It seems like only yesterday that Dr. Martin Ellingham, the surly and self-centered medic with a rude bedside manner and a phobia of blood, blessed the good folks of Portwenn with his vast medical knowledge by becoming the general practicioner in Portwenn, the the sleepy Cornish village where he had spent childhood holidays with his Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole) and Uncle Phil.
What started out as a seemingly innocent one-off appearance by Martin Clunes as Dr Martin Bamford in Saving Grace turned into a 10-series/18-year stint as Dr. Martin Ellingham. The 2000 film starred Brenda Blethyn (Vera) and Craig Ferguson (Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson) and Martin Clunes.
We had the great good fortune of catching up with Caroline Catz (Louisa Ellingham, née Glasson) prior to this week’s premiere of our final trip to Portwenn. What a lovely 15 minutes that I wish had been an hour….
Tellyspotting: Looking back at 10 seasons and 18 years of Doc Martin, on one hand, probably seems like a lifetime but then it seems like yesterday. Do you remember your first day on the set?
Caroline Catz: I really do actually. It was it was really, really strange. When I got the job, by strange coincidence I had already booked a holiday in Cornwall very, very close to where the filming took place. So when I got the job, they gave me the dates and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m on holiday’. I sort of managed to maintain the holiday and start the job at the same time.
It really was very seredipity actually. The beginning part of the job was really lovely. I felt very relaxed, but also you know, it was just wonderful meeting the cast as it was then. My first scene was a wedding scene in a church and the first person I met with was Ian McNiece. He was adorable and the next one that was Joe Absalom. Also adorable.
And then, obviously, Martin. Fantastic. We just got on like a house on fire but it was a very, very busy day. It was blowing a gale and pouring down rain. You see the beautiful days in Port Isaac but we do have to deal with a lot of weather. So it was sort of a beautiful start and kind of like apocalyptic at the same time.
I never realized for a minute that this was going to be the beginning of this completely wonderful 18 year journey, you know, into these characters exploring them. Really sort of trying in that initial series, we’re really setting the tone for something we didn’t really know what it was in that series one yet we really found it, I think.
TS: We know you mentioned Joe and in you know one of the things that obviously stands out in the series. The title is Doc Martin so you have you know, Martin is that as the the main character per se, but it’s an amazing ensemble cast. Can you speak a little bit to the importance from your standpoint in whatever you’re involved in the importance of an ensemble cast of this caliber?
CC: Well, you are a community. You are representing this community that has to be of people that live in this town. So it’s like a sort of a little society. You know, it’s finding places and space for your character within the context of the bigger picture is a really lovely thing to find with a group of actors.
And it’s really important that the tone of whatever the series is is something that everybody kind of gets and understands. And that’s one of the great joys of being an actor is kind of finding that with each other and working out what that is and therefore the parameters of your character and where they fit on that spectrum. It’s been a really fabulous job in that and also finding that Louisa’s relationship with Martin. A real massive, huge journey.
TS: I personally look at the character that Martin plays, and in an odd way, I almost always liken him to a Basil Fawlty or Edmund Blackadder, and usually, you think it’s somebody that you just desperately want to love? And then he opens his mouth and says one more sentence you know, every time it’s like, you just want him to succeed. One of the things that everybody in America always points to whether it’s, you know, British drama or comedy is the caliber of the writing. Can you speak a little bit about the writing of Doc Martin?
CC: We’re so lucky because we have this fantastic producer Philippa Braithwaite. She is a brilliant producer and also Martin’s wife as well. So they are a fantastic team together, but Philippa is absolutely rigorous with the scripts. She always has been. As I was saying about the tone of the show, She holds that and we get it, we know it, and we’ve learned it. But that is something that I think she really drives Yeah, and it’s a very, very specific thing and we always know what it is or whether it is or isn’t the right tone. I think the writers have really adhered to that over the years. We’re really lucky because if we do it every other year, then it gives them a year to really get that shape and tone right. And, and that’s something that I think is brilliant.
TS: Do you have an opportunity to sit down with the writers and Philippa to offer suggestions? You’ve seen how your character has grown over the years, does she and do they incorporate as like, ‘Oh, I see where this can go’?
CC: Absolutely. They are all incredibly open-minded and collaborative. If you have a thought or an idea, maybe this can work, maybe that can work…everything is is thought through and explored. And it either happens or doesn’t happen depending on if it lands with the writers. It’s a really lovely, really easy relationship and it’s so nice because we have the production office. It’s all on the farm studios on the farm is basically a cow shed cattle shed. Next ot the cattle shed are some really lovely cottages and the production team are in the cottages with script editors, so you can sort of go from the studio into the cottages, speak to the script editor or have a chat with her in the car on the way, it’s just a really lovely family environment.
We don’t particularly get bothered by a huge amount and don’t at all get bothered by huge amounts of executives and we are allowed to make our world and it’s sort of Phillipa that protects us because she really does keep everybody out and then gets on with it. It’s a very unique show. I don’t think I’ll ever work on another like it.
TS: The amazing thing is, in today’s world, there’s a era of one and done for a lot of series. So to see something that has lasted like Doc Martin, you think of New Tricks, Silent Witness or Midsomer Murders that have lasted whereas this day and age that just doesn’t happen.
When you look at you know roles that you can you can simply, you know, think of Louisa you know, joining the cast, does it does it help you to know or do you try to find out anything about a backstory about the character to understand what you can bring to the table that’s not in the script that maybe helped you along the way?
CC: Yeah, definitely, I mean certain things to do with her anxieties about James being like his father and not being able to kind of broach that with Martin because she doesn’t want to be offensive towards him and her sort of anxieties around becoming a mother, issues with her parents, her father’s in jail and a mother that abandoned her pretty much when she was to the teenager.
I mean, all those things I sort of dig into, into those aspects of it, to kind of find what the reality is for her. In terms of, for example, worrying about about James being sort of over focused and ignoring his newborn sister. You know, a little bit of working out what or how that might have been one of the things manifested itself.
TS: You know, one of the things I’ve always loved is is that you have the greats, the Dame Eileen Atkins, the Stephanie Cole’s of the world that have become regulars on the series, but the the ability to have the guest stars that you have over the course of 10 series whether it be Ben Miller, Chris O’Dowd, Sigourney Weaver.
Obviously, Port Isaac is an attractive place to spend a few months in, but is there anything that you yourself have been a guest are on other series? Is there something that you try to do as a regular cast member to welcome actor who come in that are hitting this successful series in a one-off to make them feel welcome?
CC: I think actors are pretty brilliant at slotting into roles as that’s what we all do. We’ve been very lucky to have a brilliant bunch of actors and when people turn up people, the acting community is a welcoming ensemble generally anyway, but I think that’s just how actors are we kind of have to work together. It’s not a case of like this is our show and we have to worry about how it works.
I will say, however, we’re really lucky because there is a quiz every Wednesday that was really fun. That is run by a female driver who’s fantastic, Claire. She would run a quiz every Wednesday at the pizza restaurant at the top of the village and that has been a fantastic bonding thing for all of us all the cast and the crew and the new guests and all of us so that’s that I will say that is something that was really fun to bring together very quickly.
TS: You’ve you have gone you know both into the comedy and the drama with I Want My Wife Back, Murder in Suburbia and DCI Banks. Comedy or drama harder to do?
CC: Just different, you know, just different I think what I really enjoy about being an actor is kind of going out to different projects and you know, finding what that what that tone is I enjoy both aspects of that.
TS: I noticed that you did a film about Delia Derbyshire. I thought was very interesting that you were behind the camera. You’re writing and you’re directing. Is that something that helps you understand both sides of the camera when you take on a role?
CC: It was just honestly the story that I wanted to tell I wasn’t gonna I was gonna write it and I was gonna be in it, I wasn’t going to direct it. That happened because the producer kind of suggested it and the thought never occurred to me, but it made sense in a way of I had been with the story from the very, very beginning.
I had directed something before and it made sense to do it and I really enjoyed doing it. We’re very, very thrilled to win the South by Southwest Jury Prize at South by Southwest in Texas. That was a real high point. We also won a European award at the European music film network. It’s played here on the television on BBC, twice it’s been broadcast on iPlayer for over a year. It’s had a really fantastic run and festivals now doing a lot fo European festivals, which I’ll be going to in the Autumn. So yeah, it’s some it’s been an amazing journey.
TS: Are there any takeaways from your 10 seasons on Doc Martin that you can immediately point to and say this was an amazing time, or just overall is it just the whole 18 years and 10 seasons?
CC: The whole experience of spending summers in that amazing place, working on brilliant scripts with fantastic actors. Working with Martin every day and laughing as much as we did, and it’s been like one of the greatest joys of my life. It was a fantastic, fantastic and unique experience. It’s been a real, real privilege.
TS: Sadly, time has run out but I know everybody looks forward to the next chapter to see what you come up with. Whether it’s a DCI Banks feature film, a Doc Martin feature, film, whatever it might be on the stage.
CC: The next thing for me is I’m doing a series for Disney. So that’s something that I’m doing. That’s what I’m shooting at the moment. It was great chatting with you. Take care!
With that, time ran out and I had to shelve the next 10 questions and say goodbye to both Caroline Catz and Portwenn.
Doc Martin S10 is streaming now on Acorn TV with the first two episodes premiering on October 17, followed by one episode a week through the series’ penultimate episode on November 28.
In December, Acorn TV will bid a final farewell to the series with two momentous programming events: the Doc Martin – A Celebration documentary on December 26 and the final series episode – a Christmas special – to premiere December 29.