In March 2016 I wrote an article about The Durrells on TV for The Times – which you can read here
Perhaps it’s just as well that when my mother Nancy set sail with her new husband Lawrence in March 1935 they had no inkling of the legacy, literary and cinematic, that their journey would inspire. They were both 23, naive and full of enthusiasm as they headed for Corfu, an island that will be for ever linked with Lawrence and his younger brother, Gerald. There have been several books, a couple of TV adaptations and now, more than 80 years later, The Durrells, a gentle ITV six-parter, loosely — very loosely, for in fairness the producers have been honest about their intention to reinvent the originals — based on Gerald’s Corfu trilogy.
My Family and Other Animals is the reason. It’s a gloriously funny and evocative book that imprints the Durrell clan on its readers: vague, embattled Mother, caustic Larry (Lawrence), gun-toting Leslie, spotty Margo and animal-obsessed Gerry (Gerald). Plus a host of colourful neighbours and visitors. It was a work of fiction from the beginning. For one thing, Gerry deleted every female consort from the story, starting with his sister-in-law, my mother, Nancy, She did not mind her obliteration in the least. She relished the book and said that though the incidents were all made up, the essence of the family she had adored was preserved in their speech and escapades. She cited one incident in particular: Larry, in a drunken stupor, sets fire to his bedroom. While the fire burns and his family race around trying to put it out, he roars instructions from the bed, contributing nothing, but claims all the credit when the job is done. “If it hadn’t been for me you would probably all have been burnt in your beds.”
What she would have made of the various screen adaptations I’ve no idea; she died in 1983, long before the first one. She loved talking about her time in Corfu and the ebullient family she had married into and would probably have welcomed any excuse to remember it all again. And you can see why TV producers keep coming back to it: vivid, memorable characters, a fabulous landscape, passages of laugh-out-loud hilarity and a small zoo’s worth of winsome wildlife. With all that going for it, how could it fail? Well…
Earlier versions have remained fairly faithful to the original, focusing on Gerry and his animals, keeping his perspective and sticking pretty much to the original book. So, faithftil to a fiction, at least. Even if for me they never quite came off. With The Durrells the saga has drifted so far from its original moorings as to be almost unrecognisable. The spotlight has swivelled from Gerry (brilliantly played by Milo Parker) to his mother, Louisa, played by Keeley Hawes. She’s still the hard-pressed matriarch, but now ten years younger and much easier for contemporary women to identify with. Her sons could never say of this Louisa, “She’s really not much good as a mother, you know,” as her older sons do in the book, or address her as, “you stupid woman,” which Larry did the first time Louisa and Nancy met. This version of Mother Durrell is capable and fierce, almost a modern-day tiger mum.
Hawes’s new, feisty Louisa makes the “brave” decision to move to Corfu to try to heal her fatherless brood, (though it is not spelt out, the actual Mr Durrell died of a brain tumour in 1928). The 1935 reality was that Larry and Nancy decided to follow friends to an island paradise of cheapness where he could write and she could paint. When Mrs Durrell discovered this she announced that she was coming too. She had only lived in England for six years, had moved frequently and had no particular attachments there. According to Nancy, she said: “What do you expect me to do on my own with all these children?” Larry refused to travel with his family, going on ahead with “the lamppost” as he called Nancy, who was several inches taller than him. Once in Corfu he mostly chose to live apart from his family, only returning when the need for warmth and baths became overwhelming.
At first it seems as if The Durrells is making a move back towards what passed for reality in that pre-war household. In the opening scene Louise sneaks a furtive cup of gin before heading off to rescue Gerry from his appalling school. In real life she was a dedicated gin slugger. Again in the series, thus fortified, she subjects the headmaster to a tongue-lashing before removing her son for good. In reality, Louisa endured daily wrestling bouts with Gerry to drag him to school while he clung to the railings and shrieked. Often he won and they both retired home with headaches and mild fevers. The new Louisa, however much gin she has, remains sober and composed.
Still in Bournemouth, a romantically inclined neighbour recommends boarding school for her unruly youngsters and Louisa makes a little face: she’s clearly not the kind of slipshod mother who would consign her adolescent children to the care of strangers.
Yet, like most parents living in India in the 1920s, this is precisely what the Durrells had done. Larry went to boarding school in Darjeeling at 9 and when he was 12 he was left in England for two miserable years while his family returned to India. Leslie boarded only for a year, but with even more disastrous results: various fights and beatings left him with a permanently damaged eardrum. Even Margo did her time in Cheltenham.
Would Nancy have recognised her husband and his family from this new incarnation? My hunch is that she might well have put a tick next to Callum Woodhouse, who plays Leslie, though it’s a softer, less troubled version of the young man she knew. Too often the real Leslie played stooge to his older brother’s vicious put-downs, which drove him into helpless rage, but he adored Nancy and hated it when she suffered a similar fate. Occasionally Leslie would rush in, aim his gun at Larry and roar that he would murder him if he didn’t stop. “And,” said Nancy, “sometimes I really thought he would.”
Yet Larry, as scripted for the actor Josh O’Connor? Surely not. The of Gerald’s book — the Larry who in reality was beginning a lifetime correspondence with Henry Miller and grappling to find his authorial voice in The Black Book — this Larry is nowhere to be seen. In The Durrells Larry is portrayed as a bumptious adolescent who might just possibly be aiming for a dim pass in A-level English.
We know he’s a writer because he tells us he is and occasionally bashes away at a manual typewriter, but there’s no sign of the real Lawrence’s inspired verbal extravaganzas, no hint of the man whose only passion was literature, not a glimpse of the writer whose Alexandria Quartet astonished a whole generation. This Larry couldn’t tell Tropic of Cancer from Club Tropicana.
Does it matter? Not really. The series makes no claim to be accurate, and everyone who reads the books is of course free to make their own interpretation. If it entertains and helps to point a new swathe of readers back to the books and to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, then all is well.
The postwar Nancy I knew was a far from impartial critic, but I’m sure she would have been pleased to see how the family refuse to lie down and be forgotten. So long as you weren’t too closely involved, they were a wonderfully life-enhancing bunch, She remembered all the Durrells with great affection — apart from her former husband, whom she left in Cairo in 1942.
One of the reasons for the collapse of their marriage was probably that after war broke out she no longer had his mother and siblings up for her and poke fun at his excesses.
Still, there is something extraordinary in the unstoppable afterlife of the Durrells’ brief stay Greek island. We’ve had the books, the TV adaptations and six-part series. The family must appeal to some fundamental need we all have for there to been a time when Corfu bathed in perpetual summer sunshine, the English were regarded by a benign peasantry “little lords” and eccentricity had free reign. What next? musical, perhaps?
Those two young newlyweds, hopeful and unknown, who boarded the SS Oronsay in March 1935, would surely have been utterly amazed.