What's Up, Doc?
I'm boycotting the new series of Little Britain. I was never much of a fan but anyone who has seen someone close to them suffer the embarrassment of incontinence in old age is going to find jokes about that very hard to stomach.
So last night I watched Doc Martin (ITV) which is bad in a more innocuous way and which, like all bad television, I find strangely compelling.
There was a particular reason for watching last night's episode, for it featured a rare appearance by Hugh Lloyd who must now be about 120. Although he mostly played supporting roles I think we can fairly describe him as a comedy legend. He was the straight man to most of the great comedians of the last century, including Tony Hancock. He was a kind of Comedy Everyman, dull, boring, not very bright but completely harmless.
Probably his most memorable role was in The Blood Donor where he and Hancock, over their tea and biscuits, exchanged clichés and, in doing so, each became convinced of the other man's impressive intellect. At one point, Lloyd says "Are you a doctor?" and Hancock replies "No.....I never bothered". Lucas and Walliams should be made to sit and watch writing of that quality with a loaded revolver placed next to them.
Coincidentally, the premise of Doc Martin is that he is a London surgeon who has moved to Cornwall to become a GP because he cannot stand the sight of blood. And last night Hugh Lloyd wasn't the only old comedy stalwart to make an appearance because that old medical joke of Palaeolithic vintage, 'Just a little prick', was also deployed. I think I may have recycled that one here in the past but I'm sure I wouldn't have the brass neck to stick it in a primetime television comedy.
Whether Doc Martin is in fact a comedy or a 'comedy drama' is a moot point. It's not particularly funny and as drama it's on a life support machine.
One-dimensional characters are not exactly unusual on television but Doc Martin, played by Martin Clunes, would win the Horse of the Year Show if there were a category for One Trick Ponies.
Doc Martin is very grumpy and bad-tempered. That is his only characteristic. He scowls constantly and is rude to everyone. There are also lots of walking shots for which Clunes has adopted a variant of the Bush/Blair power walk. Even if he's going to the corner shop to buy some milk he has the demeanour of a man going to confront someone who has been screwing his wife.
Doc Martin doesn't have a wife. But he has a crush on the primary school headteacher. This is the one narrative thread running through the self-contained episodes. It can run for a long time because, being one-dimensional, Doc Martin is as rude to the object of his affections as to everyone else.
The Cornish backdrop to this series does at least bring back happy memories for the millions of viewers who will have holidayed in Cornwall at some time. Almost every interior location overlooks the sea. Even last night's local radio station was perched on a clifftop. I suspect they use the same building for every interior scene because the view from the bay windows looks suspiciously similar. They were probably all filmed on the same day because the sky is blue and the sun is shining. Anyone who has been to Cornwall knows that mist and drizzle are the default weather conditions.
I'm very worried about the primary school because that too is in a dizzyingly vertiginous position. The school playground appears to abut a drop of several hundred feet to the sea and is only protected by some low railings. One hopes that they take another register after every playtime.
Doc Martin provides one of the rare occasions where West Country accents are heard on television. Casualty, which is set in Bristol, is notorious for hardly ever featuring a Bristolian accent. The problem, I suppose, is that the West Country accent tends to be associated with stupidity. But this isn't a problem for Doc Martin where virtually all the locals are portrayed as being a few scones short of a Cream Tea.
Pre-eminent among the yokels chorus is the comedy policeman. Watching Stewart Wright's portrayal of PC Mark I almost need medical attention myself. It could only be described as under-stated if you were comparing it to Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean. Not that I'm blaming him for the rash I developed. He's only gurning his way through the caricature he was given by the writers. He has my sympathy.
One pleasing irony about last night's edition was that the storyline was about alcoholism and the programme is sponsored by a drinks company.
At least, I think it was about alcoholism but the character concerned may have been suffering from diabetes or something that resembled diabetes. The writers often deploy a lot of impressive medical detail without any satisfactory explanation. Not that anyone cares. The only possible reasons for watching this pap are the Cornish scenery, the guest appearances and seeing Doc Martin call people 'tosser', something that Dr Finlay never did even on a bad day.
Doc Martin has been a huge success for ITV. Indeed - and here's the heartwarming bit, warm enough to heat through a Cornish Pasty - it has been beating Little Britain in the ratings!
I haven't seen last night's figures but the week before Doc Martin had 8.7M viewers (a 36% share) while Little Britain had only 7.9M (a 32% share).
Could it be that Lucas and Walliams have now pushed the limits of acceptability a little too far? Or maybe all my criticisms of Doc Martin could equally be applied to all its cosy medical predecessors? Perhaps Doc Martin is the Dr Finlay of our time. And I have to say that a scowling Martin Clunes is infinitely preferable to the grinning Martin Clunes that first became a household name.