He had a tough task when he bought two heavy horses. lisa williams talks to Martin clunes about the new TV show capturing his plodding journey
These days Martin Clunes has about as much in common with his beer-swilling Men Behaving Badly character Gary as he does with a Page Three girl.
While Gary was a perpetual man-child who still lived with his best mate Tony, 51-year-old Clunes lives a very grown-up life on a farm with his wife Philippa and teenage daughter Emily, but somehow memories of the BBC sitcom are so engrained in our minds that, even now, we still struggle to separate the life of Gary from that of Clunes.
But it is a very different life indeed.
His estate in Dorset holds a flock of 100 sheep, six cattle, chickens, his dogs and 16 horses - the most recent addition to which are two Clydesdale horses.
“If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I would have my own farm, and be driving a cart pulled by two Clydesdales, I would have laughed in their face. I just didn’t see it coming,” says the actor, who’s now more known for his lead role in Cornish medical drama Doc Martin.
To the non-country types, Clydesdale horses are tall, brown and white horses which, thanks to their considerable strength, have traditionally been used as working horses.
Clunes noticed this breed of horse when he was filming a two-part documentary about working horses for ITV.
“I just fell in love with the Clydesdales. I met one in Scotland and another in the US.
“I also saw Clydesdales being ridden bare back in Colorado, and I liked them because they are big and I am big,” says the actor, who is 6ft 3ins.
“When we were taking a break in Scotland, we went to see some Clydesdales with the possible idea of buying one, and ended up with two.”
The two horses, Ronnie and Bruce, were too young to train when Clunes first got them but, as they approached three years old, he noticed they were getting bored.
He enlisted the help of top trainer Robert Sampson, who invited Clunes’s two “loveable but uncontrollable teenagers” to his farm in Hampshire. Clunes, meanwhile, took his documentary crew with him to investigate the important role of these horses around the world.
While Ronnie and Bruce learn how to pull a cart, to become familiar with harness and chains, and be taught commands, Clunes trots the globe meeting heavy horses and their owners.
There’s less demand for horse power in today’s world of high-tech equipment, but Clunes finds people who’ve found new ways to keep the horses working.
So in America, for example, Clunes spends time with an Amish community where they use eight heavy horses to plough their land, but he also discovers that 300,000 businesses are registered to use working horses regularly.
Among them is beer brand Budweiser, whose Clydesdales have been the public ‘face’ of the company since the Thirties. Groomed to perfection, the horses go on show every year as part of a parade in New Orleans.
It’s a perfect branding exercise for the brewery, but riding them through the parade was tougher than Clunes imagined.
“It was all about brute strength holding onto those Budweiser Clydesdales, with all the noise of the jazz band and the crowds of people around them. Any one of those horses could have bowled me over. They were hot to trot,” he recalls.
He had to learn how to be a bit tougher with his own two boys too, after trainer Robert told him to “man up”.
“It is all about interpretation,” counters Clunes. “I am strong with them when I need to be and I won’t let them push me around. They are young and they will try it on, but by and large they don’t misbehave.”
Though it’s a relatively new interest, London-born Clunes’s love of horses is no flash in the pan. He’s been the president of the British Horse Society since 2011 and even takes one of his horses down to Cornwall with him when he films Doc Martin (which is made by Buffalo Pictures, the production company he runs with his wife).
“It sounds quite extravagant but it’s nice to have something to ride when I get a day off,” says the actor, who starts shooting a sixth series this spring.
The Clydesdale training project came at a good time. Clunes had just been caught speeding and temporarily banned from driving (as well as being axed as the face of Churchill insurance). Ronnie and Bruce provided him with a new mode of transport.
He says: “I found this new speed quite shocking to begin with, very slow. But I’ve turned 51 recently and I have a six-month ban on my driving licence, and this speed could be my future, staring at my horses’ bums as they plod me around the countryside. It’s quite a nice way to go.”
Martin Clunes: Heavy Horse Power is on ITV on Thursday, February 7.