Doc Martin looks at first glance like dull, patronising pap. It’s got simple plots and an absurdly beautiful rural setting: Port Isaac in north Cornwall, renamed Portwenn for the show. The supporting cast talk in Somerset accents, like all TV actors asked to play people from Cornwall, or Norfolk for that matter. Everything always turns out more or less all right.
But despite its cosy medical-drama trappings, it’s too edgy and, frankly, too good to be left to the Heartbeat/Midsomer cocoa-and-moccasins crowd. Doc Martin isn’t just bucolic anaesthesia. It’s one of the most satisfying comedies on telly. It’s much more sharply scripted than it’s given credit for and has an endlessly funny central character.
Dr Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) is a British Gregory House. The laughs come from him being spectacularly rude to everyone, and each week someone approaches with a problem that looks like one thing, but turns out to be something else.
In House, every disease is diagnosed as 23 different things you’ve never heard of, until the annoyingly clever doctors might as well be talking in Venutian and you begin to hope the patient dies. Doc Martin, in contrast, sticks to everyday ailments (vertigo, depression, eye-watering body odour and so on), with twists that keep our interest by being almost guessable. It’s humbly unpretentious and all the better for it.
Yet Ellingham’s brusqueness is well up to scratch. He once addressed an officious NHS inspector as an “unctuous, platitudinising eunuch”, and that was in the Christmas special! On ITV1! You could almost hear nans choking on their egg nog. Every week he delivers merciless diagnoses and acid putdowns; Clunes’s clipped, unwavering delivery is a delight.
Much of Dr Ellingham’s ire is aimed at alternative medicine and superstition, such as the episode where the Doc tore apart some credulous ninnies who hadn’t given their kid the MMR jab. It shouldn’t be left to a mainstream evening drama to deliver valuable public-service announcements; sadly, given the amount of cod science on TV perhaps it is, so it’s cheering to see Doc Martin step up and do the business.
In fact, there’s something heroic – nay, superheroic – about Ellingham. In a society populated by cartoonish yokels and vulnerable innocents, he single-mindedly pursues his quest to improve Portwenn’s wellbeing. Reason, logic and scientific fact are his weapons. A tight blue suit and ears like table tennis bats are his amusing and vaguely camp costume. The sight of blood is his cruelly ironic weakness.
Ellingham’s refusal to engage in chit-chat, even if it makes him unpopular, is also very superhero-esque. He’s got a stiff superhero gait. And he’s got a sidekick! As he and mimsy schoolmistress Louisa (Caroline Catz) have inched closer together across four series of rather touching failed romance (he kept scuppering things by spotting her embarrassing illnesses at crucial moments – don’t expect the fact that they now have a child to make Martin any less emotionally robotic), his rudeness and her niceness have often combined to combat minor health crises. Like Batman and Robin, but with even more sexual tension.
Doc Martin: tough, effective comedy medicine in an accessible sugar coating.