TV preview: Martin Clunes & A Lion Called Mugie

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As an owner of three dogs, Martin Clunes is used to taking a brisk stroll around his Dorset farm with the pooches in tow.

But on a recent trip to Kenya, he found himself quite literally walking on the wild side.

The Doc Martin actor was in the Kora National Reserve in a remote part of Kenya, filming his new wildlife series Martin Clunes & A Lion Called Mugie, when he found himself striding alongside the young lion – as well as some well-trained lion experts.

“I was quite scared,” admits Clunes, and that’s despite having met Mugie on a few occasions over the three years it took to film the documentary about the orphaned cub.

“He didn’t remember me from when he was little,” says the actor, who’s married to TV producer Philippa Braithwaite and has one daughter, Emily.

“He ran at me a bit, and his play-fighting was challenging.”

There was one moment that is clearly etched on his mind.

“I swear he was eyeing me up at one point,” says the 52-year-old.

“You know that look a cat gives before it pounces?

“I’ve got two cats and I think I know that look, and when we were out I went, ‘Oh, he’s looking at me!’”

Luckily, the animal lover kept his cool. “I’m sure if I’d been edgy, the claws would have come out. Those paws were big,” he notes, chuckling. Travelling back and forth from Dorset in between his regular acting jobs, Clunes met up with naturalist Tony Fitzjohn, who he became close friends with after releasing Nina, a captive elephant, back into the wild for another documentary.

For many years, Fitzjohn worked with legendary conservationist George Adamson, whose work on Kampi Ya Simba in the Kora Nature Reserve saw him rescue orphaned lions and release them back into the wild. The camp became internationally recognised when Adamson’s wife, Joy, wrote Born Free, about their rescue of orphaned cub Elsa.

The book was turned into a blockbuster film of the same name and, like many of his generation, London-born Clunes remembers seeing it with his mother when it first came to cinemas in 1966.

He was excited to be taken to the reserve where, 25 years on from Adamson’s death (he was murdered in 1989, as was Joy, nine years earlier), Fitzjohn has rebuilt the camp and hopes to release lions back into the wild.

“I watched Born Free as a child and I went on to read all of the books,” says Clunes. “It stirred something in me. That fascination for lions happened to me at an age when we didn’t even have a family dog. I think the thing about the lions in Born Free, is that it’s representative of the fact you can have a relationship like that with a different species.

“Although it’s not recommended that you try it with a lion,” he adds. “In the absence of lions, I guess dogs, horses and cats have filled in for me.”

When he went to Kenya, he was pleasantly surprised to be chaperoned by the actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna, who played Joy in Born Free.

“I was taken around by Virginia to see all the places where the photos are taken in the book,” explains the actor, who is a patron of McKenna’s charity.

“I just looked and marvelled. For people like me, it was a massive treat.”

In recent years, Clunes, who came into prominence in Nineties sitcom Men Behaving Badly and has since had lead roles in gentle ITV series William And Mary and the popular comedy Doc Martin, has started presenting more and more wildlife programmes.

What with this, and the many animal charities he’s patron of, it’s clear wildlife is no pet project for Clunes.

And while there are no lions prowling on his farm, he certainly has his hands full in Dorset. There’s his ewes (“15 noisy girls who’ll be popping out lambs at any second”) as well as the three dogs - Arthur Colin, Penelope Jennifer and James Henry, several horses and the sixth annual village fete, the Buckham Fair (complete with a pony and dog show), which he and his wife organise every year to raise money for local charities.

MARTIN CLUNES & A LION CALLED MUGIE, ITV, Friday 9pm

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