenham Green in 2004, and teenager Marsha McDonnell, 19.
Sutton was assigned to the case of Amelie’s death despite being relatively inexperienced in murder investigation, and he ended up making the connection between that crime and the murder of Marsha McDonnell and the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler when superior officers did not.
In advance of Monday’s AcornTV premiere, we had the good fortune to sit down with Manhunt executive producer Philippa Braithwaite. She talked at length about the differences in how she approached Manhunt, which is based on a real-life situation, and the fictional comedy/drama Doc Martin, which she also produces.
Bill Young: In watching the series, the one thing that is very clear is the sensitivity in which the series deals with the true events of 2004. As you craft a series such as Manhunt, do you approach it differently given the fact it is based on true events as opposed to fiction?
Philippa Braithwaite: Yes, absolutely. When we first developed the script, I didn’t really know how we were going to approach it, we just wanted to make sure we got the story right. It really dawned on me as we got further and further into it that I really had to make contact with all of the families and all of the police portrayed. That was quite an undertaking, actually, because the police in England retire very, very young so most of them aren’t serving any more. It was difficult tracking them down. And, then, trying to get the families to engage, it was a very sensitive thing to try explain what we were doing. Whichever way you dress it up, to them, what we are doing is a form of entertainment because that’s our business. It was a really, really difficult line to tread. I did get the backing and the support of the families but it was a very sensitive issue and very difficult. Obviously, we needed them on board and they needed to trust me when I said to them that we were going to try and tell this story as sensitively and as respectfully as we possibly could as that was our #1 goal.
BY: As with most series that are based on true events, there is always the disclaimer that bits are created for dramatic purposes. are these generally big chunks of storyline or merely a way to get you from one bit to the next?
PB: Most of it is accurate. There were adjustments to the timeline in episode 3 in that we had to condense some of the timeline. We had to put that disclaimer up at the beginning for legal reasons but the first two episodes happened as they happened. The third episode was slightly longer in reality.
BY: Lookin at this case and the cases that were linked to later on in the series, were these high profile cases and were you familiar with it when it occurred in 2004?
PB: I was familiar with Amélie Delagrange because she was the first girl we featured who died on Twickenham Green. Milly Dowler was probably the most famous murder victims in the UK. She disappeared, she was a school girl, she was just one of those cases that the nation picked up on and they never found the killer. You don’t even need to say her surname in England, it’s just Milly. She also brought down then newspapers in the end but that was a whole other side that we really couldn’t go in to because we didn’t have time but it was the phone hacking and that was all around her. The third case, Marsha McDonnell, I wasn’t familiar with at the time.
BY: As with a majority of British comedy or drama series, the importance of the supporting cast is paramount in creating the overall feel of the series. If you would, talk a bit about the ensemble cast of Manhunt.
PB: They were incredibly important. We have so many fantastic actors in England but we did go out of our way to not have anyone that was really well known because we didn’t want that to detract from the story we were telling. It was important to us that the actors felt as real as the story we were telling. Obviously, people know Martin but I think he gave such an incredible performance that the audience forgot they were watching Martin.
BY: Without putting you on the spot, what is it about virtually every British actor (like Martin) or actress that can make the transition from comedy to drama and back again with relative ease to where the audience accepts the premise of the role without a typecast of their respective previous role. in the case of Manhunt, you watch and do not see Dr. Martin Ellingham trying to solve a case….
PB: I really don’t know. Maybe it’s the more formal training that a majority of actors get over here. But, a good actor is a good actor. I think if you are a really good comedy actor, you can transition easier to a dramatic role as opposed to the other way around.
BY: Were there any opportunities to observe day-to-day real-life police department operations to get a sense as to how and entire team works together?
PB: Martin spent a whole day with Hampshire Police murder squad. There had been a murder that happened over the weekend and we had managed to get a contact there. They very kindly allowed Martin to be witnesses for the day as to what happens in the first 24 hours and he found that to be incredibly helpful. Martin said that the adrenaline was extraordinary. No one goes home, they’re dialing in the pizza which is what we were determined to get in. That’s the reality of it. How are we going to eat, what are we going to do, who is going to take this lead, who’s going to take that lead and, the sheer numbers of policeman you get when you have a serious crime like that. In reality, there were 70 policemen on Colin’s team, which is huge amount of manpower to have to manage. Absolutely fascinating.
BY: It’s a bit eye-opening from a viewer’s standpoint to see how an investigation can plod along and then hinge on one random detail that on the surface can seem inconsiquential but then it opens up the case. mostly, it’s a long, painstaking process that rests on the daily drudgery of police work.
PB: When we were doing the script, finding the reality of it from Colin’s memoirs, we’d never put this in a fictional drama because most of the leads don’t go anywhere. You’d never write that, it wouldn’t make good television. In reality, an orange juice carton thrown away, the van was never found and I found that really fascinating as it’s more dramatic than anything you could have made up.
BY: With Doc Martin, it was probably easy to leave the days filming behind. Was there a particular point in Manhunt that was tough to shake at the end of the day?
PB: There was, actually. You mentioned earlier having to deal with the parents of the girls, I found it very tough. To me, it’s a days filming. To them it’s a lifetime. They’ve got to live with the tragedy of it every single day. Just having to make contact with the others affected by this tragedy such as the police, you see the chaos that one individual brought on all of these people was really difficult to shake off, actually. It will be quite nice to delve back into Doc Martin, actually.
BY: Did you find it easier or harder given you pretty much have a draft script already written with the facts of the case in that it gave you a sense from the beginning as to how the story was going to develop or is there more freedom with a fictional story?
PB: There’s definitely more freedom with fiction but I found it absolutely fascinating to do a true life drama because you can only work within the confines of the facts and it’s a really interesting discipline, actually. It’s quite addictive and truth is really stranger than fiction. I found some of the twists and turns amazing in that you couldn’t write that into a fiction piece, well you might, but there would be so many questions. It’s quite compelling.
BY: Speaking of Doc Martin, any bits of information you can share as series 9 is gearing up?
PB: Well, I have to be a bit careful so as to not put any spoilers out there but I can say the we start filming at the end of March go until August and then have it ready for the Autumn schedule.
BY: I can’t let the opportunity go by without asking about the rumors that this may not be the last series?
PB: Honestly, we don’t know (laughing). We’re going to see what happens this year. If we can keep coming up with ideas then I guess we’ll keep doing it as long as people want us to but we’ll see.
Manhunt, with Martin Clunes, begins streaming Monday, March 11 on AcornTV.