When Martin Clunes appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2011, the tunes he chose included Rod Stewart’s Sailing, Frank Zappa’s Doreen and his daughter Emily singing a home-recorded version of Elton John’s Your Song with her friend Daisy.
Now Emily is 17 and her 55-year-old father relies on her to play him new music. What kind of new music? “She just loves Ed Sheeran. I love him, too; he’s a little gift.”
Clunes also loves Coldplay. In fact he loved their 2015 album A Head Full of Dreams so much that he asked a record company friend for tickets to see them play at Radio 1’s Big Weekend last year.
“Emily was slightly embarrassed to go with her father. She warned me not to dance. Anyway, we ended up standing on the side of the stage, watching this incredible show with Chris Martin’s mum and dad.”
Clunes stops. His blue eyes fill with water. “I’m going to cry,” he says, his voice cracking. “I’m thinking of Chris Martin singing the Oasis song Don’t Look Back in Anger at One Love Manchester [the concert for the victims of the bombing]. Goodness…” He takes a sip of lime and soda and composes himself.
Ten years ago he and his wife Philippa Braithwaite, who produces Doc Martin, bought a 130-acre working farm in Dorset. It is now populated with horses, cows, sheep, chickens, dogs and cats – and he couldn’t be happier.
“I can go for weeks without leaving the farm. I like being connected to the seasons in a real way. Making hay, worrying about the grass, watching the leaves come and go. I like coming to London, but I’ve always got an eye on going home.”
Today, however, Clunes is happy enough to be in London. A few days earlier he and Braithwaite had hosted Buckham Fair, an annual charity event held on their farm. It rained for much of the weekend and the 14,000 visitors created what Clunes describes as a “muddy hell”.
Still, they raised a decent sum for a local charity (Clunes is optimistic it will exceed last year’s £90,000) and his old friend and Men Behaving Badly co-star Neil Morrissey came to judge the “dog/bitch most like Neil Morrissey” category.
“I was chuffed that Neil came along. He was filming in Ireland and it just happened to be his weekend off. The punters were so thrilled to see him. Everyone was photobombing us as we had a chat…”
Clunes on his Dorset farm
Clunes has chosen to be interviewed at the Groucho Club, a private members’ club in Soho that he joined in the early 1990s, at the suggestion of Griff Rhys Jones. Back then Clunes was a tabloid fixture, the target of endless “Man Behaving Badly” headlines.
These days, his lifestyle bears scant resemblance to that of his Men Behaving Badly character, Gary. Largely due to his huge success in ITV’s Doc Martin, Clunes remains a magnet for press atttention, but the pickings are slim and the headlines far less lurid than in the 90s.
Is being monitored by the tabloids stressful, or does he not really care? He shrugs. “I’ve got a nice house. Whatever I do with my life, someone will write horrible things about me in the tabloids. But I’m really boring…”
I ask, not entirely seriously, about any recent bad behaviour. “Well… I was recently accused by the press of having had cosmetic surgery. One writer spouted off about my vanity and surmised that I was being treated for hair loss. I had some dentistry! But that’s not a good story, is it?”
He pauses and suddenly laughs so loudly that a few people turn their heads. Clunes has long used comedy as a defence mechanism. When he was at school and being bullied for wetting the bed, he quickly worked out that being the funny guy was a useful distraction. Until, that is, he took it too far.
“I was quite an annoying boy. I couldn’t stop playing around in class and was caned most days. The headteacher, looking for something positive to tell my mother, said I didn’t bear a grudge.”
Clunes’s father, Alec, was a classical actor who left his wife and two young children in the 1960s and died not long after. Martin, who was eight at the time of his father’s death, was sent away to school.
“My father hadn’t wanted me to go to private school but after his death my grandparents and aunt stepped in and said I should be sent to boarding school. Their concern was that if I stayed at home with my mother and sister, I’d be gay.” He shakes his head. “They were very old-fashioned.”
Clunes disliked boarding school and was surprised when his daughter Emily actually volunteered to go. “Em went to a lovely prep school for seven years, where she was really happy. When she decided to go to boarding school, I wondered what had gone wrong. But I think it’s because she’s an only child; she craved the company of other kids. She now attends the local state school sixth form and is about to do her final year. She’d like to go to Aberystwyth University to do equine science.”
Is he worried about his only child leaving home? “We sort of had that when she went to boarding school. And then she reappeared. ‘Oh, you’re back. This is how the dishwasher works…’”
He is, he says, a strict dad. “Very strict. About manners and stuff like that. About working hard. But she’s seen Philippa and I work hard, so I don’t think she’ll ever shy away from work.”
Clunes is surprisingly candid about his own work. The only element of acting he enjoys is standing in front of the camera – and even then he is probably thinking about horses and hay.
As Doc Martin is shot every other year, there is time for Clunes to both run the farm and take on other TV projects. He particularly likes documentaries – “no costume, no make-up, no dialogue, but still mucking around with cameras” – and has recently been commissioned to present a four-part travel series about the islands of America.
“We are definitely going to Hawaii because that’s where I proposed to Philippa. Am I romantic? I suppose so. I’m certainly devoted.” Perhaps he might also be up for another period drama? Shakespeare in Love, in which he had a small role, was nearly 20 years ago.
He shoots me a quizzical look. “Actually, I just read a script on the train on the way up to London and really liked it. It’d be a small part in Vanity Fair [ITV, 2018], driving a carriage. I don’t know how many other actors can actually drive a carriage. Certainly I’m the only one who is President of the British Horse Society.”
Clunes is pragmatic about the possibility that Doc Martin might end after the ninth series in two years’ time (series eight begins this week). “We’ll see how series eight performs,” he says. “Nothing lasts for ever on telly. I’ve seen actors in tears on ‘wrap’ days, but you only ever start these things to finish them.”
Clunes has a theory on why the show is so successful. “We all like the idea of a bossy posh man fixing everything for us. We despise posh men and so if he bangs his head on the door, then we’re happy.” We can accept him so long as he’s compromised? He nods. “Yes. Exactly.”
And is Clunes himself bossy or posh? He tips his head back and laughs. “Only people from up North think I’m posh because I’m from the South. And sometimes I play posh people. But I’m not posh at all. Nor am I bossy. I’m nothing like Doc Martin.”