What’s up, Doc?:
Why Martin Clunes loves Vanity Fair.
It boasts a glittering cast and glamorous settings but TVNZ 1’s period drama, Vanity Fair, held a very particular appeal for Martin Clunes, who plays the distasteful Sir Pitt Crawley. It was the chance to work with animals.
Clunes, best known as TV’s grumpy Doc Martin, lives on a farm with his producer wife, Philippa Braithwaite, in Dorset, England.
He has presented several programmes about animals such as Martin Clunes: A Man And His Dogs, Horsepower and Man & Beast. So when he read that he would be working with horses and dogs in Vanity Fair, he eagerly looked forward to it.
“The highlight of Vanity Fair for me has been the animals, as much as I appreciate the other cast,” he says. “I’m very happy working with the horses or playing with the dog.
“Page one of the script said that Pitt drives his own carriage and I was overjoyed when I read that because I also do. I’m a member of the British Carriage Driving Society so I did all my own carriage driving for the part with two black Friesian horses, which are lovely.
“Back home I have a couple of cart horses and an old cart. I hadn’t driven my horses for years because it’s much simpler just to ride them but now I am reinvigorated and I have ordered a rather smart wagon from Germany.
“Pitt also has a dog, called Gorer, who is a deerhound and he was actually in an episode of the last series of Doc Martin. He’s really good and a pleasure to work with.”
Clunes, 56, is also fond of his character, even though the book’s author, William Makepeace Thackeray, describes him as “foul-mouthed and mean”.
“I quite like him. I like his satisfaction with his estate and with his world. He is an MP and has got a bit of attitude. His clothes are quite rundown. He will dress up if he is going to a ball or somewhere but, other than that, he’s not bothered. He’s one of the few
characters in the story who isn’t a snob and trying to better themselves.
“He also totally ‘gets’ Becky Sharp. She takes what she wants from him – a help up the social ladder – and when he knows how capable she is he appoints her as his secretary so that she can deal with his finances and paperwork. And then the minute his wife dies he tries to promote her to his wife but she’s having none of that.”
Although Clunes has not read Thackeray’s novel, he had seen a performance of it on stage some years ago and it had struck a chord with him. “It really grabbed me because it’s not the ‘stock’ characters of costume dramas going on about how and who a woman should marry and a bit of fan work. There is so much more to this. It’s so rich
and nobody is who they appear to be. Even the baddies are good and the goodies are bad and Becky Sharp is possibly the greatest woman in British literature.
“She is a heroine in my mind. It was extraordinary at that time to have a woman behave in that way and be the central character in a book without sort of being damned to hell and back.”
Much of Clunes’ acting work – although not Vanity Fair – comes courtesy of his wife Philippa who, as well as producing Doc Martin and Arthur & George, in which he played Arthur Conan Doyle, is also responsible for his animal and travel documentaries.
“I do work with other people though,” he says. “She kicks me out of the house.”
There is a half-hour comedy series that he will be working on later this year called Warren, about a grumpy driving instructor, that he is excited about and a new travel documentary series called Islands Of America.
The ever-busy actor has also finished filming another of his wife’s productions – a drama called Manhunt about a real-life serial killer, Levi Bellfield.
Clunes plays the dogged cop, Colin Sutton, who eventually tracked him down.
“I felt a huge responsibility playing that role and I was quite daunted by the idea,” he admits.
“It couldn’t be more different from Vanity Fair. But it’s a story worth telling.”
“She is a heroine in my mind. It was extraordinary at that time to have a woman behave in that way.” – Martin Clunes on Becky Sharp (played by Olivia Cooke, above)
Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt Crawley