Stream On: ‘Doc Martin’ (the show, not the character) is charming and delightful

By on February 1, 2024

Dr. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes), a brilliant and successful vascular surgeon in London, develops a fear of blood and escapes to the picturesque and quirky fishing village of Portwenn in Cornwall to become a general practitioner. He has no bedside manner, never before having to deal with conscious patients—and he apparently does have a bit of Asperger’s Syndrome. He despises small talk and is blunt with patients. They, on the other hand, confound Dr. Ellingham by calling him “Doc Martin.”


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I see similarities in Doc Martin to Northern Exposure: a fish-out-of-water city doctor finds himself in an out-of-the-way village filled with odd locals. Both shows are comedy-slash-dramas, with the emphasis on comedy, but there my comparison ends. (Star Martin Clunes told the L.A. Times that Northern Exposure was in the back of the producers’ minds, but they kept it from the original network.)

The character of Doc Martin originated in a doctor from a 2000 comedy, Saving Grace—he was originally Dr. Martin Bamford, as played by Clunes; a friend of the film’s protagonist, and a regular bloke, not antisocial at all. Clunes then starred in two TV movies, a prequel and a sequel about his character and how he came to live in Cornwall (in the village of Port Isaac, a real town where the Doc Martin TV series was filmed, although in the TV series it’s called Portwenn). (Contrary to Justwatch.com, the two TV movies are streaming on Acorn TV.)

In 2004 Dr. Bamford underwent a complete name and personality change; his village was renamed and his reason for moving there was adjusted (in the TV movies he moved from London because his wife was having affairs with his three best friends; in the series, unmarried, he developed a fear of blood, never good for a vascular surgeon) and the Doc Martin series was born. In its first year it won the British Comedy Award for “Best TV Comedy Drama,” having also been nominated for “Best New TV Comedy.” In the same year, Martin Clunes won the “Best TV Comedy Actor” award.

Dr. Martin Ellingham as delivered is far from a sympathetic character; he’s prickly and opinionated, says what’s on his mind with no filter, and doesn’t understand—or care—why people don’t like him. What makes his show appealing is the cast of characters he’s surrounded with in Portwenn, starting with his aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole), with whom he had summered as a child. She’s a crusty and lovable farmer; and Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz), a schoolteacher with whom, against reason, Martin shares a mutual attraction.

Large Bert Large (Ian McNeice) and his son Al (Joe Absolom) are local plumbers and restaurateurs; Bert is an impulsive character given to elaborate moneymaking schemes. Mrs. Tishell (Selina Cadell) is the unbalanced local chemist (pharmacist) who develops a crush on Martin; and Pauline Lamb (Katherine Parkinson, Humans) is one of a series of receptionists who attempt to keep order in Martin’s waiting room, which illustrates another attribute of the Portwenn locals: they get injured and sick with the regularity with which Father Brown’s parishioners commit murders. Martin complains at one point that “contagion spreads through them like wildfire” and while this is the source of some of the drama, the audience knows that things won’t get too bad, and sooner or later the quirky residents of Portwenn will be able to resume their mostly harmless quirks.

Martin’s personal relationships, with his aunts (a second one turns up in season five—she’s a retired psychiatrist who worked with the criminally insane, played by Eileen Atkins, The Crown) and his unlikely “romance” with Louisa provide the meat of the drama. (And comedy: Clunes told the L.A. Times, “When the Doc and Louisa talk to one another there aren’t violins playing; it’s more sort of bass guitar and a kazoo.”) Martin’s wish to get over his hemophilia and return to London against the wishes of Louisa and others who have taken to him provides more conflict.

In the United Kingdom, Doc Martin was a ratings success for original network ITV, with the third season pulling in more viewers than all the programs from rival over-the-air networks combined. In America, the show “popped”: Acorn Media Group said it got a significant bump in sign-ups when it began exclusively showing Season 6 on its fledgling streaming service. In 2012, the fifth season of “Doc Martin” was Acorn’s top-selling DVD. The Season 6 DVD sold more units in its first month than any previous Acorn DVD in the same length of time.

Sources include The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.

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