Not just a sitcom Charlie

He has the wit of Harry Enfield, the verve of Kenneth Branagh and twice the nerve of Ian Hislop, but to Dr Who fans, he'll always be Prince Long. Mark Wareham meets Martin Clunes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Your starter for 10. How many film / theatre directors can you name who have starred in Dr Who, Lovejoy and an award-winning sitcom, but who have never, and here's the clincher, never appeared in The Bill?

Martin Clunes is something of a one-off. In tabloid circles, he's "the tall, odd-looking one" off the television sitcom Men Behaving Badly, which starts a new series tomorrow. To theatre types, he's the winner of a London Fringe Award for his direction of the 1990 adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Film-watchers will know him as the director of and lead in last year's Staggered. And to Dr Who bores, he'll never be anything other than Prince Long, deadly enemy of Peter Davison's, who had the misfortune to be possessed by a hideous snake and an even more hideous accent.

Clunes doesn't balk at a challenge. An edition of Have I Got News for You once saw him go where even such dauntless warriors as Ian Hislop and Paul Merton fear to tread. Angus Deayton had been appearing in the papers all week in a "Sex Romp with Vice Girl" story that coincided perfectly with the start of a new series. With viewers licking their chops in anticipation of a bloodletting, Clunes was left open-mouthed as the programme wore on with no sign of either Hislop or Merton prepared to bite the bullet. "There it was in the Sun every day; double-page dirt on Angus Deayton, and they didn't say a word. So I did..."

In addition to juggling his own TV, film and theatre projects, Clunes is also one third of Big Arts (the T is silent - and yes, Clunes coined the name), an acting triumvirate set up in 1990 with Ian Michie and Paul Brennen and now operating out of a dingy Covent Garden office. Clunes, freshly dismounted from his "sex-beast roadhog" of a Kawasaki 750, pulls merrily on a Marlboro Light and recalls those heady days in his hoarse, laddish drawl. "So we formed this company, as you do, three daft lads, put Loneliness on in a pub and I won best director's cup." On the back of that success, they sold the play to the British Council and took themselves off to Yugoslavia.

"It was 1992 and trouble was already flaring up. We turned up in total ignorance in Slovenia and said, 'Well, it's nice to be in Yugoslavia.' And they said, 'You're not.' It was a worry, turning up in a war zone and saying, 'Hello, we're putting on a play.' But they were just grateful people still bothered."

Big Arts has started to branch out into an entirely different medium again - radio - but Clunes is avoiding direct involvement. "It's a horrible thing to do, a radio play. There's no window, you're 12 hours in a sound- proofed, air-conditioned room and your nose gets Legionnaire's Disease. Everyone's doing crosswords - 'Got 9 down yet, darling?' I did one at the end of last year and vowed 'never again'. Three days of The Importance of Being Earnest with Judi Dench, Michael Hordern, Samantha Bond and all the usual suspects, and me, Sitcom Charlie, all at sea. I was terrible."

Clunes's participation in Big Arts's radio work has been minimalised by the desire to get his film and theatre plans off the ground. It's not every sitcom star who gets to direct motion pictures, but for Clunes last year's call-up to helm Staggered when the director dropped out at the 11th hour was quite a break.

The film, a low-budget Britcom which opens with a bewildered Clunes waking up naked on a remote Scottish beach the morning after his stag night, received a sniffy reception from the "serious" critics ("parochial", "second-rate", "sloppy") and, it must be said, suffered from being released in the euphoric wake of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But the tabloids hailed its cheeky irreverence, and Staggered proceeded to gross more than pounds 1m (against a budget of pounds 800,000) and do decent enough video bucks on the small screen (pounds 250,000 in its first two weeks of release).

Clunes remains somewhat indignant at the critical treatment meted out to his debut. "The broadsheet press were extraordinary. 'This man, last seen in a sitcom, is now starring in a film and directing it... How dare he?' As if, well, where should they come from? You want to make a commercial, fun film, and then everyone goes, 'Well, it's funny. But where's the crinoline? Where's the room with the view? Where's the frocks, the bloody frockage?' "

Undeterred, Martin Clunes, director, has several projects coming to the boil, including two scripts by Crispin Whittell - a play about Black Monday [the day in 1987 when the stock market crashed], which opens in Nottingham, and a feature-length espionage film which he describes as "scary stuff... it's dangerous and kind of factual, linking the Tory government with Mossad."

There's also a "full-on commercial comedy", with James Woods and Carmen Diaz lined up for the leads. Clunes has been working with the writers for several months - "you have to have an osmotic involvement with the script if you're going to direct it" - but has yet to be won over by the machinations of the film industry.

"It's just going to meetings with all these wankers. You pitch the lawyer or whoever after he's banged on about himself, and he'll say, 'You see the problem you're gonna have is that unless you can get the right actors in the American parts, it's going to be very hard to get the budget.' And you think, 'Well we fucking know that, that's why we wrote it with built-in Americans!' There's just so many people in love with the crap of it, the Venice Film Festival of it, all the swanning around. I can't understand it because to me the fun is doing it. That's big fun."

But if he enjoys letting off steam away from the accountants on the set of Men Behaving Badly, then it wasn't always like that. "I didn't really want to do a sitcom. It was Harry Enfield who talked me into it. Four hours and a bottle of brandy it took him," he roars. (Clunes's laugh, when it comes, is alarming; an infectious, red-faced, helpless wheeze that leaves him drained.) "I'd done a couple of sitcoms when I was younger [No Place Like Home and All at Number 20] and they stopped me getting other work, so I went off to the theatre. But now I love it. I'd happily do one a year for the rest of my life because we all get on so well."

Likewise, he hopes to keep blagging his way on to Harry Enfield's TV shows. "I've managed to get in all his series with one wig or another." Most recently it was as Tim Nice But Dim's friend, Charlie Bit of a Shit, but he is most fondly remembered as one of The Ruggers, those beer-swilling jolly wallies about to come into their own for the Rugby World Cup. "We've all been in pubs when those rugger buggers come in. The weird thing is you take the piss out of those shitpots and they come up and go, 'Bloody good sketches, ra, ra, ra,' and they know them word for word, and they know those daft drinking songs we made up as well and they've added them to their repertoire."

So, what are we to make of Martin Clunes, man of so very many parts? Is he, as Paula Yates once declared, the young Richard Attenborough?

"Fuck knows. What does she mean?"

Just as long as he doesn't become the old Richard Attenborough?

"Mmmm. Luvvies, darlings, Santa, reindeer."

Or how about the new Kenneth Branagh? That's also been said of him.

"I didn't think they'd finished with the old one."

Or perhaps then, as the Independent once put it, he's nothing more than "a cross between a telegraph pole and a Bash Street Kid".

"No idea," he says. "I buy the Times."