'I just like to play horrid people... I find it very liberating'
Martin Clunes is back on his travels and his latest quest takes him island-hopping around the USA. Gemma Dunn gets the lowdown
Martin Clunes has made no secret of his interest in island life. Over the last decade, the Doc Martin actor (57) has made it his mission to visit some of the most remote places on the planet - from navigating the islands of Britain in 2009 to embarking on an epic journey around Australia's coast as recently as two years ago. Next on his hit-list: America.
"It just seemed like the next big thing, a natural progression from Australia," he says of his decision to explore some of the thousands of islands which also fly the Stars and Stripes. "But I'd no idea it was going to be as fabulous as it was. It's so interesting - not what you'd expect."
Covering 10,000 miles, Clunes's ambitious trip takes him on a voyage around America's shores: from Hawaii's islands of fire to Alaska's islands of snow and ice, and from California's secret marine paradise (including an impressive sea lion colony) to the people playgrounds off the New England coast.
"Everyone has an image of America: a land of big shops, bright lights and asphalt highways stretching right across the continent," he muses. "But there is another America, and I set out to find it.
"I saw nature at her most spectacular, encountered the animals that inhabit these far-flung places and met people who live in their own sea-bound worlds. Each island has its own identity and its own unique story."
Of the four-part documentary, he continues: "You just get a very different slant on a nation from its islands; you get people living with island challenges and doing them in an American way."
First up on Clunes's itinerary were the lush, tropical climes of Hawaii. But his visit would look beyond the state's image as a tourist paradise and, instead, into the havoc wreaked by advancing lava fields and smoking craters.
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In fact, the London-born star arrived just as one of the most devastating eruptions in Hawaii's recorded history was hitting worldwide news. Lava from Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, destroyed homes and sent residents fleeing in its wake.
"We were all ready to go and then the eruption happened and it continued while we were there," he says. "I proposed to Philippa (Braithwaite, his TV producer wife) in Hawaii 23 years ago. We flew over it in a helicopter and you could see cracks and red lava and a plume of gas then. But this time, these fissures were erupting left, right and centre."
But that's not the scariest moment Clunes encountered.
First, there was a hair-raising rollercoaster ride ("It was made of wood and I always think that the top of my head is going to come off, because I'm taller than everyone else"); special access to the very top of the Empire State Building ("I just don't like heights"); and finally a flight in a 1920s biplane.
"That was an expensive day's filming - we had a helicopter to film the biplane and we were going over the San Juan Islands in Washington state," he recalls. "The minute we took off, we hit turbulence and we had no roof.
"I'm not good with heights. It started when my daughter was born, actually. I didn't think I was bothered before that. And then you worry about all sorts of things, you become more cautious. Or at least I did."
Clunes, who lives in Dorset where he runs a farm with heavy horses, had visitors while filming - his wife and daughter, Emily (20), joined him in Virginia for the annual Chincoteague Island Pony Swim.
So, just how does he re-adjust to home life after such lengthy stints away?
"Yes, there's that decompression, it happens after any job," he confides. "It's always long hours and it's all about activity and, although there's always something to do at home, I try not to get stressed."
Is there anything he would like to do?
"No. I mean, I know there's more to do and it will be great, but I don't need to play Macbeth," he says with a smile.
"But you never know: I always thought I didn't want to do another sitcom, but then Jimmy Mulville sent me the Warren script," notes Clunes, who is best known for his starring role in Nineties classic, Men Behaving Badly.
Clunes summarises Warren as "a vile driving instructor opportunist, rude man, living in Preston" and adds: "He was really good fun to play; I just like playing horrid people, it's liberating."
As for another island series: "We're going to do the islands of the Pacific next," he says excitedly. "I think it would be in 2020, if it gets picked up. That's my pension plan - to be the island guy."
Martin Clunes: Islands of America, ITV, Tuesday, 9pm