“SUCCESS is a terrible mistress.”
Martin Clunes is about to star on screen as Sherlock novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
With Arthur & George starting on ITV at 9pm on Monday (March 2).
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Julian Barnes.
Before starting work at the end of March on a seventh series of Doc Martin.
Both TV dramas produced by his wife Philippa Braithwaite.
You might think life is simple for a successful actor like Martin.
Aside from having to answer yet another tedious question about whether Men Behaving Badly will ever return.
I’ve heard him being asked that dozens of times over the years and the answer remains, of course, no.
But despite always putting on an entertaining show during interviews, usually with a bit of edge, he can be – like most actors – a sensitive soul.
So it was no surprise to learn at the ITV launch for the new three-part drama that Martin has previously “bailed out” of other productions.
Even after signing the contract to appear in them.
I asked him during a press conference to expand on a quote he had given about the Conan Doyle role being a little out of his comfort zone.
“Well, it is, because it’s not Doc Martin,” he replied.
“Generally, for the last few years, I’ve done a bit of Doc Martin and then petted some animals in a documentary or something. And it’s really, really nice and cosy and comfortable and known.
“I’m terrible about thinking I’m about to do another thing that’ll be a departure and then bailing out at the last minute, because I get scared or I don’t think it’s going to be any good or whatever.
“And just staying either at home or doing the work that I am lucky enough to do. So if it hadn’t been my own wife asking me to do it, I probably would have done a runner. But I didn’t want to lose face.”
Martin explained more at a later Arthur & George round table interview, with a small group of us gathered around a boardroom table at ITV Network HQ in London.
“My wife read the book first and then I knew she was speaking to the agent with an eye to optioning it. But I didn’t know she had me in mind for it. And I thought it was nosey to ask. I just left her to it because she’s a producer and that’s what she does. Then it wasn’t until quite late on that I twigged.”
But he was quite worried about taking on the role?
“Just the whole thing. Just the fact that it was different from what I do and everything gets harder as you get older. You think, ‘Well I seem to be getting away with playing Doc Martin. They’ll really go for me if I do something else. The bubble will burst.’
“All the usual terrors of self employment and everything. You’re as good as your last gig.
“I bail out of things quite frequently for one reason or another. I’ve been signed up to do things and then got cold feet. I won’t name them because other people go on to do them. But yeah. It’s just a gut feeling.”
Does he ever regret doing that?
“Never once. I’ve only ever punched the air with joy when I’ve got myself out of something. I’ve never regretted it. And I told Daniel Craig that at the time.” (laughter) “He has my blessing.”
His new drama, written by Ed Whitmore, is set in 1906 as Conan Doyle and his trusted secretary Alfred “Woodie” Wood (Charles Edwards) investigate the case of George Edalji (Arsher Ali).
George is a young Anglo-Indian solicitor who was imprisoned for mutilating animals and writing obscene letters.
Protesting his innocence and having served his time, George wants to clear his name so he can return to his chosen career in the law.
The cast also includes Art Malik, as George’s father Reverend Shapurji Edalji, Emma Fielding as George’s mother Charlotte Edalji and Hattie Moraham as Jean Leckie.
Martin was amused when one journalist asked him during the press conference if Conan Doyle might return for future adventures.
It being fairly obvious that’s exactly what producers Buffalo Pictures – owned by Martin and Philippa – and ITV hope will be the case, if audiences watch in sufficient numbers.
“Well it hadn’t crossed our minds before. (laughter) What a great idea. Just jot that down,” replied Martin.
“It’s good for television to have returning dramas. We all know that. And there are other cases that he did look into. Which Julian quickly needs to jot down. (laughter)
“But yes. I think it would be fun to re-visit it. Who knows, though? It’s all performance related. So we’ll have to see.”
I asked Martin about Conan Doyle’s Scottish accent and if there was a moment when he thought, as an actor, he had cracked it?
“No, never. They’re quite elusive. I know Scottish people and we spend a lot of time there. I’ve got Scottish horses. They were no help. But it’s just pinning it down because he wasn’t Glasgow. He was east coast not west coast. And I think we’re mainly exposed to west coast accents down here. It’s too nice on the east. They all stay up there.”
Work started on this project some years ago and before the latest Sherlock “revival”.
With Martin keen to point out to those perhaps too young to remember that Conan Doyle and Sherlock have never really gone away.
“You say there is a lot of interest in them now. I think there always has been. My cousin Jeremy (Brett) did all of them over however many years at Granada and the books still sell. I think it’s an evergreen.
“And there’s so much confusion in the world about was Sherlock Holmes real? Or was Conan Doyle real? Or was one of them Prime Minister?
“You ask any London cab driver about Sherlock Holmes and they’ve heard it all from visitors from overseas coming and expecting to see Sherlock Holmes the Prime Minister.
“So when I was telling people we were making something about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was the author of Sherlock Holmes, two people said to me, ‘Right. So is Benedict Cumberbatch going to be in it?’ That’s what you’re dealing with.”
Arthur & George features a number of period locations in London, including the exterior of St Pancras station. How did filming for that go?
“It was quick. And looking upwards. It was really exciting.
“We mainly film in Cornwall (for Doc Martin). To come out to London on Sunday mornings…we shot in Trafalgar Square. We shot a bit of that and had a horse-drawn double-decker bus that was the real thing. It was great. Really lovely.
“You realise how just a few carriages and a few ladies walking down the street in costume and paint out the yellow lines… a lot of the buildings we were filming against were much older than this story. I loved it. I loved seeing the carriages.”
At that later round table interview Martin was asked when he realised Arthur & George was a good drama to be involved with.
“They’re such collaborative things. You put them together piece by piece. And Ed was a really great find for us. Because his pedigree is writing contemporary TV detective thrillers, we knew he could bring all that. And he’s so hard working and so tenacious and energetic. That was one good brick in place.
“Then (director) Stuart (Orme) saying he’d do it was great. Directors are so undervalued in television. So undervalued. Weird. Just a half a step to the left you’re in cinema where they’re artists and they get drivers and everything. Television just really doesn’t respect directors.
“You have to allow a director a certain amount of authorship and this particularly needed somebody to pick it up and run with it. And someone who can put a carriage in the right place at the right time. I’ve watched Victorian things on the telly recently where somebody is just driving a cart through the middle of a field. And you think, ‘Why didn’t somebody say you wouldn’t that?’ It makes a nice picture? You need someone who can see beyond that and take an accurate nice picture as well.
“And then we got (cinematographer / director of photography) Suzie Lavelle on board. We were nervous because we’re Luddites. We like shooting on film and we shoot Doc Martin on film and we’re the last TV show on film. And we wanted to shoot this on film because we like it. But because we’re having to replace modern London with old London we’re having to do some CGI, which is far more stable if you film it digitally. So we were nervous of that. So we wanted a camerawoman who would do something beyond.
“Because I noticed…there’s a machine called an Alexa which makes cameramen and directors feel good about themselves because you can put gigantic 35mm movie lenses on them. But they bring everything down as well as up because they’re making insurance ads for Channel 5 on these things as well as movies and TV shows. And everything has a visual Dolby to it that I think flattens it all out.
“I think the lighting that Suzie has done for us in this is absolutely sumptuous. I’ve never been on such dark sets. Literally struggling to see the actor opposite you. And she’s made those naughty cameras work. It’s really punishing on a focus puller. It’s very low light.”
I asked Martin to talk a little more about those Sunday mornings filming in London and the sense of history he felt.
“There’s a real sense of history. Just exciting. Especially with, obviously, the horses. Just seeing the carriages trotting around. A lot of the Hackneys were original and so comfy. It’s such a nice way to travel. We were largely left alone because we were up so early. Really good fun.”
Is it more tricky playing a real person who was very famous in his day?
“You can be accused of getting it wrong. If it’s someone you’ve just made up, then you become an instant expert on that. You’re the only person who knows him. So you’ve got to be a little bit, slightly on your mettle.
“But also I think you can get hamstrung. I don’t really look like him. We make concessions to looking a bit like him but I still look like me. But you can get hamstrung by doing an elaborate make-up to make me look just like him.
“It’s actually about the story. And all the research you ever needed was done by Julian Barnes. For both me and Arsher, playing George. Because the whole first part of the book is these two biographies of these two characters, beautifully written by one of the best writers alive.
“I never think to judge on characters. But, yes, I did like him. If you look at the YouTube of him, much older in life, but he’s got a lot of lines here (on his face) – he must have spent a lot of time smiling.
“I think he was a good-hearted, kindly man. Slightly arrogant, maybe. But that would possibly come with being one of five celebrities on the planet. Slightly big headed but I think he took it on the chin when he got his knocks in life. But, yeah, I think I liked him. I’m impressed by him.”
Martin was asked about his relative Jeremy Brett.
“He was my cousin. I saw all of them (ITV Sherlock Holmes stories) because Jeremy was in them. It’s never gone away. People say, ‘Oh, it’s very topical now.’ Well it always was.
“He was fantastic. Amazing company. And would make you feel like a million dollars, with the intention of doing it. He used to whizz through our lives in a glamorous bubble.
“Just as I was leaving drama school he came back from LA to start doing Sherlock Holmes. I wasn’t aware of an absence of a father, my father had been absent so long (he died when Martin was eight), but he was like the older relative in the business. He was just all encouragement. Really theatrical. There’s none left like Jeremy. I miss them. Peter O’Toole’s gone now. All those big people. Jeremy was just really encouraging. Which is hard to quantify. But useful to a graduate.”
Had playing Conan Doyle given him an appetite to do something else outside his comfort zone?
“I’m alright now I’ve done it. We’re not this sort of couple and I’m not that sort of actor but actually after the first week I thanked Philippa for getting me to do this because it reminded me how much I like doing my job and how it’s good to be scared and to be challenged.
“Especially when you’re in such good company with Stuart Orme and the cast that we had. I got quite fired up by it because it was something new and tiring and hard.
“I still had the appetite to do other things. I am a character actor. I’m not a leading man. I should be jumping around playing lots of…but success is a terrible mistress.”
That success includes the still hugely popular Doc Martin which is filmed every other year.
His take on when that drama might finish?
“Don’t jump off the cliff because somebody may push you.”