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Dame Eileen Atkins on Filming Difficult Scenes and Her Early Acting Days

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The following profile is courtesy of ITV. Catch a new season of "Doc Martin" on KCET starting Jan. 24.

Dame Eileen Atkins
Dame Eileen Atkins

With a long and distinguished acting career, Dame Eileen Atkins is well versed in dealing with the perils of location filming. Shooting the new season of "Doc Martin" on the windswept cliffs of the North Cornwall coast on a bitterly cold Spring day proved a challenge. 

“It was an awfully cold day and we were filming on the side of a cliff near Tintagel. The day started well but by the end of the day it was raining and nasty. I remember doing the last scene and everyone shouting ‘do it in one take’."  

“That’s the perils of location filming. I always seem to get my heaviest scenes at the beginning when its very cold. I am one of the coldest people in the world anyway." 

“That day I was wearing three sets of thermals and heat patches on my back. Helen Felstead, the costume assistant, who looked after me, was fantastic. She’d have a big duvet coat and fur-lined boots ready for me to put on as soon as we broke from filming, and she gave me hot water bottles to hold. How she always found somewhere to boil a kettle to fill the hot water bottles, I don’t know.”  

Filming Dramatic Scenes

Dame Eileen was shooting the dramatic cliffside scenes as part of a storyline in episode two in which a secret from Ruth’s past emerges. The son of a man Ruth had an affair with arrives in the village to scatter his dead father’s ashes. 

“It’s a rather tender, sweet story that emerges. John Rahmanzai, played by Art Malik, arrives on the scene not knowing who Ruth is. His father has left instructions for his ashes to be scattered in a certain place in the village, and this is of course where he had spent very happy times with Ruth."  

“Ruth doesn’t even know the father has died, they haven’t been in touch since she ended the affair, as it turns out, rather regretfully." 

“Ruth is not ashamed of the affair, but she just feels deeply awkward when the son arrives. She had the affair, knowing he was married, but she knew he was unhappily married and then she finished it."  

“But when faced with the son of the wife she never met, I think that brings it home to her how hard it is for the son to accept that his father should have been unfaithful to his mother."  

“So I think that is what she regrets deeply. She is trying to hide it from the son, and indeed she doesn’t want Martin to know either. It is Martin who actually lets the cat out of the bag. She tries to stop him. I think she would have left it that she would never have told the son about it, and let him go on thinking that for some reason his father just wanted the ashes scattered in this particular place. Certainly that would have been my way of dealing with it, I would have made up some story."

“It was somewhat hard for me to film the scenes of scattering the ashes, my husband having died last year and I’d had to scatter his ashes. I had done it all too personally."  

“But I’m afraid, as usual in filming, it all turned to farce. I had thought I really don’t want to do this bit with the ashes. The director wanted a special look with the ashes, so he said ‘I am going to show you how to scatter the ashes, Eileen’."  

“We were using drones to film the scene so he didn’t want too many takes.  He took the ashes, threw them, and they all went in my face! I was covered from top to toe in ashes, so the atmosphere was somewhat blown before we’d started.” 

The poignant storyline reunited Eileen with her friend and fellow Upstairs Downstairs actor Art Malik. 

“It was lovely for me to see and work with Art again. I had suggested him for a role in 'Upstairs Downstairs.'”  

Dame Eileen became an instant fan of "Doc Martin" when she sat down to watch the four previous seasons after landing the role of the doc’s aunt, Dr Ruth Ellingham in season five, which aired in 2011. 

“I must admit I had not watched "Doc Martin" because I don’t watch any series so I don’t get hooked on anything.”  

“As soon as the part was offered to me I got the box set of the series. I watched two straight away, and then watched the rest of the box set over the next four nights. I found them extremely engaging, very charming, and we thought they were clever.” 

“I think 'Doc Martin' is wonderful. It has comedy, scenery, wonderful performances, not just Martin, who is supreme as a comedy actor, but there are lots of other brilliant actors. And what I think is an absolute winner is every week you learn about a medical condition without seeing anything horrible.” 

“Ruth has a lot of the difficult social attitudes that Martin has although she is not as bad as he is, and she is not quite as rude as he is.”  

Dame Eileen says that part of the attraction of the role was being able to spend four months in Cornwall. 

“To be paid to stay in Cornwall makes it a very lovely job. I have written to friends saying this is one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever had. I stay in a lovely house, with a fantastic view of Port Isaac and I can walk to my heart’s content.” 

On Her Love of Cornwall and Working in Port Isaac

On her days off, Dame Eileen explored the coastal walks around the village, and walked on Bodmin Moor. She has had a life long love of Cornwall, since one of her first jobs after leaving drama school was in Perranporth.  

In the mid-fifties, at the age of 19, she joined fellow students to form a co-operative to perform plays, living in a local school in Perranporth, and then moving to a house in nearby St Agnes.  

“We didn’t have any money so we hitchhiked down to Cornwall. It was a very volatile, exciting time and we were quite ambitious in what plays we did. We used to take turns each day to run along the beach with a banner advertising to the holidaymakers what play we would be performing that evening, hoping it would rain so people would come in to watch, and we got them in.”

“Starting my acting career in Cornwall gave me a life long love of the area. Martin Clunes is right about the sunsets in North Cornwall. They are sensational.” 

“I had a dream of living in Cornwall. But this way of doing it, living in Cornwall for four months while we make 'Doc Martin,' suits me so much more. By the time we finished filming this series I will have lived in this house for 16 months. Very few people spend that amount of time in their lives in their country place. They pop down for a week or two and that is it.” 

“You think, when you are getting old, the best place to be is a village in the countryside somewhere. But if you have spent the kind of life I have, always living in London, actually any big city, not necessarily London, is more necessary when you are old in a funny way because you need the art galleries and the cinemas.” 

“As soon as I arrived in Port Isaac, and got the house that I always have now, I felt part of the village. I joined with Ian McNeice in the fund raising work he does for the village.”  

“It is really so like the old days of repertory companies of coming back to a family again. You know you are going to act with these very good actors again. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, except for getting up at five o’clock in the morning some times.”  

“The production company goes to great lengths to make it extremely enjoyable for us all. In some way or other they make it as right as they can for each person.” 

Having very sadly lost her husband Bill, Dame Eileen has been particularly grateful of the camaraderie on set and the friendliness of the villagers. 

“This year has been a saving grace for me, because I had not wanted to work after my husband Bill died. If I hadn’t promised already to do this I honestly think I would have just not bothered with anything any more.

I kept thinking ‘I’ve said I’ll do it, so I have to go down there’.  

“It’s lifted my spirits to be here, so its not just the work, but I have been glad of it, it has helped me through a difficult time as well.” 

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