What do you remember about when you were first approached about playing the role of Al Large?
I remember sitting outside a pub in Greenwich reading the script. I think I had only two lines in the whole thing so I didn’t really get a concept of what was going to happen to my character Al, but as an out of work actor you immediately like any script sent to you’ You don’t go, ‘no this isn’t for me ‘you go ‘I’m going to like this’. I went for the audition and met the first director, Ben Bolt, and the producer Philippa Braithwaite. I wasn’t exactly scared of Philippa, but she had such piercing eyes, I immediately had respect for her. I read the scene, and they said ‘come to Cornwall’. We used to live in Penzance when I was very young. I don’t remember much about it, but my parents told me how nice Cornwall was.” It wasn’t a place I really knew. We had tried to live there but my mum and dad couldn’t get any work apart from picking cabbages so we left. So it was quite strange coming back to Cornwall, to Port Isaac, which I’d never heard of. I remember arriving in Port Isaac in the dark after a very long drive, having no idea what the place looked like. Then I woke up the next morning to a sunny day in Port Isaac. I remember stepping out of the hotel and thinking it was amazing. I was pretty impressed by Port Isaac. It has always been a really good fun shoot. The subject matter is fun.There’s no murder and tears it is all kind of really light hearted but quality as well. That reflects on Martin, as fun as he is and a really nice bloke, that filters down. He is the number one dude and if he was miserable then everyone would be a bit difficult around him. But he is not. He is really good at the job, and he is one of the team so it makes it really fun. That filters down and everyone is relaxed and that comes from Martin and Philippa, the way they run the show and the people they employ. When you have to put 80 people together as a crew, you have got to get it right.
I never would have thought in 2022 we’d still be making the show. I don’t think that far ahead anyway so it’s quite amazing in one way but scary how we are still going.
Did you ever think in those first few episodes that it was going to be as popular as it has become?
No because I didn’t have a concept of what was going to be good telly and I also think the character of Martin is definitely different from what we had in that first series. He has almost become a better caricature. He wasn’t as grumpy, or surly, and all these things that happen to people as they get older has happened to Doc Martin, and has been accentuated with his awkwardness. I think Martin enjoys playing the role and plays it so well, and that has given the show the longevity. The way he runs through Port Isaac as Doc Martin, knocking people out of the way, always makes me laugh. I think he has honed that character every series. All the little characteristics that weren’t necessarily there in the first series come naturally to him now. We had no concept of what we were going to be part of.
You were a real city boy before this Doc Martin and now your life has changed dramatically?
It has, and Doc Martin has given me lots of things that I love. Now I’m married, with three children, and living just a few miles from where Doc Martin is filmed. We moved to Cornwall as a result of Doc Martin. We’d spend several months filming and go back to a place where I grew up and lived and you realised you don’t have to go back (to London) you can actually stay there and branch out and think about other things. So we moved here and that’s been phenomenal. It has given me the ability to look after my children. We have had three kids since I started on Doc Martin and my oldest child, Lyla has just done her GCSEs. I know life goes on and moves quickly but when I take stock of what Doc Martin has given me it is phenomenal. It is a big part of my life, even though we haven’t filmed it every year since we started. If we had filmed very year we would have burned out, and the village would have been fed up with us. Giving that eighteen months between each series has given space to breathe and create a better script. Coming to Cornwall as an actor has given me lots and lots of good things.
Eighteen years ago I’d just bought my first flat and was getting to grips with DIY – with differing results. I had just moved out of my mum and dad’s place, and bought a flat of my own. I’d also just met Liz, now my wife.
Even after the second series people were saying how lovely Cornwall is, but I just wasn’t sold on it at first. I don’t know whether it was just me getting older or things started to appeal to me. But now it’s my home. Something changed. I don’t know whether it was having kids.
Lyla was born in 2006, and she is now 15. She was ten weeks old when we did a one off two hour special of Doc Martin. I remember coming to Cornwall with this little baby, and it was just lovely. Casper is 11 and was born in London and Daisy was born in Cornwall in 2013, she’s nine now. Lyla and Casper have had small roles in the series.
Will they follow in your footsteps?
Casper likes it and keeps asking whether the casting agent can get him on Stranger Things’ He’s up for it and wants to be an actor.
They were both in the wedding scene in the last series where Al and Morwenna were married.
Yes they were. Lyla was 12 then and she’s 15 now and about to leave school. Casper was eight. They are proper Cornish – they have Cornish accents, although when we go back to London Casper says he’s really a Londoner. Since we have been in Cornwall I have seen a lot of changes. A lot of the people we know have moved here – they weren’t from Cornwall.
Liz and I got married in 2019 in Cornwall when we were filming the ninth series, and we’ve celebrated our third wedding anniversary this year.
As an actor it didn’t mean the end of your career just because you weren’t living in London any more?
Things have changed now. The days of going into Soho for 20 minute auditions are over. Casting directors now get people to send in audition tapes. Technology has moved on which allows me to live in Cornwall, and still be available within a few hours. I have no yearnings to go back to London. We have some good friends here and I really like it. It’s peaceful. When I’m filming in Port Isaac it is a different experience. When the show stops filming in July I never go into Port Isaac because it is busy.
One of the biggest changes is the number of people who come to Port Isaac to watch the filming. Does it cause you a problem?
One thing we’ve realised in the last few series is how popular the show is globally. Traditionally in Port Isaac the holiday season was during the school holidays. But now, with Doc Martin, people come from all over the world and Port Isaac is quite busy quite a lot of the time. There’s a couple of coastguards from Nantucket who are extras on the show today.
Do you get stopped when you are trying to do your supermarket shopping?
Some times but most people know I’m part of the community and the children go to the local schools and my wife works locally. It is not really a big deal. If people say hello I always say hello back because that is why I am here.
What originally attracted you to the role?
I was attracted to the role because I wanted to work with Martin Clunes. It was a different role for me and a step away from the parts I had played before.
Joe left the role of unjustly jailed Matthew Rose in EastEnders in 2000 and played a wide range of roles including The Long Firm, POW, and Servants before joining the cast of Doc Martin.
I am really proud of my role in EastEnders. The next three jobs after EastEnders were period pieces, so it was good to get back to doing something in the present day with Doc Martin.
What are the highlights of the last 18 years for you?
The overall feeling is that we have had such a good time. I have so many good memories – like Fridays after filming finished everyone went down to the Platt in Port Isaac and the Fishermen’s Friends were singing and there would be loads of people you are working with, and our families would come down. There’s history between everyone now which is really nice. That is the fondest concept for me, the fact that we have all had such good times in this little village. It is just a tiny hamlet on the north coast, yet it has just got so much. We have had some great nights in the Golden Lion – which is the Crab and Lobster in the series, with people dancing and having fun, being together and having a good time.
Working with Ian McNeice has been a highlight. Jess and I did one episode where we were doing gig rowing. It was brilliant, the weather was great, and view at sea was amazing. We had three training sessions where we went out on this boat, and it was great fun. You thought ‘we are getting paid to sit and row a boat’. There were moments where you stopped and thought ‘this is really good’. Just filming on the Platt and having lots of people watching you is exciting, it is like theatre.
Driving into the farm where the unit base and production office is has been really special too. It is a working farm so some days you’d arrive and they’d be testing the cows. We’ve had unit bases looking out over the sea, usually when you are filming the unit base is in a car park in North London and there’s no view.
This series I get to jump in the sea to rescue someone – twice , and run away from a burning caravan which explodes.
Your character began the series as a plumber, now he has his own food truck serving Mexican food.
It is quite relevant because when we moved to Cornwall there were no food trucks, now there are. Things that happen in cities are now moving out to the sticks.
Do you have to do any cooking?
There’s lots of squeezing of limes chopping coriander and peeling avocados. I like cooking but I think it would be out of character for Al to be a chef. The truck is great, very Doc Martin, all decorated with peppers.
What souvenir would you take to remind you of your time on Doc Martin?
Al’s costumes have always been questionable, but there’s a pair of boot cut jeans I’ve had since 2005 I’d like to take them and burn them’ Maybe a bottle of Large whisky that Ian distilled. I have so many lovely memories of Port Isaac, pushing crying children in their buggies up the hills, and the fact we had Daisy here. There are loads of good times and I’ve met so many lovely people.
What will you miss about the production and Port Isaac?
It is sad that this is the last ever series. We have six weeks of filming left and the conversations I’ve had with Jess and Caroline are now about what we need to do before the end of filming because it is rare that we will come to Port Isaac as a group.
Caroline wants to jump in the sea, so we are going to do that. Jess has never had a pint of Rattler(beer), someone mentioned kayaking.
I will miss not having everyone in the village. Having Ian in the village – the guy has been playing my dad for 18 years so we are very close . In the past when we have finished filming we have never had to say goodbye to anyone. I will miss the fact that we are not getting back together again, so it is important to say thank you and goodbye to people which I am not very good at. I will miss the potential of having everyone back. Port Isaac with everyone in it is a different place without them.
I feel like it is a place that is very dear to my heart because when everyone is here, sometimes not knowing whether we would get back together for another series was really good. Now we know there will not be another series is forcing us down a different path.
With Ian playing your dad – he once described you as the son he never had – jokingly. You have become very close do you keep in touch when you’re not filming?
Yes we do. He has seen my kids grow up. He had a holiday cottage down here last year when we weren’t filming. Whenever he sees our kids he gives them a tenner, so they really like him’ There are people I will definitely keep in touch with. You don’t feel like you are making iconic television but then you talk to the fans and they are mad about it.
What have you been doing since the last series?
I did the series The Bay, I did Confession and was nominated for a BAFTA for that.
What is next for you?
I am going on a stage tour with The Shawshank Redemption, playing the lead role of Andy Dufresne. I’ve never done a stage tour as an actor. I’ve only done one play so I think it is a good thing to try something different. It opens on August 31 at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. I want to see if it is something I like. I was inspired by seeing Eddie Izzard doing a performance of Great Expectations on his own at a venue in Cornwall. After seeing that I messaged my agent to see if there was something I could do on the stage. I feel I should test myself a bit.