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Top 5 Grumpy TV Doctors(amended)

Last night, Dr Martin Ellingham, as has been pointed out in the comments below, didn’t tie the knot with on-off love Louisa in the finale of Doc Martin series three. It saw the ratings pushing the 10 million mark, proving one of ITV’s biggest drama successes of recent years. Doc Martin is in the grand tradition of grumpy, bad tempered docs that have populated television for decades, and audiences just can’t get enough of. And so, to commemorate the end of the series, we present one of TV Today’s infrequent Top 5 lists, saluting the best miserable medics from years gone by.

1) Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy – Star Trek (DeForest Kelley 1966-69)

In the harmonious utopian future as depicted in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of things to come, we were shown a society that was at ease with itself and each other. Inter-racial and inter-sexual equilibrium fuelled the voyage through the stars of the USS Enterprise, but that didn’t mean that people didn’t get cranky. With a bedside manner that would put Nurse Ratched to shame, and a voice like a backfiring Harley, Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy administered to the medical needs of Starfleet’s finest.

Without this brilliant character, Star Trek would have been a much duller place. In the trinity that was Captain Kirk, Mister Spock and Dr McCoy, Bones was the human voice of passion and irrationality to Spock’s Vulcan calm and logic, and Kirk would listen to both in equal measure. But it was bedside manner that set McCoy out from the rest – brilliant but unsympathetic, he would dismiss a phaser burn with grouchy disapproval. And if called upon to perform acts outside the remit of a GP of the future, he would respond invariably with a cry of “Godddammit, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer,” or other pithy substitution.

And of all the characters in the series, Bones just will not be served well in JJ Abrams’ upcoming reboot movie next year – DeForest Kelley and Bones McCoy – true originals!

2) Dr Gregory House – House (Hugh Laurie 2004 – present)

Yes, alright. I know there have been some choice words engraved on the walls here at TV Today towers on the subject of maverick, misanthropic doctor Gregory House and Hugh Laurie’s American accent. But in a world where Eddie Izzard foists his dreadful accent in The Riches on the audience, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. And accent aside, it doesn’t mean the character isn’t a brilliantly realised creation.

House, his deductive approach to medicine and diagnosis based in part on Sherlock Holmes, hobbles around the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital thanks to a right leg left scarred by a terrible infarction in the thigh muscles. House’s own unique solution to the problem left him with massive levels of post-op pain, which could be one explanation for his bad tempered nature.

Could be… although his colleagues and exes would probably tell you that he’s:

“an egomaniacal, narcissistic pain in the ass - same as before.”

To quote his boss, Dr Lisa Cuddy. House delights in upsetting people, but his diagnostic skill is assisted in upending people into revealing personality traits, but he enjoys it all the same. He’s a rebel through and through, and it’s a wonder none of his colleagues has attempted to off their curmudgeonly colleague. Oh, and the addiction to Vicodin won’t help, either.

Like all the docs in our list of miserable medics, it’s all in the performance, and whatever misgivings I might have over his accent, Laurie clearly inhabits this role with verve and relish, and long may it continue.

3) The First Doctor – Doctor Who (William Hartnell 1963 – 66)

These days we’re used to the slightly wacky Doctor Who, the mad best mate who’s a bit brilliant and thoroughly likeable. But it wasn’t always like that, and going to back to the very first Doctor, as played by William Hartnell, he was a right nasty piece of work.

Don’t believe me? Well, this pipe smoking old grump set out his stall from the word go by kidnapping two nosey school teachers who were investigating his fruit-loop granddaughter who he’d placed at the local school after arriving in London 1963. By the end of the first adventure, he almost murdered a caveman by stoving his head in with a rock. When adventure two came round round, he nearly got his companions killed by sabotaging the TARDIS so he could go and have a looksee at a flash looking city near where the TARDIS had landed. Who lived in this city? The Daleks – oops! Doctor Who? Doctor Whooligan more like. Still, he had a twinkle in his eye, so maybe he was just joking.

Dr Martin Ellingham – Doc Martin (Martin Clunes 2004 - present)

How would you feel if you were a topflight surgeon who suddenly developed a chronic aversion to blood and had to retrain as a lowly GP? Pretty upset and grumpy, probably, and that’s exactly what you get with Dr Martin Ellingham, as played by Martin Clunes in ITV’s hugely successful Doc Martin.

The glowering GP ends up in the pretty Cornish fishing village of Portwenn where he takes over the local surgery and its collection of colourful locals. Doc Martin as he is nicknamed doesn’t go down well with the village populace – he’s basically just a bit rubbish at those pesky personal relationships. This is a bit of a problem, as he has the hots for local schoolteacher Louisa (Caroline Catz), and he can’t work out just the right words to say to her. After three series, the pair manage to get it together, but didn’t quite get to tie the knot.

There are few better at playing down at heel curmudgeons than Martin Clunes, and the trick of Doc Martin is the innate charm he manages to attach to the character. Doc Martin had a labyrinthine route to its current home on ITV1, with the character, still played by Clunes, but called Martin Bamford, originally appearing in the film Saving Grace (2000). From there, Doc Martin Bamford appeared in two prequel movies on Sky in 2003, Doc Martin and Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie. There were no further movies, but ITV were interested enough to commission a series, but, possibly for copyright reasons, the character was renamed Ellingham and he was given the character quirk of being a bit bad tempered. And that’s the story of a how a grumpy TV GP can win millions viewers.

5) Dr Robert “Rocket” Romano - ER (Paul Crane, 1997-2003)

Rocket Romano blasted through the corridors of County General like a whirlwind of bitterness and anger at anybody who strayed too close. He was the anti-Mark Green of the ER for six years, chewing scenery and characters up with equal abandon.

Romano’s career path started with him as an attending surgeon sponsoring Elizabeth Corday, but he soon became the new Chief of Staff, much to the horror of all concerned. He was impossible to work with, frequently sacked and reinstated staff, and was a general pain in the ass during his time at County General.

But there was some humanity in there somewhere, revealed when he lost his arm in a horrible helicopter accident (no joke!). In one of the most gruesome scenes ever put out in the name of ER, Romano’s right arm was sliced off when he stepped into the back rotor of an evacuation chopper. This served to make him even angrier and grumpier (even if it did introduce a tragic streak to the character.)

Romano came full circle in 2003 when he was crushed to death under, of all things, a helicopter falling from the roof of the hospital. Robert “Rocket” Romano – gone, but never, ever forgotten.

7 Comments

Just out of curiosity, what is so atrocious about Hugh Laurie's accent?

I get that you're obviously used to him sounding like Bertie Wooster and Lt. George--heck, I'm an American and I've been a fan of his well before "House", too, and on first hearing it, his accent did surprise me.

But surely you know that as far as American pronunciation goes, he's absolutely perfect? Where are your misgivings coming from? Is that he's playing an American character at all? On that point, it's too late to rectify but at least give him the credit for pulling off the role AND the accent brilliantly.

Doc Martin didn't in the end tie the knot - you clearly didn't watch it!

Many apologies for that - I must confess to having started watching the episode, and have the remainder Sky Plussed and still to watch - an amendment will appear to the rectify the error of my over-stretched viewing habits!

Another American here with no complaints about Hugh Laurie's American accent — it's flawless to my ears. Perhaps it's only to British listeners that Laurie's American accent sounds wrong? Certainly Laurie does a far, far better job than most British actors attempting American accents — a recent cringeworthy example is Linda Marlowe in Jekyll. The only benefit to that performance was that I was so distracted by her atrocious accent that I didn't notice the dual role. (Perhaps it was intentional?)

Agree that Hugh Laurie's characterization is brilliant (as are the writers on House) and also agree with the other Americans that his accent is impeccable. Not only the accent, but also the quantity of medical dialogue, the inflections, the pacing and the rhythms of American English are all there and sound utterly natural.

But then he's always been brilliant with accents. His Bertie Wooster, the accents he did on Blackadder, and the plethora of accents he did on audiobooks are genuinely spot on.

But then, perhaps we have confused the rest of the world by electing a President who has the worst American accent ever: trust me, no one else here ever speaks like that.

BoffleB: Visit Texas. Say what you will about the president, but there are plenty of people that talk like he does.

Will, I meant no offense to Texans. In fact, I lived there for four years and had a great time. It's not genuine Texan (or southern accents) that I was referring to, it was GW Bush's rather exaggerated accent which IMHO he uses to make him seem more a man of the people despite his patrician upbringing. Something about it rings quite false to me, but as always, ymmv.

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