After 15 years of playing a cranky GP on Doc Martin, Martin Clunes, 57, has seized the crown of Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) as TV’s top lovable grump — the queen even gave him an OBE, so he’s nearly a knight. The show is so popular on Acorn TV (with some seasons also on PBS, Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Hulu and Vudu) that Clunes can do what he wants: documentaries on dogs, horses and islands, and the new true-crime drama Manhunt (premiering March 11 on Acorn). In the U.K.’s No. 1 hit show, watched by one-third of British viewers, Clunes plays real-life London detective Colin Sutton, who nicked England’s scariest serial killer — and Sutton says it’s utterly authentic.
What about Manhunt made you switch gears from comedy?
My wife Philippa Braithwaite [coproducer of Doc Martin and Manhunt] said, “Sutton just looks like an accountant.” I thought, well, that’s interesting. We're spoon-fed all these glamorous cops. He’s just dogged and decent. His wife worked for another police division, and she was ordered by her superiors not to talk to him about the case. Sadly, their marriage didn’t last.
Their strife makes a good subplot on Manhunt. Have you ever had a job where you felt the kind of pressure Sutton did to prove himself?
This job actually was a huge departure for me — unknown territory. Usually my working days are about, “How funny can we make this?”
What’s more interesting, playing a diabolical true-life serial killer (as you did in the 2002 Brit TV movie A Is for Acid) or the man out to bring them down?
I’m proud of them both. I will say it gets harder as you get older, my game.
Confidence is less readily available.
What are you less confident about?
I worry about how a thing will be received. I own my company, so there is a responsibility. With Doc Martin, people are very dismissive. They use the word gentle as a criticism. To some, “dark” is supposed to be a compliment, especially with detective shows. Hogwash and poppycock! [Laughs.]
Well, Doc Martin probably decreased anxiety around the world.
People tell me that all the time. And the major fans are obsessed with the Buddha in [Doc Martin’s] surgery.
What calms you?
My daughter Emily has gone to university, studying equine science. Philippa’s in London doing the prep work on Doc Martin, so it’s me and the four dogs and two cats and the horses. I take my lead from my dogs: Live in the moment. Try not to judge. Try to be kind.
Does juggling a farm and TV stardom take its toll?
We have 135 acres. At 57 you realize you have an allowance of mobility granted to you on this planet. I didn’t want to fritter mine away. I mean, I really have loved it. I learned so much. And I’m very fond of a beautiful bull that I’m not going to sell for cheap meat just because he doesn’t work anymore. My favorite cow, Delphinium, and her idiot daughter — they can stay.
Are you a big fan of detective shows?
No. I’d very happily never watch another Agatha Christie story. Ever again.
What about true crime shows?
I’m fascinated by them. I’m watching The Innocent Man [the Netflix adaptation of John Grisham’s only nonfiction book]. On holiday, I do like reading mysteries. I loved The Pelican Brief and Rogue Lawyer.
What advice would you give your teen self?
I was much younger than the rest of my group at drama school, 16, and I was working professionally at 18. My advice would be: “Shut up.” I was all right once I got into the industry, I think because I was surrounded by grownups.
Did you have a rebel streak?
Well, my father died when I was very young, so my poor mom was left to sort of do everything. So I was quite solitary. We lived in this lovely house on Wimbledon Common, very leafy, lots of space. And I would ride around all day and quite often all night. And then I got sent to boarding school, which I hated. I was a massive bed wetter. I wasn’t exactly cherished in the dormitory.
Michael Landon was, too. Did you see his TV movie about it, 1976’s The Loneliest Runner?
What are you personally on the hunt for in career and life?
Just keep going. My special [2008’s Martin Clunes: A Man and His Dogs] performed really well because England’s a nation of dogs. Now you’d have to beat me with a stick to stop me doing these [documentaries] because I love them. I get to go to all sorts of places.
Do you have any tips for looking great for a man of a certain age?
I lost 20 pounds and thoroughly enjoyed buying new clothes. It’s creeping back, but I got to get rid of it ’cause I wouldn’t get into Doc Martin’s suits next month.
What’s your diet secret?
The 5:2 diet. You fast two days [then eat normally for five]. It’s very good for your heart and your cholesterol.
How do you keep up your stamina?
I’ve just started Yoga With Adriene on YouTube. She’s a sweet girl and she’s just very, “Don’t worry about it, try this.” I have an old man’s back that gives me gyp, but yoga seems to be helping. Really gentle.
What’s next for you after Manhunt?
I’ve done a BBC sitcom called Warren — he’s a horrible driving instructor. The head of ITV network said, “Did Sutton solve any other crimes?” I said, “Actually, he did.” There was an eight-year-old cold case he solved in a couple of weeks.
And will Doc Martin ever quit being cantankerous and —
Get nice? People seem to like it the way he is.