It's probably fair to say most American fans of British TV became aware of actor Martin Clunes via Doc Martin (2004-present), with Clunes playing that show's irascible, misanthropic, and curt eponymous character. So vivid and hilarious is Clunes's performance that one would think it would be near-impossible to imagine him in a role as different as he plays in William and Mary (2003-2005), a wonderfully romantic yet realistic dramedy co-starring the equally fine Julie Graham. His gentle, sweet, sociable, and emotionally secure William Shawcross couldn't be further removed from Clunes's Martin Elligham. So different are they it's like one must have been formed in some anti-matter ripple in the time-space continuum.
It's also interesting to consider how differently American and British audiences must have reacted (and be reacting) to these shows, with British audiences shocked by Clunes's Jekyll-to-Hyde-like transformation from William to Martin, with American viewers experiencing the very same thing in reverse.
Clunes is as captivating to watch and as wholly believable here as he remains on the longer-lasting Doc Martin. As a series William and Mary is no less good and frankly is more consistently excellent. It's a shame it lasted only three series/seasons, with a mere eighteen 49-minute-long episodes.
William & Mary: The Complete Collection packs these 18 shows onto six single-sided DVDs. The transfers are okay but not stellar and a 40-minute cast interview is included as an extra feature.
Clunes plays a widowed undertaker with two daughters, rebellious teenager Kate (Peta Cornish) and pre-teen sister Julia (Georgina Terry), still struggling with her mother's sudden death in a traffic accident. Lonely, he signs up with a pricey but deceptive matchmaking service and is immediately drawn to a single candidate: Mary Gilcrest (Julie Graham), a midwife with a fiery Scottish temper and two same-aged and biracial sons, Brenden (Ricci McLeod) and Terence (Dominick Baron).
She also has lots of baggage, notably a manipulative live-in mother, Molly (Cheryl Campbell, Pennies from Heaven) and an irresponsible ex-boyfriend, Rick (Michael Begley), whom Molly has her heart set on Mary marrying.
The matchmaking agency, fearing William's profession will scare away all prospects, instructs he describe his occupation as "community service work." This backfires when one of Mary's patients dies following childbirth and William is hired as her undertaker. Mary immediately rejects him for his dishonesty though quickly forgives him when she discovers it was the agency rather than William behind the deception as well as other larcenous behavior.
The two begin dating, and William and Mary impresses with its humorous but emotionally real depiction of the challenges facing two busy adults, each with consuming jobs and growing children to care for, all while trying to build a relationship of their own. He's like a puppy dog, head-over-heels in love while she wavers between enjoying her new boyfriend (especially sexually) and constantly questioning the relationship's direction and her sudden happiness. He wants to move ahead full-steam while she continually slams on the brakes.
The subtleties and honesty of William and Mary's relationship avoids what on the surface might sound like a British Brady Bunch. Partly this is because despite the constant presence of the four kids (and Mary's mother and ex-boyfriend) William and Mary is an adult show written for and about adults. The kids figure into it primarily in terms of how they impact William and Mary's relationship, and the show is about the kids only insofar as their needs impact their parents' abilities to carry on with their burgeoning romance.
And what at first sounds awful gimmicky, with William an undertaker and Mary a midwife ("She brings people into the world, he ushers them out" says Acorn's press release), in fact adds marvelously to the show's effectiveness in terms of fleshing out these two characters. Mary's contentious midwife is constantly at odds with the doctors and administrators at the hospital where she works, and all this pressure uncomfortably spills over into her relationship with William.
Meanwhile, William's gentle giant-like sweet nature manifests in his work; watching him expertly console grieving families and their widely varying reactions to loss is utterly fascinating, with William as good at his job as Doc Martin is at his. Where Doc Martin is famously impatient and a man who does not suffer fools gladly, William is all exemplary understanding and kindness. In one early episode he's tasked with a large joint funeral for several teenagers, and in discussing options with one of the grieving families the father accuses William of trying to cash in on their grief. His response surprises them: his funeral home's policy has always been to offer his services to families who've lost children and teenagers absolutely free of charge.
The birth and death subplots populating William and Mary's "B-stories" are as well written and insightful as the title characters' delicate romance. Creator Mick Ford, an actor (e.g., Silent Witness) as well as a writer, has really come up with something quite special.
In William, Clunes has created a character as memorable as his Doc Martin, while Julie Graham (who herself later guest-starred in two Doc Martin episodes) is no less fine as Mary.
Video & Audio
William and Mary seems to have been produced after British television had switched to 1.78:1 widescreen but before the full conversion to high-definition. The result is a pleasant but not quite excellent image one expects from today's shows. Still, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen image is perfectly acceptable on all but the largest monitors and projection systems. The 14-and-a-half hours of programing is presented across six single-sided DVDs and the Dolby Digital stereo is fairly impressive. SDH subtitles are included as an option.
The lone extra is a good one: a 40-minute cast interview one might prefer watching after viewing the entire series.
An excellent series well worth visiting, William and Mary is a complete delight and Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.