Doc Martin and English country life

I lived in England as a young boy a long time ago and my memories are faint. But I lived entirely in London so my knowledge of what life is like in a small English village is non-existent. So I was interested in what the British TV show Doc Martin showed about life there. I have watched the complete six seasons of the series so far and quite enjoyed it, as my earlier review indicated.

For those not familiar with this show, it features a brilliant London vascular surgeon Martin Ellingham who suddenly develops a phobia towards blood and quits his surgical practice and moves to a small seaside village in Cornwall where he is the local general practitioner and thus less likely to encounter blood-related illnesses.

Ellingham is socially awkward, to put it mildly. He is gruff, taciturn, never smiles, speaks his mind with brutal frankness, and has no time for small talk or the other social courtesies that smooth out the potentially rough interactions of everyday life. He does not suffer fools gladly, telling people off with no hesitation. It is this fish-out-of-water aspect that drives much of the humor and drama. The series is a good booster for English tourism because the village is really picturesque and every single day is sunny and bright and in summer, except for one very brief rainy scene.

There are features of village life in the show that puzzled me. For one thing, why is there no vicar? The only appearances of one were for a wedding and a funeral and their portrayal was not complimentary to the clergy. Although churchgoing in England has dropped off sharply, I thought that the local clergy did play a significant role, at least socially.

Also why are there no people of color?

The village people also seem to be quite rude and dogs seem to roam freely everywhere though they seem to be well looked after and not strays. People seem to have no compunction walking into other people’s homes unannounced, being nosy about their affairs, being presumptuous, and being frank to the point of rudeness. What happened to the legendary English reserve and politeness?

I would be curious to learn from readers who have current knowledge of English village life how accurate the portrayal is (apart from the unrealistic climate of course) or whether it has been greatly distorted for purposes of TV.

Another feature that is noteworthy is how narrow the streets are in these English villages and how fast people drive given those conditions. Here I have some experience. I remember on a visit to England a few years ago and being driven on a winding narrow country road with buildings right by the side of the road that made visibility around corners non-existent and yet the drivers went much faster than I would. I wondered why they did not have more accidents.


  1. Matthew Penfold says

    These days there is a shortage of Anglican vicars, so many vicars/have to cover more than parish. This has resulted in a decrease in the visibility of Anglican clergy.

    With regards the rudeness of the locals in Doc Martin, I think this is artistic licence, and the writers playing on the stereotype of the Cornish being an bit diferent .

  2. Trebuchet says

    I’ve had some fun going through the village of Port Isaac (Portwenn in the series) on Google street view, finding the various locations. I still haven’t spotted Mrs. Tishell’s pharmacy.

    The series is great fun, but a bit over the top. Martin is too oblivious, the villagers too quirky, the police officers too incompetent, etc. Louisa is about the only sensible character — except she goes and marries Martin! And who the heck is caring for those stray dogs that love Martin so much?

    There’s supposed to be a seventh series coming out this year.

  3. says

    “Also why are there no people of color?”

    In the 2011 census of England and Wales, 86% were White/White British, 7.5% Asian/Asian British 3.3% Black/Black British, 2.2% ‘Mixed/Multiple’ and 1% Other.
    But in the South West it’s over 95% White/White British. And in a small village? Higher still, I expect.

    How much people intrude on others varies widely across England. In Norfolk, no-one would dream of coming in uninvited.

  4. Callinectes says

    Regarding POCs, the majority of immigrants settled in the larger cities, as do most of their descendants. The number who have taken up residence in more rural areas has always been relatively low. For much of my childhood seeing any non-whites in my village did not occur until a couple of Asian families set up a cornershop and a takeaway. There are still villages around that are entirely white.

    It’s changing now, of course. My childhood village has changed dramatically, largely as a result of a great wave of Londoners moving into the area (I’m in one of the “home counties” which are adjacent to London), though for me the most noticeable change is the accent. Nevertheless, there is now greater diversity in the area, and in my own family. Cornwall, however, remains a long way from all of the large cities, and the population is 98.2% white, compared to my own county of Kent which is only 93.7% white.

    So regarding Doc Brown, within a single village that is not an unrealistic depiction. Of course, being fiction you can do what you like, which weakens that excuse. The seventh season might be an opportunity to rectify this, in which event Londoner Doc Martin will take no notice while the older locals will likely discover their well-meaning yet excruciatingly awkward side.

    As for conduct, British stereotypes can be best summed up in the phrase: “Welcome to Britain, the capital city of London”.

  5. lorn says

    Doc Martin is being broadcast on my local PBS station. The shows are evidently shot with having commercials fill in what it lacks to fill the time slot so the local affiliate adds shorts to make up the difference. A couple of those shorts are something along the lines of: The Making of Doc Martin. They walk around the town and show the buildings featured in the show and some behind the scenes details. Actually pretty interesting.

  6. Trebuchet says

    @5: We’ve seen some of those “making of” videos on the DVD set. Quite interesting.

    When my brother and his wife were on vacation in the UK a couple of years ago, they became ill and went to a small-town GP. She jokingly told me his name was “Ellingham”, but he was actually an immigrant from India. I’ve a suspicion that may not be uncommon in smaller towns. It’s also common in the US. They were, incidentally, quite impressed with the NHS.

  7. fentex says

    There’s another British series that may appeal called “The Indian Doctor” starring Sanjeev Bhaskar that is about a immigrant doctor who moves to a Welsh village in the 1960’s.

  8. opposablethumbs says

    You probably already know this, but just in case you might not -- “Doc Martin” is almost certainly playing (among all those other things!) on the iconic urban-boots-for-trampling-all-over-anything “Doc Martens”, also just known as “docs”. (OK so they are almost verging on posh-trendy these days, and fancy models cost a fortune, but in Dr. Martin’s day they were affordable and available in black, black or black. Tough, down to earth and uncompromising was the image, I suppose. Also, skinheads all wore them though I don’t know it this is germane. )

  9. says

    People seem to have no compunction walking into other people’s homes unannounced, being nosy about their affairs, being presumptuous, and being frank to the point of rudeness. What happened to the legendary English reserve and politeness?

    Oh what a funny impression of British people you have Mano.

    Working class British people are just like working class people all over the world.

    I haven’t watched Doc Martin as that kind of Sunday afternoon twee doesn’t appeal, but remembering back to my childhood the neighbours would be in and out of each others houses constantly. The usual method of announcing oneself would be to open the side door* of the house and “call in” to make sure you weren’t interrupting something untoward and slutty like taking a break from the house work.

    May I suggest you watch a British soap opera like Coronation Street or East Enders to get a more nuanced view? British Soap operas are I believe considered more gritty than their American counterparts. I don’t watch them myself because they can be unbearably grim, much like the lives of the people they portray.

    Or how about a good short drama series? unfortunately the last really good drama I can remember Our Friends In the North, was made as long ago as 1996 as British TV has preferred to concentrate on fluff and celebrity culture. Maybe someone can recommend something more recent?

    Not got time for a full box set, how about a film? Three films I’ve seen lately that give a nuanced view of British life are Looking for Erik, This is England or Made in Dagenham. The last one is set in the 60s but nothing has really changed for working people. Apparently Pride, a film about the LGBT communities support of the 1981 miners strike is excellent, but I haven’t got round to watching it yet.

    Oh! just remembered East is East, a film about a Mixed marriage between a Pakistani immigrant man and a British woman and the tensions in bringing up their children during the ’70. Its more a film about a family than society but it might resonate with you own immigrant childhood experience.

    Maybe a quick watch of My Fair Lady will help you transition your viewing.

    *it was always the side or back door, the front door and using the bell were reserved for formal callers like the rent collector or the Man From The Pru (you might need to look that last one up).

  10. says

    Actually, in the last hour or so I have become more and more angry about the depiction of British people in Sunday afternoon UKIP fodder TV.

    It is this kind of quaint 1950s fantasist lifestyle TV where the worst problem faced by the local police constabulary will be a report of a stolen dog, ineptly dealt with by the local representatives of the state and later to be found happy as Larry after stealing sausages from the local pubs kitchen. Where the biggest concern of the nice family of the area, is that their daughter has started to cast her gaze at an obvious hoodlum what with his long hair and motorcycle, but who turns out to have a heart of gold, probably by finding the dog, that keeps the UKIP voters of Britain in front of their TVs of a Sunday night.

    Im sure no-one here would like to be lumped in with UKIP voters so why are you watching TV squarely aimed at them?

    The difference I suppose is that non British people believe that this is a reasonable depiction of British life, where UKIP voters want it to be a depiction of British life.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for these suggestions. I had seen East is East a long time ago, with Om Puri putting in his usual fine performance.

    There was a time when the plays of what were referred to as Angry Young Men about working class life were transferred to the screen. There were also films like This Sporting Life, Look Back in Anger, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I suppose Ken Loach is the most well-known British director in the US with a working class perspective.

  12. says

    Ken Loach is indeed a fine director, really good at getting performances out of actors. Looking for Erik is one of his.

    However hes not someone who’s films readily pass the Bechdel test, if a film features a woman she is either there to support the good men or be abused by the bad ones.

    Made in Dagenham is probably the pick of the bunch I recommended. Its about the Ford women’s workers strike in the late 60s that led to the equal pay act in the UK. Stellar cast of British women actors.

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