A Christmas Revelation


The Stalingrad Madonna stands at the heart of the British television series, Doc Martin. The story of the Stalingrad Madonna, along with the original 1942 drawing, was posted by Anita Mathias on her website just before Christmas. Anita’s story made a powerful impression on me.

As I contemplated the Stalingrad Madonna, I became obsessed with a key moment in Doc Martin’s life and its meaning to the series.  That moment is described in two speeches Martin Clunes makes in Series 1. They describe the seminal moment or, in story language, the inciting incident—that which sets the series in motion.

In this case, the inciting incident occurs off-screen, before the story begins, but it sets the through-line or theme, some call it the “spine” of the series.  It is the moment the brilliant surgeon, Martin Ellingham, is overcome with haemophobia and can no longer operate. As he tells Louisa, “It’s the only thing I was ever any good at.”

And so the story begins, with Martin’s journey— back to the only place he ever felt loved, to Portwenn, home of his Aunt Joan, the only “mother” he ever knew.  He leaves his posh life as a London surgeon and returns to his childhood haunt where he’s thrown into, seemingly beyond his control, a fish-out-of-water story peopled with heartwarming characters and an up-and-down love story that provides endless joy for millions around the world.

Let me return to the Madonna and Martin’s initial fall. The Leningrad Madonna is a powerful image that gave hope at a time of unimaginable horror to 6,000 grown men trapped and dying in the Russian winter.

The image of mother and child is, in fact, one of the oldest in all cultures and the one that shines brightest at the heart of Christianity—an image far older and more compelling than, as Mary Daly, the radical feminist theologian wrote, the image of a “dead man hanging from a dead tree.”  The mother and child—a truer image of God—is an image of life, nurture, safety, comfort and unconditional love.

So what did Martin Ellingham, the great surgeon, see in that hospital room that made it impossible for him to tolerate blood?

He saw a family tableau—in particular, a woman with her family clinging to her—her husband, her son, her sister.  No longer a patient, she became a wife and mother—a flesh and blood Madonna, something he had never had in his life and something he must have unconsciously held in awe; deep inside, he must have been terrified of it while, at the same time, wanting it desperately.

You will notice the woman’s parents were not there, nor did she have a daughter. She had a son.

This inciting incident began a deeply wounded man’s journey to repair his own life and make it whole by creating, virtually from nothing, his own family, his own Madonna and child. 

In Series 1 Episode 2, Martin tells Roger Fenn:

MARTIN: I used to have the Midas touch, you know.  I couldn’t look at a body on the operating table without fixing it.  Really. Then one day in the middle of the most mundane procedure—another set of arteries they got in front of me—it suddenly dawned on me for the first time that this was somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go on. Like I was on a high wire, I made the mistake of looking down. I haven’t operated since. So now I’m your G.P.

In Episode 6 of Series 1, he completes the picture when he tells Louisa:

MARTIN: I was operating on a woman one day. Simple procedure. I went to see her in the ward beforehand and her family were there. Her husband and her sister and her son, they were clinging to her, wouldn’t let go. And the next time I saw her was prepped and laid out in front of me on the operating table. And I couldn’t do it. I haven’t been able to operate since… which is a shame because it’s the only thing I was ever any good at.  

It’s a long journey for Martin. The writer’s pull back on his romance with Louisa every other season both to keep interest up and to keep the series going, but also to be honest to the journey.  They cannot trivialize, with a soap-opera love-story ending—just add water and stir—the complexity of Martin’s damaged childhood, his monster parents, and the real work involved in healing a broken heart so it can love.

This, I see, is the seminal journey in the series, Doc Martin, and the root of it’s great appeal—an appeal as timeless and universal as the image of mother and child carved on bark and stone eons ago and worshiped across the centuries, or hanging in a cold bunker in Stalingrad in 1942.

The heart of everyone is drawn to this timeless symbol and Doc Martin reminds us of it every episode.  In Series 3, Episode 3 he is staring in awe at Louisa, unable to speak. When urged, he finally manages to say, “You’d make a lovely mother.”

And she does. Louisa is the eternal mother, James Henry, the eternal child.  And Martin, too, is an eternal child, drawn like all of us to life, nurture, safety, comfort and unconditional love.

Years ago, Stephen Spielberg’s little alien touched a generation’s heart when he said, “E.T. phone home.” Unlike E.T., Martin isn’t phoning home; instead he’s “making” home.  It’s this desire that threads the series, holds it together, draws us to it and gives it power.

And so those of us who fear for Martin and Louisa can take comfort in the brilliant writers that helm the series, knowing they will remain true to the story’s through-line and take us, ultimately, to a healing end.

With that I rest for now. 

It’s a new year. Be at peace and Godspeed to the Martin in all of us in times to come.