Written by Fiona Underhill
The Durrells is the latest television show to adapt the autobiographical novels of the naturalist Gerald Durell, known as the Corfu Trilogy. The first and best known of the novels is My Family and Other Animals and was made into a TV series of the same name in 1987 (which I was very fond of as a child). The saga tells the story of Durrell’s childhood, specifically a five year period spent on the island of Corfu, which is where the widowed Louisa Durrell moved with her children Leslie, Margo and Gerry. In real life, they went there to join her eldest son Lawrence Durrell, who was already living there with his wife, however, this is changed in the book and the shows (Lawrence’s wife is never mentioned). Whilst on Corfu, Gerry became greatly interested in the local fauna and started collecting animals to study at home, aided by local man Theo Stephanides.
The Durrells stars Keeley Hawes as Louisa Durrell, Josh O’Connor as Larry Durrell (who is about 21 when the series starts), Callum Woodhouse as Leslie (18), Daisy Waterstone as Margo (16) and Milo Parker as Gerry (11). On Corfu, they immediately befriend a local taxi driver Spiros (Alexis Georgoulis) and they hire a helper for the house Lugaretzia (Anna Savva). There is a supporting cast of mostly eccentric local people, including a British Doctor’s wife, Florence (Lucy Black), the booze-soaked Captain Creech (James Cosmo) and a French Countess (Leslie Caron) who hires Margo. In the first season, Larry enthusiastically sets about trying to get his Mother laid (one of the many things I love about this show), with varying degrees of success. Her main love interests in the first two seasons are the Swedish Sven (Ulric von der Esch) and the British Hugh (Daniel Lapaine). Larry is a struggling writer, Leslie is gun-obsessed and Margo is discovering feminism whilst also desperately wanting a boyfriend (relatable).
The Durrells follows in the footsteps of My Family and Other Animals by appearing on the surface to be a light-hearted, heart-warming and cosy Sunday tea-time treat of a show (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that). I strongly associate the 80s TV series with being in a nightgown in front of the fire after a bath and having a supper of tea and toast. However, The Durrells is not as frivolous as it first appears. Yes, a big part of the appeal is the stunning location. The Durrells move into a huge ramshackle villa directly overlooking the sea, it is white with green shutters and has the peeling wallpaper look which is greatly coveted by hipsters now. Of course, it is absolutely sun-drenched and it is impossible not to be jealous of the cast and crew who got to work in this incredible place with incredible people. However, the show also tackles issues such as homosexuality being illegal at the time, unwanted pregnancy and is generally much sexier and more riské than one might expect. Louisa Durrell (played by a beautiful and sexy actress) is treated as a complex human being, torn between trying to ensure her children are successful and happy and also trying to stave off her own longing and loneliness. It is one of the best depictions of motherhood I have seen on television – Louisa is quite open, honest and frank that at times she finds her children stupid and annoying. The dialogue is incredibly fresh and hilariously funny, with the banter exchanged between this bickering family being sharp, witty and dripping in sarcasm.
My favourite aspect of the show is the relationship between Louisa and her oldest son Larry (played by one of Britain’s best young actors – Josh O’Connor – don’t believe me? Watch God’s Own Country). Larry takes on the role of a confidante of Louisa’s, she seeks advice from him on how to cope with the younger children and their scenes together are incredibly genuine, tender and with fantastic natural chemistry between the two actors. Something else I love about this show is that it handles tonal shifts so skillfully. Clunky American sitcoms such as Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother or Big Bang Theory will spend half an hour trying to make you laugh and then hold up a signpost saying; “now we are going to deliver a heartfelt message, dripping in sentimentality.” The Durrells can go from a biting and caustic wit to heart-wrenching scenes, where the family go from being at each other’s throats to supporting one another in a completely natural and believable way. The writing and acting is incredibly strong for an ITV period drama and it certainly exceeded my expectations.
The design of the series is very strong, from the opening titles, modelled on 1930’s railway or tourism posters, through to the overall production and costume design. From Larry’s signature Breton stripes or his burnt orange spotted dressing gown paired with boxer shorts, through to the knitted swimsuits, Louisa’s high-waisted trousers and the Countess’ stunning green dress which she gives to Margo (reminiscent of the famous green dress from Atonement) – the costumes are a feast for the eyes. Gerry’s collection of animals is obviously a source of delight, with a particular highlight being the mating pair of otters that he acquires.
The nuanced depiction of motherhood is not just confined to Louisa Durrell. Louisa’s friend Florence becomes pregnant after over a decade of trying, but when the newborn comes, the show portrays the realities of sleep deprivation and her other struggles. She also has an amusingly cavalier attitude to the baby, frequently forgetting about him and mislaying him. Lugaretzia is quite brazen about picking favourite children, which she does with the Durrells and her own. The portrayal of Louisa as a young widow is also extremely moving (my own mother was widowed at the age of 33 with three young children). Louisa is still very much in love with her husband and struggles to move on. There is a heart-breaking episode where they use a medium to try to contact him.
O’Connor’s acting, particularly in scenes with Hawes, is sublime and deserves to be compared to his performance in God’s Own Country. Just because it has humour and charm and dare-I-say, whimsy, does not mean that there is not a lot going on behind it. Firstly, comedic performances are vastly underrated and undervalued to begin with – people underestimate how hard it can be to be funny on screen. But there are scenes where Larry is much more vulnerable and O’Connor emotes with his eyes so well – communicating that there is a lot going on under the surface with Larry. In an interview with Seventh Row, O’Connor notes that his character in God’s Own Country and Larry Durrell are more similar than they first appear: “I think Larry is a really interesting parallel [to Johnny Saxby] – the way he hides it isn’t like Johnny, where Johnny just closes himself off entirely. Larry hides it with abuse and anger. I think there are a lot of similarities between Larry and Johnny, emotionally.”
Daisy Waterstone and Milo Parker both deliver the matter-of-fact, frank and blunt dialogue superbly. Even in the short time the series has been on, Gerry has gone from a little boy to a teenager (his mother throws him a disastrous 13th birthday party) and I believe Parker is closer to 16 now, so you are watching these people drastically change and grow before your eyes. The gun-toting Leslie is also more layered than he first appears – it is obvious that he misses a male role-model the most of the children and Woodhouse’s acting as Leslie tries to cope with getting a girl pregnant is really affecting. You will become heavily invested in these characters and this family – you will be willing for them to succeed in their life on Corfu and for Louisa to find love.
I was expecting to find The Durrells to be a pleasant distraction, but it has ended up being so much more than that. Truth be told, I have ended up binging the three seasons in little more than three days and I plan to go back and watch the whole thing from the start again. It completely drew me in, I became involved with this family and I am now waiting with baited breath for the fourth season. I have been fretful that O’Connor might not carry on with it, but sincerely wish that he will because his Larry Durrell is one of my favourite TV characters now. I highly recommend giving The Durrells a chance, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
You can watch The Durrells on ITV in the UK, and PBS/Amazon Prime in the US
Don’t forget to check out Fiona’s TV reviews for The Night Manager and The People vs OJ Simpson too!