Cornwall has never been a place of leisure for me, but I love it. We come to Port Isaac at the end of winter. Everything is brown and sullen and the trees have no leaves and everyone’s a bit sick of it. Then, little by little, the hedgerows become like firework displays. Life just oozes out... You think nature is something you have to go and visit, but even the hedges are as breathtaking as jungles. There are whole ecosystems in there – the ferns, the grasses and the flowers.
I work 11 hours on camera every day. Then I go back to our rented cottage, I have to feed myself, learn my lines for the next day, shave, wash my hair and train twice a week. A lot of an actor’s life is standing around, waiting for the lights or the camera or whatever other department to be ready. But I’ve been stood outside the surgery up on the hill, looking out to sea for years. I never tire of it. It is a beautiful place.
There’s no room for improvisation on a single camera, because you have to hit on your decisions and repeat them. You have to think, “was I chopping the carrot down or up when I said that word? Can I hit that series of tape marks on the floor?” That’s the boring nuts and bolts of the job, the limbs of the tree. But applying the leaves is the alive stuff. The trick is to keep it alive when you’ve done it for the umpteenth time. There’s some boring stuff to every job. None of it is miraculous.
A lot of people think that acting’s not a proper job, because it doesn’t look like their job. But you should see what happens off camera. In Doc Martin, I have to behave like I hate dogs, but I don’t actually shout at the dog – I mouth it and do the shouting later; or I have to make quiet little noises to make the dog follow me. Working with animals is a real technical challenge, but we seldom lose time to the dog. I wish the baby was as disciplined...
I never saw this life coming. I grew up on Wimbledon Common, which is as leafy as a London life gets, but I was also on the 93 bus route, so my childhood was also pretty urban. Now I’ve got 135 acres at home. The physical engagement with the environment has become massive.
Working with charities is the only useful thing you can do with fame, beyond maybe getting a restaurant table. The amount of charity work that I do sometimes seems ridiculous. It started when I was a kid. My granny was always doing things to help others, like meals on wheels or decorating the church at Easter. And my godmother worked for the Save the Children Fund in Morocco. She’d been with SCF since it started, when they were going into concentration camps and helping the children.
I find horses pretty amazing. Initially, we’d ride as a family. Now, of course, they won’t be seen dead out with me. My wife Philippa does dressage and shows, and we’ve been winning prizes doing dressage with my carthorses. Carthorses are such triers, because they’ve got that work thing in them. I suppose I’m quite dogged, too – so I identify with that characteristic.
While I was making a documentary on horses, I discovered equine therapy for people with problems like drug addiction, self harming, eating disorders and self-esteem issues. I’m now a patron of a school in the New Forest called the Fortune Centre for Riding Therapy. It’s a residential course for people who struggle with various physical and emotional difficulties, from eating disorders to Asperger’s. Through dealing with the horses, they learn all kinds of skills. By grooming and maintaining the horse, they learn to groom and maintain themselves; changing the feed with the seasons, they learn about portion control. They learn about personal boundaries. They gain core stability and strength through vaulting over the horses. After three years, most of the people can live with significantly greater independence and can find employment. I’m also a patron of the Wormwood Scrubs pony club, which has been providing riding for inner-city children for over 20 years. It’s run by a nun called Sister Mary Joy Langdon, who has improved the lives of thousands of children using horses.
No matter how amazing they are, horses are still flight animals who think a Quavers packet is going to eat them. I often hear people say, “oh, I’m scared of horses and they know it.” Horses need you not to be scared, because if you’re scared, who’s looking after them? Especially if you’re sitting on their back. Horses feel nervous around everyone – they are very attuned to emotions.
Where farming is concerned, I tend to just look after my own patch – I’m not a spokesperson for the environment like I am for horses. There are enough luvvies banging on about that! We’re part of the Higher Level Stewardship, because our farm is in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with rare chalk downland. It means we can’t graze the downland at certain times of year, and we can’t put the sheep to graze before the cattle. Hedges have to laid, not cut and blah blah blah. But I’m up for that – I really like it.
Part of the reason I like working in my woodshop is that it’s solitary. I love to re-use old wood, because it behaves itself better. I like functional things: tables and workbenches. The ottoman I made sits at the bottom of our bed. It’s been upholstered with the same fabric that’s on our bedhead. You press a button and the lid opens and a telly rises up.