February Essay: Paging Dr Ellingham

I’ve been mainlining the British TV show Doc Martin on Netflix, which is probably some kind of cry for help.

I don’t know why I’ve grown so attached! In recent years I have become very cynical about TV shows centering around a male anti-hero who gets to be the hero despite being awful to people because he’s terribly good at his job.

Usually I fall for these shows (when I do) because they have a great scrappy ensemble cast orbiting around the Arsehole Of Note, and are usually gorgeously written and produced and full of cleverness, which makes it worth my while until I stop and think about it seriously. (See: House, Sherlock, Elementary, The Office (US), Bull, Billions, insert your own favourite example of Arsehole of Note TV shows here)

The scrappy ensemble cast of Doc Martin definitely suckered me in, as did the gorgeous Cornwall scenery, and somewhere along the way it became my happy place, the show I want to watch to make my stress go away.

I do appreciate that the central character isn’t presented as a hero or a saviour, and his behaviour is, while often tolerated and/or managed, never romanticised. I also appreciate that a distinction is made between his inability to process or project social norms, and his abrasive personality. Revelations about his awful childhood and background help a lot also to allow the character to earn our empathy, even if he is never likely to extend us the same courtesy.

The struggle is real.

However. I don’t want to talk about the central character at all. I want to talk about the other Doctor Ellingham in the show.

Four seasons in, Martin’s beloved Aunt Joan (the eternal and wonderful Stephanie Cole, AKA Her From Cabin Pressure) was written out of the show and replaced with a different aunt. Dr Ruth Ellingham (played by the marvellous Dame Eileen Atkins) is a semi-retired psychiatrist who specialised in dealing with prison inmates: a sharp and intelligent woman who, like Martin himself, does not suffer fools nor polite social norms.

She’s kind of brilliant. For a start, showing a female equivalent to our central Arsehole of Note makes the show feel a lot more balanced, even if she is a supporting character rather than protagonist. Ruth understands people a lot better than Martin does (after all, she is a psychologist) but you can see the effect her presence has on him — such relief at being around someone who won’t throw emotions around the room. She also has a narrative journey that reflects that of her nephew: which is to say, big city fish out of water in a small country town.

Ruth comes to town for the funeral of her sister, only to discover that the very emotionally astute Joan has left her the farm in her will. Ruth notes this as an act of manipulation but still gives it a good go. She develops a hardy tolerance for a lot of the Port Wenn nonsense that drives Doc Martin up the wall, and in particular forms a close friendship and mentor relationship with Al, a frustrated young man desperate to make something of himself without being drawn back in to his father’s many disastrous business ventures.

Ruth doesn’t just stay for the farm — which is clearly unsuited to her — but for her family. Martin and Louisa have just had a baby (literally the same day Joan died) and struggle with how this has changed their lives, without family support.

One of the things I love about Ruth is that she draws very strong boundaries for herself, particularly when it comes to providing free childcare. She is willing to try anything once, and does this with babysitting as much as with running a farm, but will not get roped into the expectations of others.

After one disastrous babysitting venture, Ruth firmly refuses to attempt another unless it is a literal emergency of the ‘one of the kid’s parents just got hit by a car’ variety. Her attitude to the farm is the same — after flailing after chickens a time or two, she removes herself from the romantic ideal that her sister must have intended for her, outsourcing the farm management, then moving to town and finally allowing Al to use the property as a B&B for which she is only a silent partner.

Ruth does not like to be bad at things, and does not see the point of staying out of her comfort zone. The support she offers, in lieu of free childcare, is that of one adult to another — to Martin, to Al, and even on occasion to Louisa — and it’s usually in the form of pragmatic advice rather than hugs and kisses. (The one time she tries to hug Martin is especially entertaining as they are equal partners in failing at the manouver)

It’s weirdly empowering to see women refusing to be maternal, especially older female characters who are usually pushed into this mould. I have been trying to think of other examples of sympathetic older women on TV who are not only happy to be childless themselves, but also don’t coo over the children of others or dote upon grandkids. Jane Fonda’s Grace in Grace and Frankie comes to mind, but apart from that I can only think of characters where disliking children is part of the joke about how terrible they are, like Patsy Stone from Ab Fab or Karen Walker from Will & Grace.

Martin, who struggles greatly with the lack of control that comes with parenthood, and with communications issues that threaten his ongoing relationship with Louisa, has one win in his family relationships, which is when he is able to convince Ruth to limit her professional committments to take care of her health, which is declining with age. 

It’s a huge struggle for Ruth to acknowledge her limitations, or even to admit that she is retired, and a huge struggle for Martin to convey his concern to her as a relative as well as a doctor, without using the emotional language that seems to come naturally to everyone else in the world but these two. Their adventures continue. 

Now I’m at the end of season 7 and there’s no more on Netflix, so I’m bereft. 

To conclude, a word about Dame Eileen Atkins herself, who is one of my writing heroes, having co-created (with the equally phenomenal Jean Marsh) two iconic British TV shows: Upstairs Downstairs in the 70s and The House of Eliott in the 90s. She’s one of the UK’s acting legends, from theatre to TV and back again, and was recently spotted in The Crown playing Queen Mary, grandmother to Elizabeth II. Also she’s 84, still working and fighting fit. (hands her a bouquet for being awesome)

This essay was sponsored by my Patreon subscribers who got to read it 2 weeks before everyone else, along with their many other bonuses and rewards! Join us today.