There’s something about miserable gits that’s almost challenging. They dare us to make them bask in the sunshine of our own winning personalities, and to bloom like flowers under the warmth of our love. Surely no one can stay a curmudgeon when absolutely charming people like you and me poke through their armour?
I’m convinced this is what keeps audiences returning to Doc Martin (Mondays, ITV), this hope that though Dr Martin Ellingham is a miserable git nonpareil, one day he will crack, that viewers telegraphing their adoration through the ether will perform some kind of osmotic personality transformation.
While I’ve never actually approached strangers at bus stops to ask, “Do you like Doc Martin and why?”, I’ve always been fascinated by its huge success because it does nothing for me. I find Ellingham a wearisome, one-note character (though I love Martin Clunes, who is a peerless comic actor) and his wacky Cornish neighbours underwritten, sub-Ealing Comedy stereotypes.
Martin never changes, he never grows, he just is. He scowls, he’s unpleasant, he lacks empathy to a degree that is surely borderline autistic. You’d think his personality would have worn down everyone around him to husks. Yet his patients in the village of Portwenn adore him and he’s found someone to love (the sunny village’s sunny schoolteacher Louisa) and who loves him back, who’s even had a child with him and, last week, after a false start or two, married him.
But really, Ellingham doesn’t have to move on, because, like viewers, TV loves a miserable git – think of every tormented cop ever and comic figures Tony Hancock and Rigsby from Rising Damp – because there’s always the possibility of change. I bet a goodly chunk of Doc Martin’s female audience think, “If only he met me, I’d put a smile on his face.” I don’t mean in a saucy way (or do I?) but I can’t see why audiences keep returning to a character who never budges unless they hold out the hope that he might, one day, soften.
The cute Cornish location is a draw, of course. But I’ve met Doc Martin fans who live close to Port Isaac, Portwenn’s real-life location, so the whole escapist thing doesn’t work for them because they don’t need to escape anywhere, they live it.
Maybe Doc Martin’s success also has something to do with a very British kind of wish, just once in a while, to cast off good manners and say exactly what you think without heeding the feelings of others. There’s a certain, horrible joy in being rude to people if they’ve asked for it, or even if they haven’t, and Ellingham is rude to everyone in a way that’s breathtaking to watch. A bit like Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave, but without the wit.