Jackie McCarrick talks to screenwriter Dominic Minghella about life, work – and being part of the famous Island family
He’s best known as the creator of one of TV’s best-loved comedy-drama characters, Doc Martin, but screenwriter Dominic Minghella admits that he still finds it hard to shake off a deep-seated feeling of being the “youngest and least successful” member of a large and extraordinarily talented family.
In fact, as the last-born of Edward and Gloria Minghella’s five children, Dominic, 49, recalls feeling “a little lost and without a role” in the busy and boisterous family that was lit up by the strong female energies of his late mother Gloria, and sisters Gioia, Edana and Loretta.
“My mum and sisters were all very strong characters, so it was easy for me to get lost and feel insignificant among all the activity” he recalls.
With his parents hard at work building their successful ice cream business in Ryde, the young Dominic experienced what he jokily describes as a ‘feral’ childhood, often being looked after by his older siblings.
The up-side was that it gave him a great deal of freedom – and in fact, one of the favourite family stories is of him being spotted by his sister, furiously pedalling his bike along Ryde seafront.
“Oh, he’ll be back,” said his mother.
The punch line to that tale is that Dominic was aged just two and a half at the time!
“I think there are some benefits to being the youngest, though” he says. “I had less parental pressure, and they were less anxious about me, because the others had paved the way”.
He also says he felt “proud to be part of something that was a phenomenon” – and on the Isle of Wight, the Minghella family was – and certainly continues to be – a real phenomenon.
Prior to Dominic’s arrival in 1966, Anthony had been the only boy in the household, and the story goes that when the new baby arrived, the message from the hospital came through wrongly that Gloria had given birth to yet another daughter.
Anthony’s initial disappointment soon gave way to delight and relief when he realised that he actually had a brother at last.
“We were always really close,” says Dominic. “We understood each other, and it was an understanding that was very precious”.
Apart from enjoying the usual type of brotherly activity such as going to Fratton Park with their father Edward to support Portsmouth FC, the Minghellas also had a creative connection from early on.
In fact, in his early 20s, and long before he went on to fame as an Oscar-winning director, Anthony made a short film on the Isle of Wight – featuring among the cast a 10 year-old Dominic.
Just under an hour long, A Little Like Drowning was shot in 15 days, and told the personal and somewhat romantic story of how the Minghellas came to be on the Island: via their Italian maternal grandmother, who moved south from Glasgow’s tough Gorbals area after World War II, hoping to win back her husband.
The film, a student project, was unfinished and never actually shown until after Anthony’s death in 2008, when it was tidied up and screened by the British Film Institute in a private viewing for family and friends.
“It was a great emotional experience to see it for the first time after all those years” says Dominic.
Testing his wings
When it came to his own career, Dominic – a former Medina High School boy who went on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford – says he was determined to steer clear of anything his successful older siblings had already done, which pretty much ruled out the performing arts, music and film.
“I wanted to carve my own path, so after University I started working for a commercials producer in London.
“I loved the people there, but I found I didn’t really love the world of advertising. Now I think it’s marvellous, and I admire the skill, but at the time I was finding it shallow and got rather cynical.
“I realised that the one thing I could do was write, so I started sitting with Ant and teaching myself to write.
“I left the commercials world and started reading scripts for £25, surviving on own-brand beans from the supermarket”.
He recalls this as rather a lonely period in his life, when homesickness for the Island reared its head from time to time.
“I knew everyone on the Island and you feel you belong somewhere. It’s quite hard to take yourself away from that. At Oxford, everyone seemed to know their way around the world and I felt as if I’d had a very parochial experience… I didn’t enjoy being as goofy as I was!”
He found that family support in London, though, by staying with Anthony for a while, during the time that his brother was writing the hugely successful Truly Madly, Deeply.
“I remember reading the first 10 pages as they came off the printer, and giving him feedback” says Dominic.
“If you’re going to go on and do what I did, that was such a fantastic relationship and training to have”.
Inspired to develop his own writing, Dominic landed his first job as a writer on the TV series Hamish Macbeth, before going on to create the infamous Doc Martin.
First aired in 2003, the show attracted around 8 million viewers and went on to win Best Comedy Drama at the Comedy Awards.
Dominic (who named the main character Ellingham, an anagram of his own surname) worked on the first two series of the show, before being poached by the BBC in 2006 to create and write its Robin Hood series.
He says it was an ‘incredible privilege’ to have created and worked on Doc Martin, which is now in its seventh series and has been remade in Germany, Spain and France.
And he admits that “the Holy Grail” would be to come up with another, similarly successful TV series.
“Comedy-drama shows might look like they’re frivolous and easy to write but they’re actually the hardest to achieve, which is why there are so few successful ones” he explains.
In fact, he’s currently working on a potential new show for ITV, and says the impetus that drives him is “the incredibly rewarding process of reaching a lot of people”, as Doc Martin has done.
“I’ve always been interested in where creativity meets volume – perhaps that goes back to my advertising days,” he says.
“There was a certain snobbishness about TV when I started and the real work was seen as being in the theatre. You’d hear actors say quite dismissively: ‘Oh, I’m just doing a telly, love’ – but I think all that’s changed. TV offers a space where you can really mine character”.
The call to film
The other reason Dominic would like to come up with another TV show that would “run and run”, is that it would allow him to indulge himself in other creative film projects, including the one he’s currently working on, about the 19th century Italian opera composer Puccini.
The script is written and all ready for casting from a short list of potential “bankable names” and the aim is for filming to begin in 2017.
It’s no coincidence that Dominic should have chosen a larger-than-life Italian character for this major film project, and perhaps no surprise that he tells the story from the point of view of a humble looker-on – a young servant girl who went to work for the Maestro – rather than the great man himself.
“I’m allergic to ‘great men’ stories he says, “and much more interested in meeting the great man through the eyes of a normal person”.
This subtle, ‘fly on the wall’ approach he traces back to his family’s background as ice cream sellers from the 1950s: “We were people who went round the back of places to deliver the ice cream, and my reflex is always to approach things in that way. There’s an awareness of what it’s like to work in a place, rather than to go in through the carpeted main entrance”.
Alongside this project, Dominic is also working on a film set in 1980s New York and LA, about a white Italian American who befriends an African beggar – another imprint of the Italian heritage and ‘small voice’ themes.
“I’m a walking cliché I guess – a second-generation Italian who’s still trying to understand what it’s all about!
“I have no connection with Umbria – our family is from the south – but Umbria is an adopted second home, and learning Italian has always been a draw.
“It can make you feel a bit stateless, but if there’s anywhere that’s home, it’s obviously the Island”.
Dominic’s ‘Island anchor’ in London is his long-term partner Sarah Beardsall, who’s also from the Isle of Wight – in fact they met at Medina High School aged 16, so they share a passion for the place.
“The Island has a big pull for both of us” he says, “and we’ve come close to buying a house there. If ever things get tricky with life, there’s always this thought of moving back – I suppose it will always feel like home”.
As an appropriate tribute to home, Dominic and Sarah have named their London-based independent film and TV production company, Island Pictures.
Sarah – whose first job was working with Anthony on Truly, Madly, Deeply – has since worked on a list of well-known film and TV productions, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Inspector Morse. Most recently, she and Dominic co-produced Island Pictures’ film of Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat.
The couple’s busy life also includes four children, who look set to continue the high-achieving Minghella standards.
Dante, 21, featured in Channel 4’s Child Genius documentary series, whilst 16 year-old Louisa is already making her mark as a singer/songwriter. Their younger siblings are Giorgio, 10 and six year-old Rosa.
Dominic puts the ‘driven’ nature of the Minghella genes down to the experience of being Italian post-war immigrants.
“I am from a family that was fantastically ambitious,” he says.
“As a kid, if you came home from school with 11 grade As and one grade B in Art, my father would say: ‘So what went wrong with Art?’
“Even at 94, my dad is still the kind of guy who says ‘Why aren’t you the Prime Minister?’ It’s that classic immigrant take on things, you have to succeed to prove your worth.
“My mum in particular made herself a pillar of the community on the Isle of Wight. It’s almost as if you feel you have to become more English than the English in order to prove yourself”.
“I know that was a great motivator for my brother, the feeling that he had something to prove”.
“And I guess it goes on, you can’t help but replicate the pattern. I laugh at my dad but I have become that person. I can see myself pushing my own children, wanting my 16 year-old to go to Oxbridge”.
But then the Minghella heritage is always going to be a pretty big one to live up to.
Dominic relates a recent shopping trip with Sarah in Islington, in which the shop assistant noticed the name on his cheque and asked if he was ‘Loretta’s brother’.
“When I said yes, she related somewhat bitterly that she had competed in all the same categories at the IW Music Festival, but Loretta always won the trophies – almost as if others had no chance against her.
“I asked her: ‘Well – can you imagine what it’s like to be the younger sibling of that person?’
“Then there’s the celebrity of Ant, which adds a whole extra layer of expectation, so it can feel daunting at times… but then, I guess you could say that as things go, that’s a good problem to have.”