Martin Clunes: 'I enjoyed doing this series, but one time I had to grin and bear it'
Martin Clunes travels the globe for his latest documentary, exploring our relationship with animals. The actor tells of some of the surprises encountered along the way
Martin Clunes is used to dealing with all sorts of animals on his farm in Dorset, but a close encounter during the making of new documentary Man And Beast had him feeling rather uncomfortable.
The Doc Martin star was in Northern Japan to meet one of the last surviving members of the ancient Matagi tribe, who hunt and kill the Asian black bear for safety and for food, when he was presented with a steaming bowl of wild bear casserole.
"I knew it was something I would be offered. I thought I would be fine, I eat my own lambs," recalls the actor, whose farm also includes beef cattle, chickens and Clydesdale horses.
"But as we got there, there was something to do with the act of filming it, it was kind of entertainment, and I didn't want to eat a bear for fun."
Besides, the 53-year-old, a patron of the Born Free Foundation and a self-confessed "woolly Western liberal thespian farmer", adds: "It didn't look very nice. It looked like puddle water with bones."
It's not the first time the former Men Behaving Badly actor, who admits that he seems to acquire more animals "almost every day", has been faced with an unusual menu option.
While making a previous documentary in Mongolia, he was presented with a sheep's head which he had to carve and pass around the dining table.
"Then they passed round a bowl with the juice the mutton had been boiled in and we all had to drink that. Then we had fermented mare's milk, which is alcoholic. I survived all that without getting tummy upsets."
His latest show, a two-parter for ITV, also sees him travel to Nepal and Thailand, along with locations in the UK, to investigate the ties between man and beast.
"I am quite clear about my relationship with my animals, so I wanted to go and see other people's relationships with animals. I find it so interesting how we relate and can coerce animals to do things," Clunes notes.
The actor, who has one daughter, Emily, with TV producer wife Philippa Braithwaite, is as comfortable bottle-feeding orphaned lambs at home as he is seeing them off to slaughter and eating them a few months later.
"There are some contradictions within that. But they don't cancel out in my mind," he says.
"If a ewe is struggling with a lamb, I will do everything in my power to make sure the lamb is born healthy, and wait to see if it drinks from its mother, and to see if its mother is well, before leaving it. That is the duty of care one has in lambing. But it is all to take it to slaughter.
"Yet there are other animals I show similar care to at the start of their lives that come and live in our house, or travel in our car."
Despite his practical approach, some moments during the filming of Man And Beast left Clunes a bit shaken - not least when he met a snake charmer in Nepal.
We see the actor get very unnerved when the snake engages him in a bit of a staring contest.
"I just can't warm to snakes," he admits. "We show in the film that the reason the snakes react to the snake charmer is not because of the music he is playing on his pipe - they are deaf - but because they're rigid with fear."
And then there's Rum Cali, the elephant Clunes met in the Himalayas. These animals were previously used for carrying logs, and are now used to transport tourists.
"The reality of stabling an elephant like that is chains. They have to back up onto their spot and one of their legs is chained to a stake on the ground. They can move about nine or 10 metres around," says Clunes.
"There's something a little sad about the world of the working elephant, but as somebody said, nobody is killing them for their ivory. Maybe generations on, like horses - horses are happily domesticated - maybe one day elephants will be. But at the moment, they look like wild animals in service. It was sad, but a joy to meet the elephant."
Man And Beast has plenty of lighter moments - including Clunes' visit to a special cafe for pampered pooches, and his performance as part of a dog circus in Japan.
There's also an uplifting visit to see British man Rupert Isaacson, who helps autistic children relax with his horse therapy programme.
Returning to home soil, where he's currently shooting a new series of Doc Martin in Cornwall, Clunes has been reflecting on what he's learnt on his travels. "Of course we shouldn't be doing half the things we are doing to animals. We could all relate more, it wouldn't do us any harm," he notes.
"It wouldn't do our perception of ourselves and our planet any harm to remember it is not ours to administer, but we just share it, even though we generally seem to be in charge of these relationships."
- Man And Beast begins on ITV on Friday, May 15