Southern California audiences have fallen in love with "Doc Martin," the show starring Martin Clunes and a stellar team of actors, writers, producers and directors. They've been calling and emailing, wanting us to share whatever information we could provide, such as when the next season would arrive, if we could re-air the first season's episodes, etc. (If you've not familiar with this gem, watch KCET Thursday nights at 8 p.m. or the repeat on Saturday nights at 9 p.m.).
A few months ago, I spoke to Philippa Braithwaite, the producer of "Doc Martin," about America's lust for the show. By the end of our phone call, she invited me to visit toward the end of filming of Season 5 to produce a behind-the-scenes on KCET's top-rated weekly series.
Exhausted after an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to London -- compounded by the 5 1/2 hour train ride from Paddington Station to Bodmin Parkway that came next -- nothing could temper my excitement. The final stretch of my long journey to the famous village of Port Isaac (which is called Port Wenn in the series, and is also the backdrop to a number of other television shows and movies) ended with a half-hour drive from Bodmin Parkway train station. In my backpack, I had my camera, a notebook of research on the cast of the show, the interview questions many of you emailed me (as well as my own), and a list of emergency contact numbers provided to me.
My internal clock was turned inside out, but I immediately got a second wind when the taxi driver greeted me with a welcoming smile. "You're the American. Welcome to our piece of heaven." That turned out to be an understatement. Nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping scenery as we drove into the Cornwall countryside. The sun poked through cotton ball clouds towering above the countryside, painting the already-green lands with a bolder hue. With my excitement building, I quickly snapped a few shots from the moving car.
Because I'd arrived on a Friday night, I would be on my own the next two days. As production coordinator Adele Steward explained, the production takes the weekend off. Civilized. I would not meet the "Doc Martin" team until Monday.I was happy to have time to explore Port Isaac, the world famous setting for the series, and shoot my own B-roll for the project. Port Isaac is a living Kodak moment from any direction. Since the days of Henry VIII, it's been a fishing port.
From this view across Port Issac harbor, you can see Doc Martin's home (third from the left) and Burt Large's Restaurant (bottom left). | Video by Bohdan Zachary/KCET
More recently it's become the backdrop for movies and television. "Doc Martin" has made it a major destination for international tourists who are die-hard fans of the show. They walk every foot of the seaside village taking photographs at recognizable spots. The two-story cottage that is Doc Martin's clinic, the former church on top of the hill that is visible from every vantage point and the B&B so familiar to viewers, to name a few.
Sure. I turned tourist, too.
Trying to sleep in a hundreds-year-old inn with rain lashing against my window didn't help matters. On a rainy, bitterly cold morning, I walked out of the Slipway Hotel hours much earlier than my scheduled 6 a.m. pick-up. It took all of thirty seconds standing outside in the bone chilling weather to send me back to the warmth of my hotel room. Thankfully, I'd brought extra clothing, even though it was in the high 90s when I left Los Angeles. There I stood in the rain, wearing four layers of clothing when a minivan stopped. Molly Bolt, who would be my guide and friend for the next two days welcomed me to Port Isaac and the world of "Doc Martin." Molly, the daughter of "Doc Martin" director-writer Ben Bolt, is the assistant to Philippa, the show's producer as well as Martin Clunes' wife.
My videographer on the shoot was Tom Harding, who does second unit camera work on the series. He was on the go from morning till night, filming not only the action on and behind the sets but also my interviews with the cast members. I think the only time we stopped to catch our breath was during meal break. Otherwise, we had a nonstop schedule that Molly and Adele had devised so that I would go back to America with everything I needed. I saved the document and hang it proudly on my office wall at KCET.
Filming of Season 5 at the Camelot Castle | Video by Bohdan Zachary/KCET
You may be wondering what's in store when KCET airs Season 5. Unfortunately I've been sworn to secrecy -- and one day soon you'll understand why. The climactic last episode of Season 5 is... a major moment. It involves Martin, Luisa and their child. Part of the sequence is shot in a huge seaside hotel. There's big crowd scenes, Martin, Luisa and others running down stairs, through lobbies, in and out of cars. Sharing any other details with you about Season 5 plot points could get me banned from Cornwall for the rest of my life.
Something I am allowed to talk about is Aunt Ruth. You'll meet her in Season 5. She's played by the venerable actress Dame Eileen Atkins.
In a plot development, Aunt Ruth arrives in Port Wenn to deal with the estate of her late sister Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole). There is also a new receptionist in Doc Martin's clinic, played by actress Jessica Ransom.
The thing that is hard not to miss is the camaraderie on the production. Martin Clunes adores his actors and the production crew and it's clear they feel the same way about him. Martin's funny, engaging and engaged. In between one of the takes, Martin noticed a harp in the corner of the hotel ballroom. He sat down behind the instrument and played it beautifully. A moment later, director Ben Bolt called for another take and Martin was back in grumpy character.
Near end of this clip, take note of the hoardes of tourists observing this scene. | Video by Bohdan Zachary/KCET
I picked up a lot about the real Martin Clunes not only by watching his interactions with the people he works with but also how he reacts to the tourists who crowd the narrow lanes of Port Isaac during filming. He stepped off the set countless times to take pictures with tourists and was especially welcoming to those who had brought their dogs. That's because Martin and his wife Philippa are major animal lovers. Four of their dogs are always nearby, as was the case when I was there.
The Clunes no longer reside in London because they needed room for their ever-growing family of animals that includes dogs, cats, fowl and horses. They even open up their 20-acre farm for an annual event benefitting a local childrens hospice.
KCET viewers have been peppering me with requests for more new "Doc Martin" episodes. They're coming our way but not until early 2012. Season 5 will first play in the UK on the ITV channel and afterwards the series will be released in the States.
The show's been in production since 2004, but unlike American comedies and dramas that get cranked out as quickly as drive-through food joints, "Doc Martin" shoots eight episodes in one season and then goes on hiatus for a year. During the lull, the producers and star are crafting new plotlines and reworking freshly written scripts until they're perfect. Ben Bolt, the director of the series, told me he wishes they could do more episodes and produce them more frequently. But getting the stories to work just right takes time, he explained.
One of the great joys of my visit was the chance to interview each one of the series' actors. As busy as they were with filming, they were eager to talk about how many American tourists are suddenly popping up in Port Isaac -- a sign of the series' success on public television. Martin and Philippa beamed liked proud parents showing off a baby when I told them their show is KCET's most popular and highest-rated show. "Marvelous!" said Martin.
During my interview he revealed a curious development about the brand. Several successful producers in Hollywood are negotiating to bring the format of the show to America (not unlike what happened with an Americanized verison of the Helen Mirren classic "Prime Suspect" that launches this fall). "Doc Martin" already plays in Germany and Spain with native casts.
In an upcoming behind-the-scenes segment you'll see on KCET, Martin is in stitches when he talks about seeing the German-language remake of "Doc Martin." It was filmed using identical shots from the original British series. I can't imagine what the show will be like without Matin Clunes, Caroline Catz, John Marquez, Dame Eileen Atikins, Ian McNeice, Joe Absolom, Selina Cadell, and Jessica Ransom.
It's very possible Season 5 will be the last of "Doc Martin." Martin wonders out loud if there's anything new and creative to be done with the relationship of Dr. Martin Ellingham and Louisa Glasson. The brilliant actor knows the show has reached its creative zenith and thinks this might be the moment to move on. All that will play itself out. In the meantime, KCET viewers will get to see the new shows in early 2012. And I'll always remember the special time I had on the set of my favorite show.
Before I close, I'd like to acknowledge everyone who made my trip to Cornwall possible. Thank you to Dan Hamby at Acorn Media and Eric Luskin at American Public Television for making the behind the scenes possible. And many thanks to my gracious hosts on the trip of a lifetime -- Philippa Braithwaite and Martin Clunes.