Caroline Quentin and Martin Clunes have lived strangely parallel lives – now they’re back on screen after 17 years

The Men Behaving Badly co-stars are reunited in tonight's episode of Doc Martin

Martin Clunes and Caroline Quentin are canoodling on a sofa, giggling and joshing like they’ve never been apart. In fact, it was the late 1990s when they last appeared together on TV as the couple Gary and Dorothy in the legendary sitcom Men Behaving Badly. Now, for the first time in 17 years, they are to be reunited on the small screen in an episode of Doc Martin. (Believe it or not, Sigourney Weaver makes a guest appearance too.)

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They might look a little more lived-in than they once did, but they have lost none of their zest. Quentin is looking at the photos that have just been taken of them, with Clunes wearing her dangly earrings. “Just look at us Martin, we’re too sweet for words!” she says rocking with joy. Clunes, 53, nods silently. “Well we are, aren’t we?” she shouts, in between giggles. “Particularly me. I look p***ed, obviously.”

Ever since Men Behaving ended fans have been talking about a comeback, but Quentin, now 55, never wanted to do it. She couldn’t understand how the four friends (Neil Morrissey as feckless Tony who shared a flat with Gary, and Leslie Ash as girl upstairs Deborah) could be reunited gracefully. This episode of Doc Martin is probably the closest we’ll get. But the parts couldn’t be more different. Rather than lovers, they’re enemies; Quentin plays a vet who thinks Martin is a dysfunctional know-it-all – and she’s the daughter of the GP he replaced in the Cornish village of Portwenn more than a decade ago.

The pair reunited in Doc Martin

Though its taken them 17 years to reunite on screen, they have remained extremely close since the Men Behaving Badly days, and there is extraordinary symmetry to their lives. Both were divorced young and remarried, both left London to live on farms in the country. They became first-time parents within weeks of each other, and had daughters called Emily who are now 16, good friends and with them today. And both managed to keep on acting while turning their back on showbusiness.

Clunes and Quentin couldn’t be more different from Gary and Dorothy. While Clunes is bumbling, gentle and at times sounds like Prince Charles, Quentin is a riot of laughter. Were you never a lager-swilling lad, I ask him? “Not at all,” he says. “Your colleagues in the media were insistent that we were. I would be described as ‘TV hell raiser’, that was the only vocabulary afforded us.”

Quentin grins. “He’s a fine wine man and always has been. He knows his Merlot from his Cabernet Sauvignon. You were never a lager man, sweetheart.”

As for Dorothy, Quentin didn’t much like her. “I always thought she was a killjoy, and I like to have as much fun as the next woman! I played a lot of bossy girlfriends, but I’ve never been bossy, have I Martin?” Silence. “Have I?” she repeats menacingly. “Hahahaha!”

Not only were their personalities different, so were their lifestyles. Rather than flat sharing, both Clunes and Quentin were in their first marriages (Quentin to comedian Paul Merton, Clunes to actress Lucy Aston).

With Neil Morrissey in Men Behaving Badly

“We were acting out an adolescence,” says Clunes. Quentin nods. “We were acting everybody’s fantasy of living in a flat, and continuing your youth.” Both went on to enjoy success in long-running TV series – Quentin as the writer
Maddy Magellan in Jonathan Creek, Clunes as the eponymous Doc Martin. The parallels in your life are amazing, I say, pointing to the two Emilys. Clunes’s Emily Kate is a talented showjumper, Quentin’s Emily Rose an actress who has appeared in Doc Martin. Clunes lives in Dorset, while Quentin is in Devon. Why did they move to the country?

“My move came out of a love of gardening,” says Quentin. “You just love animals, don’t you?”

“Yes, well, yes, umm, yes,” says Clunes, in prime Prince Charles mode. Who has more animals?

“Martin,” Quentin says. “He’s got s**tloads more animals. We’ve only got six dogs and six cats.”

“Well we farm,” says Clunes, who has 300 sheep, and 28 cattle.

Don’t they both farm? “I used to,” says Quentin, “but my husband won’t allow me to have anything at the moment. I’m like, ‘Can we have more pigs?’, then I go away to work and leave him with more pigs.”

Her husband, the appropriately named Sam Farmer, was a farmer, she says, but has retrained as a cosmetic scientist.

Blimey, how do you go from being a farmer to cosmetic scientist? “You get a bee in your bonnet about the sexualisation of personal care products for young people, then you go and learn how to make them and create your own brand.” Quentin glows with pride.

“He’s the most impressive man we know,” Clunes says. You’re a nifty businessman too, aren’t you, I say – after all, hasn’t Doc Martin been resold to numerous countries? They double up laughing. Clunes is giggling so much that
Quentin has to answer for him.

“No, it’s the wife [Doc Martin producer, Philippa Braithwaite],” she says. “Some people are just clever; there’s nothing she can’t do. We’ve both done well…”

“We’ve both married above ourselves!” Clunes says. “It’s really, really true,” says Quentin. “Neither of us can quite believe how the other one has done so well!”

Both were keen to escape the world of celebrity and believe their lifestyle has kept them sane. “The bit I like about acting is the verb,” Clunes says. “I love acting. I love filming. But the rest is meaningless. When we started out, being famous was a by-product of doing what you do. It wasn’t a goal in itself and now it is because you can be famous without doing anything.”

“Fame is vacuous anyway,” Quentin says. “And most people who have anything to do with it for more than about 30 seconds find it boring, all that standing around in rooms in evening clothes with people you don’t know.”

We talk about how they became famous. Why was Men Behaving Badly so successful? “Timing, alchemy,” Clunes says. They mention Simon Nye’s writing, its innocence, how well the cast got on together. “The criteria by which
everything is judged has changed,” Clunes says. “You have to be a lot coarser than we were to be cutting edge. A drama has to have a dead child at the beginning. Comedy has to be more graphic.”

Clunes says he never really understood why their sitcom did so well until he read a review by the TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith. “He said we were like an ensemble cast, and people don’t apply French words to sitcoms often. And that’s what it was; we all got on and knew our space and knew how to do our job.”

They all trusted and liked each other, and that was reflected in the show, Quentin says. “If you’re really enjoying yourself and having fun, it’s tangible – you can sense it when you’re watching it on telly.’”

What was it like working together after all these years? “We were laughing like idiots all day,” Clunes says. “It was as if no time had passed at all. We could have been doing a moment from Men Behaving Badly, and enjoying it just as much. We always found each other very funny.”

Their closeness is obvious. At times I feel like a gooseberry sitting with them. Did they ever think of getting together in real life? “No!” Quentin says. “It was never a question…” She glances at the two Emilys. “The girls look horrified. Look at them! No, never. It was never like that, it was always like what you see now.”

Do they still see Morrissey and Ash? For once the laughter stops.

“We still see a bit of Neil, don’t we,” Quentin says. “I haven’t seen Leslie since we finished filming.” Why? “I think life just takes you in a different direction,” Quentin says quietly. “She’s in London. We’re country folk.”

Neil Morrissey, Leslie Ash, Martin Clunes and Caroline Quentin

Ash has had a tough time since Men Behaving Badly – plastic surgery that left her with a “trout pout”, rumours that she had been a victim of domestic violence, and catching the superbug MSSA in hospital.

“She’s been very ill,” Clunes says. “She’s had terribly bad luck. I don’t think she’s ever going to recover from everything. Her balance is shot.”

“Yes, very poorly,” Quentin says. “I think Neil has seen her from time to time. The last time he saw her he said she was looking quite a lot better.” “Oh good,” says Clunes.

Quentin and Clunes say they have been so lucky in life. Do they think they have changed? “Martin hasn’t changed hugely. If anything I find him slightly soppier than he used to be. He’s always been a bit of a softy, but he’s got more so. So many people put up more barriers and get more brittle; Martin has done the opposite. I think that’s quite rare.”

How has Quentin changed? “Not at all.” He says she is so different from how she has often been cast – as tart, battle-axe or serious-minded carer. “The person I know is glamorous, funny, immensely clever and fast-thinking.”

They agree that children have reshaped their priorities. “It puts dressing up and pratting around in perspective,” Clunes says.

“Yes, you certainly take a step back and take a proper look at what you used to call a career,” Quentin says, “and you know it’s just a means of earning a living because you go home to people who have proper needs and desires and lives that are complicated.”

They love being able to balance the intimacy of acting with the freedom of country life. When I ask Clunes what he likes most about farming, he says space. “In our job you literally have people in your face – touching your face, which is lovely because they’re all nice people you’ve chosen to do that with. But then to get out on days off and have miles of space is wonderful.”

What would he rather have touching his face, another actor or a horse? “Always a horse!” he replies.

And Quentin? “Oh, definitely an animal. A dog. I’ve got to go for a wee, I’ll be back.”

With Quentin gone I ask Clunes if there’s anything else he’d like to say. “Yes!” he says, with a conspiratorial grin. “I never liked her. She made me do all kinds of things. My life was hell! That’s why it’s taken me 17 years to get over it. She always bullied me!” And by the time she returns he is choking on his laughter.

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Doc Martin is on Mondays at 9pm on ITV