Doc Martin: Is it all fiction?

Is ITV's Doc Martin true to life or far-fetched? A former country reporter gives his diagnosis


Doc Martin, has done for Port Isaac what Rick Stein has done for Padstow, well almost. Certainly, locals have seen more visitors on its steep winding streets since the cult TV series began. And what was once a harbour town too inaccessible for many has become a must-see on any visit to the area.

But is what they see on the small screen anything like the reality that is life in North Cornwall?

Well, not really.

It's true that the scenery is every bit as awesome as it appears and the lifestyle is pretty laid back.

Dry Doc: the cottage surgery and ‘restaurant’ house high above the sea

Dry Doc: the cottage surgery and ‘restaurant’ house high above the sea

But I'm not so sure about the storylines - they're nowhere near outrageous enough.

Don't believe me? OK. Let me start by saying that many years before TV's grumpiest GP first drove his silver Lexus too fast around those country lanes, this one-time cub reporter found himself reversing out of a ditch, having been driven off the road by a pair of good old farm boys throwing Massey Ferguson's finest across Davidstow Moor. Which is why when Martin Clunes suffered a similar fate in episode one, I was hooked.

Four series later, I'm still a fan, not just because I retreat to my bolthole there at any excuse, but I love the way it brings to life one of Cornwall's best-hidden charms - the village nutcase.

From pharmacists obsessed with a neck brace to the local bobby who couldn't catch a crab in a rockpool, to the ex-squaddie who thinks he lives with a man-sized squirrel, the winding lanes of the fictional harbour town of Portwenn are full of them.

But before you dismiss them completely, let me assure you, I've seen them all, from the mildly eccentric to the downright barking. More of them later.

Firstly, let's separate fact from
fiction: Take the town. Only the name, Portwenn, is fictional. The rest is pure Port Isaac, a real, oil-painting of a fully functioning fishing port with a pub on the seafront, a school building on one side of the hill and Doc Martin's cottage on the other. Tourists can eat and drink on the same seafront where he bungled his way into the life (and the bed) of the eligible head teacher, pop to the same shops and even pose for photos at the front door of his cottage surgery.

Except that the surgery is a private house and the school is a hotel and restaurant; although it does have satchels and blazers hanging from pegs in a corridor to keep up the image.

The pub is genuine from the outside and you can sit outside it on the slipway, or the Platt as locals call it. But if you want to go inside, you'll have to travel a few miles inland to The Horseshoe in Tresparrett. The film crew took it over a few years ago and gave it a makeunder. Locals arrived to find it a little weathered and the odd boat and lobster pot outside the windows to make it appear as if it was by the sea.

If you want to see inside the Doc's surgery, you'll have to go to a farm where a barn has been converted for internal shooting. And my favourite Portwenn spot, the white-washed cliffside restaurant run by ex-plumber Bert Large, is, sadly, just a house.

But you can still get a bag of chips from the harbour and stroll up to take in the view over the stone walls either side of it. Just watch your back if a car comes along. Unlike the show, in which all and sundry drive by - and even park outside - the surgery; they're just too narrow for anything other than essential access, and unless you hug the wall, you're likely to have to dodge a wing mirror.

In fact, a few years ago, locals packed into a village hall to complain to the local council about just that: parking became a problem, yellow lines were requested many regular visitors complained their holiday hideaways were taken over by film crew.

But that's life in the country. So, what of these nutters? Cornwall has its own kind; dotty, oddball, amiable eccentrics mainly, living the most diverse (a word I used many times in print) lifestyles behind the miles of hedgerows, windy three-house hamlets and inaccessible coastal lanes. The Doc has no shortage of larger-than-life characters, but he never met the real-life Superdad, a bearded fitness fanatic who had two "wives" on remote parts of Bodmin Moor and jogged between the two to share himself between them and to see his umpteen kids, the youngest of which was called Jericho Nazareth.

The Doc may have been imprisoned by a man with a shotgun who thought he lived with a 6ft squirrel, but he was never escorted from a field by two Dobermans guarding a patch of land on which their owner had parked a caravan and declared UDI, refusing to recognise planning laws and demanding that the MoD stop planes from the Helston RNAS base overflying it.

He also never had to go to a farm near Launceston to ask two bachelor brothers what made them discreetly put the word out for a wife to marry "the one she liked best" to keep house for them in return for inheriting a few acres.

And he never found himself at a five-bar gate interviewing warring potato pickers who came to blows - only to pause, hug and smile every time my photographer tried to snap them - then getting stuck in again.

Don't expect to see anything like that during the emmet (tourist) season, though. This was all behind the scenes.

And don't expect to immerse yourself among local life. For a start, a fair percentage of houses are second homes and it's not geographically designed to encourage community.

It's, basically, one horseshoe of a road that begins on one clifftop, plunges into the village and rises to a dead-end on the next. Don't be fooled by anyone who drives off uphill from the Doc's cottage - they'd run into a trio of holiday cottages and have to turn round after a few hundred yards.

Beyond that, the network of small streets that run off it are all residential, not all that accessible and, in places, too private for prying eyes.

It's easy to wander off and find yourself in a private alley, looking into someone's kitchen. If it's a social scene with smiley locals and lots of interaction you want, try Padstow with its rows of bustling streets, brass bands and street entertainers. Oh, and if you think it's just ordinary locals who bring colour to the place, let me dispel.

I was once thrown out of a district council meeting in Camelford when it went into secret session over a planning application that had split the committee.

I helped myself to a cuppa from the urn in the dining room and knelt to watch through a keyhole as the chairman gave his vasting vote - by tossing a coin!

Did that make a storyline? I've still got the cutting.

You couldn't make it up.

    Last updated: 2:11pm, July 1 2011