Martin Clunes on Buckham Fair 2016, Doc Martin and dancing to Coldplay
PUBLISHED: 11:20 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:34 11 August 2016
He’s a dab hand at lambing, not bad at dad dancing, thinks Kylie has buttocks like a race horse and relishes family life on his farm in Dorset. Adam Lee-Potter meets national treasure, Martin Clunes
I have been lucky - or unwise - enough to interview most of my heroes. And, determined to avoid sycophantic flannel, I have ruthlessly stuck to the old Fleet Street code: flirtation, seduction and betrayal.
John Fowles never forgave me. John Martyn was hurt. Masterchef’s Greg and John rescinded their invite to appear on their show.
And so you would think I had learned my lesson upon meeting another age-old pin-up. I have been a fan of Men Behaving Badly’s Martin Clunes ever since he uttered the immortal words: “Kylie? She’d look good in a welder’s helmet with a parsnip strapped on top.”
It is my most oft-used, stolen line.
“And it’s true,” says Martin, “she’s got buttocks like a racehorse, albeit a tiny one. I met her at Buckingham Palace recently and she kissed me.” He beams at the happy memory.
But our own meeting did not get off to the best start and it was all my own fault. First, I almost drove over his four dogs as, finally and flustered, I found his house, after a hot, accidental tour of West Dorset.
Second, trying to help out by running to fetch a cake slice for the photograph, I very nearly stabbed Martin – coming the other way to change his shirt – in the stomach.
Finally, wheeling about, I managed to hoof his spaniel Heidi in the head with a boot as I tried, in vain, to stop a runaway miniature Shetland.
Thankfully, Martin is a thoroughly decent cove and endured my tomfoolery with aplomb and good humour. His guffaw is utterly contagious. But then he does have – by his own admission – a lot to smile about: a stellar career – from Doc Martin to far-flung travel documentaries - a close-knit family and possibly the finest house in Dorset, a spectacular farmhouse set in 130 rolling acres in the hills above Beaminster.
He cackles again, benignly: “Doc Martin is the best job I could ever get. It’s never going to get any better. Lucky me.”
In a faded blue polo shirt, off-white chinos and wet socks, he looks tired but jolly, having just spent the weekend at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Exeter with his 16-year-old daughter, Emily. Boyishly excited, he’s still wearing his VIP wristband.
“I know,” he says, laughing, “embarrassing. But it was brilliant. Emily got me into the new Coldplay album and through a series of blags and friends, I managed to get us onto the side of the stage during their set. Emily was like, ‘stop dancing, stop dancing,’ but sometimes it’s quite good to have an uncool dad.”
Was he dancing?
“Just a little bit.”
Martin actually sounds quite a cool dad to me. In June – after a chance meeting with Michael Eavis – he and his TV producer wife Philippa went to Glastonbury for the first time, staying in their luxury horse lorry, complete with double bed, loo and shower.
Martin and Philippa moved to Dorset nearly 20 years ago. First to Powerstock, where they lived in the exquisite old vicarage. Then, nine years ago they moved to a farm near Buckham Down. And from the sweep of the private drive to the panoramic views out across hills, woodland and ha-ha, it is like walking into a Jilly Cooper novel, in the nicest possible way.
This year marks the eighth Buckham Fair, a glorious, old-school celebration of country life and goodness, from dancing shire horses to waggiest dog competitions, that generates huge amounts of money – more than £256,000, to date - for a trio of local charities. This year’s event, on 21 August, is raising money for the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust.
“We’ve been involved with them for ages,” he says. “It’s just one of those charities that there’s a real strength of feeling for, locally.”
“Everybody steps up because we’re proud of them and we need them. As anyone who’s had anything to do with hospice folk will tell you, they’re pretty inspirational, amazing people. They will always spend your money well.”
Buckham has become – rather like Clunes himself – a Dorset institution that attracts up to 14,000 visitors every year. It also earned him an OBE last year for services to drama, charity and the community of Dorset – a county he clearly adores.
“I just love living here,” he says. “Moving here has defined who we are completely.
“Before I do anything else, that’s who I am and what I do – living in Dorset. Farming keeps me grounded: animals never lie. It’s a brilliant balance. I don’t have any gripes. I know I’m the luckiest man in the world but, as part of my job, I literally have people in my face, focus pullers or make-up and that’s absolutely fine, because they’re people I know and like but, when I’m back here, I’ve got all this space. It’s perfect.
“The acting pays for the hill farming. It’s a proper, working farm with 15 horses, 14 chickens, four dogs and two cats. When we’re lambing, I’m up at 2am.
“We’ve got about 30 cows and 300 sheep – all for meat. And everything we produce goes to Phil Frampton, our friend and butcher in Bridport.”
What, apart from the obvious, is unique about his brand?
He roars with self-mocking laughter: “Buckham Dorset Meat - lamb with a view, celebrity-reared meat. But, to be fair, I have hauled half those lambs out myself.”
Martin married Philippa in 1997, three years after they met on the set of the film, Staggered. He starred and directed, she produced.
Are those still their defining roles?
He smiles indulgently: “Philippa does make things most happen, yes, but I still have the odd use.” Indeed.
And his enduring passion for Dorset is palpable.
“We went to a wedding in Corfe Castle with a whole bunch of friends about 20 years ago and we just fell in love with the place, driving around, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to have a little cottage here?’
“It took us a couple of years to find Powerstock and it was initially a weekend and holiday place but, because we work for ourselves, we were able to shrink the weeks. We’d leave London on a Thursday and come back on a Monday afternoon. It was all incremental and very organic.
“But it morphed into life when Emily was four, at a London nursery. We realised that when you stop being a waiter, you become a chauffeur. We made a decision – no more nannies. So we changed the way we lived. From then on, at least one of us was always down in Dorset during the week.”
Martin is perhaps best known for his long-running ITV comedy series Doc Martin, the cantankerous but essentially warm-hearted Cornish GP.
Screened in more than 70 countries around the world, the show – again produced by Philippa - is hugely popular. A penultimate, eighth series airs next year.
“We’re doing two more in total, probably,” he says. “But we’ll have to stop then - I’ll be nearly 60. Buckham Fair doesn’t have to have a conclusion but Doc Martin does.”
Some have suggested that the series has become an albatross around Clunes’ neck but he is adamant: “I love doing it and I love not having to go to London for five or six months. Because each series is every other year, it never becomes a grind. On location, I’m like a weekly boarder. I come home on Friday night and then I leave on Sunday night in a trance. There are no traffic lights between here and Delabole.”
He has also carved out a wildly successful niche as Mr Animal Documentary, a role he clearly relishes, having recently returned from filming a new ITV series about the islands of Australia, which airs in the autumn.
“I did three fortnight-long trips and the girls came out in the middle. It was so beautiful. We saw Tasmanian devils and even a creature called a quoll which was beautiful and strange – a foxy, catty dark red spotty thing. I just seem to light up when I see animals that weird - wombats and stuff.”
His fascination with nature and animals is a far cry from his London childhood: Wimbledon then Chiswick, via boarding school in Surrey. But he always wanted to act.
“When people asked me,” he says, ‘What are you going to do?’ I’d say ‘I’m going to be an actor’ without really thinking about it. And I started acting without really thinking about it. I only thought about it properly a bit later.”
It is all too easy to look to his father Alec – a very serious stage actor who died when Martin was eight – but Martin’s comic touch and versatility arguably spring more from his paternal grandparents, both music hall stars. Acting runs in his genes. His mother’s cousin was the Sherlock Holmes star, Jeremy Brett.
“I could never be a stand-up. But I do like showing off in front of a live audience. That’s what I loved about Men Behaving Badly and Have I Got News For You.”
In life, you invariably end up with the face you deserve. At 54, Martin looks years younger: tanned and rangy with a full head of hair and a pink complexion. Success, fresh air, hard work and family have been kind to him.
“I fast one or two days a week and I love Thai food,” he says. “And I’ve lost about three stone but I’m not disgustingly healthy. I’m not teetotal and I have a creaky old back. But I ride horses and walk dogs every day. We’re all pretty fit here because it’s so hilly.”
He was evidently determined – Philippa, too – to ensure their daughter had a different childhood to him. Martin was sent away to boarding school after the death of his father, which must have been tough.
“My dad had just died and I was a bed-wetter, packed off to boarding school at eight. It was harsh. It has maybe made me different as a parent, I don’t know. Being a child is so different from being a parent, isn’t it?”
Emily, having boarded for three years, has decided to come home for sixth form and attend a local school. Her father is understandably chuffed.
“She’s an only child so she just loves the whole dormitory thing. We hated the idea but she really wanted to board. She begged us. Now she’s coming home and I’m absolutely thrilled.”
He’s even more delighted by her chosen profession.
“She doesn’t want to act, no way. She wants to be a horse physio. And I punched the air with joy when she said that. I mean, have you met any actresses?”
He launches into a very funny story about Barbara Windsor: “I bumped into her once – in my old London flat. Stephen Tompkinson brought her round one night for a bet.
“But as for Emily, she’s seen the filming business up close and it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t subconsciously resent it because it’s taken her parents away every other summer.
“She loves the countryside and it’s a proper job. She’ll never starve. I’m ecstatic.” His face gleams with joy and pride.
We break off to jump in Martin’s buggy and bump over the paddocks for the photo shoot. He suddenly looks at his feet.
“Has anyone,” he asks, “got any shoes?”
Buckham Fair is on 21 August 2016 on Martin’s farm just outside Beaminster. Find out more, including a list of dog and pony classes, at buckhamfair.co.uk.