Doc Martin Series 10 | Interview with Ian McNeice (Bert Large)

What do you remember about when you first started filming Doc Martin?

I remember having to walk into the surgery in the first ever episode and say to the Doc ‘it would be really good if you could stay because we appreciate what you are doing’. Bert got him to stay which was amazing because if it wasn’t for Bert we wouldn’t have a Doc so that was really sweet. Over the years Bert’s relationship with the Doc soured immensely because he got into so much angst and trouble with the Doc – he made everybody ill when he sold bottled water that was contaminated, flooded the surgery when he was trying to fix something, and all sorts of other things. There was a scene in the pub where Bert pretended to have been injured, poured ketchup over himself knowing that the Doc had a blood phobia. It is a rollercoaster of emotions Bert had with the Doc all the way through. Fantastic times.

In those early days did you ever imagine it could be this successful?

Absolutely not at all. What was very funny was that right from the word go when my agent rang me to say I had an interview for this job, I had this thumb rule that if it is just a one off thing I would wing it. But if it was a series it would be six months work and I’d try hard to get it. I turned up for the audition for Doc Martin and I hadn’t bothered to learn the script. I just thought it was a one off. So I’m sitting there and read the first script, then they asked me to read a piece from another episode and that was when I realised it was actually a series of six episodes and that I should have tried harder. I walked out of the audition thinking I hadn’t got the part, then that evening they offered me the role. So it was really lucky I got it. We finished the first series and everybody thought that would be it. We had no idea it would go on this long. Every single time we came to the end no one knew whether it was going to happen again because it was going to be hinged on the ratings. I used to find out if there was to be another series by ringing Robert Sloman, the farmer who rents out his land and buildings for the unit base, the studio and production office. So I would call him around December time as he would be the first to know whether we would be filming again, because they’d have to rent the barn for another year. Where else in Hollywood would you be ringing a farmer to find out if you’d got another year’s work, It was brilliant.

Your character Bert Large ran the village plumbing business with his son Al, but not very successfully, and often created more problems than you solved – the surgery waiting room was flooded in one episode.

The joke about that was that I made it look as if I knew what I was doing but I never did a day’s work – I’d be sitting there with a sandwich instructing my son how to do the job.

What are you like at DIY – have you picked up any skills during filming?

My own personal DIY skills are the same as Bert’s – absolutely hopeless. It was a perfect fit from day one.

What have you most enjoyed about playing the role?

The opportunity to have tremendous fun with it. There were many facets. When Louisa returns having been away the first person to welcome her back is Bert. I think he has this fondness for everybody in the village. He has a heart of gold apart from the fact that he mucks everything up, including all the way through in series ten. There are some huge disasters coming in series ten which are of his making which is great.

Bert has had an array of jobs through out the series – he never seems to be short of ideas to make money but they don’t seem to work for him Large’s restaurant, selling bottled water that gave everyone tummy upsets, distilling whisky…

He went from being a plumber and he had all sorts of little sidelines. There was the Bert Large birdwatching tours where he took birdwatchers to where there was a special bird that people could go and watch. He hadn’t a clue. He ran the restaurant until he got into all sorts of trouble when his son left and the bailiffs turned up and threw him out. When we had the set for Large’s restaurant which was actually a house in the village with a terrace overlooking the harbour, holidaymakers would come to the entrance to try to book a table. Then he was working in the shop with Caitlin where she put her moves on him. And he got very worried about that. He did DIY he was handing out flyers to people. He went to a job to put a bookcase up for someone and it all fell down. Then there was the famous incident with the whisky. He was living in his caravan where he had a still. Ruth invested in the business. His mini distillery was shut down because PC Penhale told him he hadn’t got a licence to do it. He sold bottled water from a well that was contaminated and people in the village became ill, much to the Doc’s annoyance.

Bert was never too successful at romance either?

There was romance for Bert with Jenny – played by Annabelle Apsion. He was going to propose to her. But she wrote him a Dear John letter and it was all over. Then Caitlin came along. She was doing the napkins at the restaurant. He took her on a date and she got a bit hot and steamy which freaked out Bert and he backed off. Then they got locked in the cellar of the Crab and Lobster – Caitlin had taken over the management of the pub, and Bert was working for her. That night they became very close. But it all falls apart and in this series she throws him out. There’s a wonderful scene where she is hurling his clothes out of the window, and he has to go and live with newly married Al and Morwenna. They don’t want him there, and Bert ends up living in a caravan park.

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What has been your relationship like with Joe Absolom who plays your son Al?

It is always tricky when you start working with someone you are going to have a close relationship with, wondering how it is going to be. It has been a pleasure working with Joe since day one.

He is a complete and utter natural, and very open to ideas and suggestions. He has a terrific sense of humour, and we just seemed to gel. I had not seen him in EastEnders, because I had been living in America, so I didn’t know how high profile he was. It was only when people started pointing him out in restaurants in Cornwall that I realised.

Ian has two sons, Travers and Angus who are similar age to Joe. Ian was living in Los Angeles with his partner Cindy Franke, a production co-ordinator, who he met when they both worked on the Jim Carrey film Ace Ventura. They bought a property in London when he started work on Doc Martin. Ian has a daughter, Maisie, who is an artist, and has created paintings of Port Isaac which are sold in the local shops.

I suggested to Maisie that she did paintings of the well known hot spots in the village. She did these beautiful paintings, and in some of them she featured Bert in his familiar blue jersey. She displayed them in the Chapel Cafe in Port Isaac and people are buying them.

You became a an honorary resident of Port Isaac during filming and stayed in the same house each time?

I realised because of where we are and that so many people using it as a Mecca to see where Doc Martin is filmed, we are very recognisable in the village because people have seen the show. Everybody wants a photograph with you. So I decided to carry a bucket around with me when I went into the village and ask people to put a pound in the bucket to help the RNLI if they wanted a photo with me.

Over the years I’ve raised thousands of pounds for the RNLI. This year I’ve just presented a cheque to the RNLI for £3,000 and that was just from starting collecting in late February until June. Some people are very generous and have put in 5,10 and 20 pounds. Over the years I must have been collected more than £16,000.

The first lot of money went to the RNLI then I collected money for cancer relief. In the early days of filming I was asked to open the local fetes and dog shows. The Co-op re-opened and they asked me to officially open it by cutting the ribbon. There’s an auction for their Christmas lights so I help out with that. I get things like signed scripts, clapperboards, the Large whisky. It really has just been trying to give back something to the village. Consequently we have got to know so many people. They have become our friends. The Fishermen’s Friends signing group who used to perform every Friday evening on the Platt have become friends of ours. We have become part of the village.

Did you make the decision you wanted to stay in the village rather than head home to London at the end of each week’s filming?

Part of the reason for this is because when we started my kids had pretty much left school. A lot of the cast are much younger than me and have had to look after children who are still at school, so they had to go back to London. But we made a conscious decision from day one to lock up our London home completely and come to Cornwall full time. All of our weekends were spent here, so really our life is here. That is why we have become part of the village because we are here all the time.

You’ve made your rental home very much a home from home, with numerous family photos and ornaments?

We are very fortunate, we had a deal with the production office that their truck taking down all the stuff from London would call off at our flat and pick up bags of our stuff to make it our home for the time we are here.

I contributed to the Port Isaac cookery book, and Cindy and I were invited to join the local church choir when they recorded Christmas carols.

Will it be sad to leave Port Isaac?

I think it will be very sad. That won’t be it for us. We will definitely come down to Port Isaac again. We have come down a few times in the years when we are not filming. The RNLI invited us down when they launched their new lifeboat, which I’d put money towards. We came down just after lockdown and rented a house near Joe Absolom, my son and his wife, who we hadn’t seen for a year came to stay, and we saw Joe, his wife Liz and their children quite a bit.

Joe and I have become – I always make this joke that Joe is the son I always wanted which really makes my own children very upset – that’s a joke. We literally are like father and son we played golf the other day. We speak a lot when we are not filming. He’s become a really close friend as have John Marquez and Jessica Ransom. We are all so fortunate that this cast has been good to each other and so good to work with.

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I think it’s a heads up to Philippa and Ben Bolt the original director who cast this bunch of actors who have been brilliant with each other all the way through. It all stems from Martin because Martin is such a delight to work with and he sets the tone of the set.

I’ve made little books each year after every series with photos of all the actors who have appeared with a message from each of them, and they all say the same thing -what a joyous job – amazing crew – thank you for making me feel so welcome – I won’t forget.

Everybody says what an incredible job it is, a job from heaven, and how nice everybody is and what a great time they’ve had. Martin is the key. He makes the set funny, makes the set a joy to work on.

The weather hasn’t always been kind to you during filming. As well as glorious sunny days you’ve had storms and torrential rain.

Back in February when we were filming the Christmas special we had the hurricane. It was really dangerous at one point. We were filming in the studio in a barn at the farm and there were tiles coming off the roof. It was hairy. Cornish weather – there is no rhyme nor reason for it. One day it can be horrendous and the next glorious. That is why we have been so fortunate to have the use of the farm where they can change the schedule so quickly and move everybody there to do interior scenes when there’s bad weather.

What have been the highlights of the ten series?

I suppose one of the biggest highlights was meeting Prince Charles. We suddenly got a phone call out of the blue saying please come to Port Isaac because Prince Charles would like to meet us all. He and the Duchess of Cornwall were coming to the village because the village had done some charity work that was linked up with the Duchess. We also heard that Doc Martin was one of her favourite shows and she had requested to meet the cast. We all waited at Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant, and we were introduced to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall there. She asked me ‘how is your restaurant ‘and I said ‘unfortunately it is closed at the moment because there is a bit of a salmonella scare ‘and she laughed at that. We weren’t filming that year so we made a special journey to Port Isaac for the occasion.

What have been your favourite moments?

People often ask me what my favourite episode is, and it is the episode where Al is looking for his birth certificate and there is a question over is he or isn’t he my son. It turns out he is my son but it gets a little edgy and emotional for both of us and we were both crying. That was a highlight. Also the Bert Large Lovers Group run by this extraordinary woman Gloria who now has more 4,000 members. Gloria arranges what she calls Bertstock when we are filming, with afternoon tea on a Sunday at the Old School House Hotel, then on Thursday she has a dinner. I turn up to some of the events, I don’t go to all of them.

What will you miss most about the production and being in Port Isaac?

I will miss the chance to be in such a beautiful place for such a long time. It is just wonderful. Over the years my children have been able to experience this place. I have my son arriving today from San Francisco with his wife and my granddaughter, Ada May. Being able to spend time in this beautiful place with my family – they learned to surf and water ski here. I will miss the opportunity of playing such an extraordinary character and all the adventures that that has given. This year there are two wonderful moments for Bert that go wrong. There is an episode in the caravan park where the shower block collapses and a huge explosion. There’s a wonderful shot of Joe and another actor running away from this explosion. It’s like something out of Armageddon.

What souvenir would you take home of your time on Doc Martin?

And something to remind you of Port Isaac?

From Port Isaac I will take some driftwood art. I love all that.

What have you been doing since the last series of Doc Martin?

I did a cameo on Ridley Scott film, Napoleon. Joanquin Phoenix is playing Napoleon, and I play Louis the 18th, which is a lovely funny character. I also have a role in The Sandman, little cameos here and there.

What is next?

I think it is probably time to hang up my boots at 72 by the time this goes out. Cindy and I would like to travel. We would like to go to India, and may be a road trip of the States

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.