Martin Clunes is used to thinking like a TV doctor.
“I wouldn’t want to put it to the test [in an emergency], but I’m very curious about people’s medicines,” the star of the long-running British series Doc Martin said last month. “It drives our daughter mad — ‘You’re not a doctor!’ Well, sometimes I am.”
And though Clunes played Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle in Masterpiece’s Arthur & George, what he’s never been before is a TV police detective.
On Monday, March 11, the streaming service Acorn will feature the U.S. premiere of Manhunt, a three-part, fact-based mini-series in which Clunes plays Colin Sutton, the London detective who led the murder investigation that resulted in the 2004 apprehension and later conviction of the killer of two young women and a 13-year-old girl.
“My feelings towards the police are gone through the roof,” Clunes said in an interview during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings last month. Before, “I’ve been not wanting to be caught on my moped without a tax disc or something. I was sort of hiding from them in the past.”
Now, he said, “I have such admiration and my estimation [has gone up], through looking into this to see what they do, the worlds they have to put themselves in, the places they have to go, and the dedication and the service they give.”
Those worlds are a long way from Portwenn, the fictional and almost impossibly picturesque town in Cornwall where Clunes’ Martin Ellingham, a brilliant and abrasive physician whose blood phobia ended his surgical career, alternately rescues and berates patients who present him with a sometimes comical range of complaints.
For U.S. viewers who’d become hooked on Doc Martin on public TV, an Acorn subscription was until recently the easiest way to see the show’s eighth season, which included a guest appearance by Sigourney Weaver, an unlikely bit of casting that reportedly came about because she’s friends with Selina Cadell, who plays Portwenn’s sometimes unhinged pharmacist. (The season, from 2017, finally premiered in late January on the Lehigh Valley’s PBS39.) A ninth season is in the works, and is expected to appear this fall on Acorn, whose subscribers also have access to the first eight, as well as to two prequel movies.
What Ellingham and Sutton have in common, beyond Clunes, is that each is much better at his job than he is at being married.
When I suggested this to Philippa Braithwaite, she laughed. The producer of Doc Martin and Manhunt, she happens to be married to Clunes.
“Doc Martin’s … as fictional as it comes, and that’s fun and you always have to have a love interest,” Braithwaite said. “But Colin Sutton, I think if you do a job that is that serious and that when you’re having to deal with a case as serious as a girl being murdered, I think it’s really hard for policemen not to take that home with them. And I don’t know how many successful marriages there are on that level of policing, you know? So all we were doing was showing what happened in real life. We weren’t making anything up, but I think it’s hard not to take that home with you.”
In Britain, where Manhunt premiered in January, it was ITV’s highest-rated drama since the 2013 launch of Broadchurch, receiving largely favorable reviews from critics more familiar with the cases it dealt with than most U.S. audiences will be.
“It’s a series of murders that certainly the print press seized on and made much copy from and actually let themselves down, ultimately, by their covering,” Clunes said. (The discovery that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the voicemail of 13-year-old victim Milly Dowler was part of the scandal that led to the paper’s closing in 2011.)
“When they knew that we were making it, they were very judgmental over it, saying, ‘How dare you?’ And then they recycled all their articles again,” Clunes said. “But what was great was that it stopped the minute the program [aired], and we were vindicated because they were imagining, I think, that we would be telling the story in the way that the English television likes to deal with murders, like Luther, or something where you’re spending a lot of time with the murderer.”
Filmed in some of the places where the events took place, Manhunt focuses instead on the dogged investigation by Sutton and his colleagues, who, in looking into one death, eventually concluded they were dealing with a serial killer and set out to find him.
“I think the public hadn’t really ever seen anything so accurate,” Braithwaite said.
“You don’t see Levi Bellfield [the killer] a lot in the program until you need to, until you nick him. But you never saw anything from his point of view. … We weren’t making them fall in love with the murderer,” Clunes said.
As part of their preparation, the actor and director Marc Evans spent a day with the Hampshire serious crimes squad as it began a murder investigation. Both came away, Clunes said, saying, “Thank God these people are here.”
He also spent time with Sutton, on whose memoir the series is based, and said the now-retired detective was particularly impressed by the art department’s construction of the incident room in which his team worked.
"He was like, ‘Ooh, boy, yes. This is what it was. You know, this is what it was like.’ And we’ve had so many letters from the police saying, ‘At last we’ve seen our work represented on television.’ "
For Clunes and Braithwaite, who’ve been married since 1997 and have a daughter, Emily, Manhunt is just another of the many things they’ve worked on in tandem.
“We’ve always worked together. It’s how we met,” he said. “It’s just sort of part of the partnership of our life, in that parenting is a partnership. We’re running a farm,” too, where they keep horses, including two Clydesdales, Bruce and Ronnie, who were featured in the documentary Martin Clunes: Heavy Horsepower, available on Netflix.
“We have a company [Buffalo Pictures] together and … 80 percent of what we do is through our company, and then Martin goes and does other things,” Braithwaite said.
For years, they were “a bit like the royal family … seldom in the same place at the same time,” because one always had to be with their daughter, Clunes said. “But now she’s gone to university and has left home. So we’ll be together more.”
Fans who wonder how much longer Doc Martin will be part of that may have to wonder a while longer.
“We’ll see this year whether it’s the time to end it,” Braithwaite said. “We do like doing it.”
Since the fourth season, “we’ve been saying, right. That’s it. That’s the last one. … [But] it’s the best job in television," Clunes said. “The trick is to not repeat ourselves. … We don’t want to just trot out any old rubbish.”