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Cult Column- The Durrells, ideal escapism

Are you looking for something to beat the shoddy British weather? With a lockdown that seems endless and harsh winter nights that make us feel the pinch, many of us have turned more than ever to the glowing lights of TV and films. I have taken comfort in The Durrells. Originally aired on ITV, this four series-long story takes us on a journey from dreary Bournemouth to wild Corfu. Keeley Hawes, who seems to currently hoover up TV roles like they’re going out of fashion, is at the helm. As a widowed single mother, she finds herself at a loss of what to do with four intrepid and, by 1930s England standards, very strange children: Larry, Lesley, Margot, and Gerry. With Lesley gun-mad and Gerry hating school, the family take the plunge and begin a new life in Corfu. 

 Despite the change in location that brings an abundance of sun, the move unfortunately does not bring much relaxation. The family continues to bicker and age-old sibling rivalries rage. It must be said that the vivacity of such characters is what holds the series together, as we see extreme contrasts and sometimes necessary comparisons, to create both conflict and comedy. Writer Larry for example is often frustrated when his intellectual jargon is not respected by his younger siblings and can often be heard swearing at the lack of an ‘x’ key on his typewriter, removed by his brother Lesley to prevent him from writing too much about sex. From drafts of novels to the love dilemmas of Margot, we see a heavily animal-orientated Gerry, the youngest and arguably the most endearing of the Durrell children, with his zest for the gathering, nurturing, and learning of animals. Under his command, the Durrell household soon becomes a makeshift zoo, with a sloth in the bedroom and an owl at the dinner table – words you never thought you would hear.

 To accompany the family on their adventure are the enchanting local Greeks: Spiros, taxi driver extraordinaire; Lugaretzia, their paid helper who we are told ‘comes cheap’ and brings the laughs in naughty one-liners; and Theo, who’s Gerry’s counterpart with their shared love of Zoology. The show excels at bringing wholesome, family comedy through the inspiring lives of the characters. 

Another thing the series does brilliantly is developing its character as the plot continues apace, adding to an overall more relatable story; surely it is the most relatable pieces of fiction that are the most successful? We see Larry go from scrambling try-hard writer, to a published novelist who flits about from Corfu to Athens to Paris. With the Durrells having a measly widow’s pension to survive on, and therefore dwindling funds, the children go in search of jobs, having success when Lesley is tamed by his new role of responsibility in the Corfu Police Force, and less inclined to shoot anything that moves. His self-growth is possibly the most rewarding as a viewer, as we see Greece alter him from being a reclusive teenager to being a young man more akin to family values. 

Margot seems to find herself also, gaining confidence in her own abilities but it is her ‘slowness’, however, which makes her so lovable. We see her carefree approach to life through her ability to get a boyfriend five minutes after meeting him, her attempt to become a hairdresser and her own independent voyage back to England. 

Gerry’s animal fascination is one of the few constants in the ever-changing, ever-chaotic lives of the Durrells, but we come to see a marked change in Gerry wanting to be treated as an adult as he goes from child to teen, particularly when he is frustrated Louisa has organised a very childish birthday party for a twelve-year-old. ‘No, I’m thirteen, mum!’  

Keeley Hawes is simply exquisite as Louisa, the house runner, breadwinner and ultimately, mother to the children, who often finds herself being lost in the chaos of ‘modern life’, driven by maternal instinct to police their lives. This often causes issues between her and her children, yet as viewers, we can easily forgive this act of motherly love, which only makes The Durrells more life-affirming. The programme also shows us how parental figures are often dehumanised through their arbitrary roles; Louisa herself faces a multitude of romantic dilemmas between unknown homosexual, Sven, the very eligible Hugh, a fellow Brit, and the constant, underlying tension between herself and already-married Spiros. This family setup, unique in the circumstances it finds itself in, yet so ordinary in its day-to-day offers comfort by reminding us that no one family is ever perfect.  

Lastly, the cinematography must be mentioned, with Corfu old town being an almost hypnotic setting with its rustic facades that have a sort of imperfect perfection: flaking paint and leftover scaffolding, a ready-made set that never seemed to move with the times. Although some scenes had to be recreated in Ealing studios, they are blended seamlessly with shots from Corfu so that you will be as shocked as I was, that not everything is filmed in Corfu. If you plan on being a lockdown-viewer then you can expect feelings of bliss at the shots of turquoise waters, and utter envy at the fact it is the Durrells eating dinner on a table in the sea, and not you. It has reaffirmed to me what a gift travelling is and satisfied me as much as possible as an armchair traveller. 

My only criticism would be that, at times, plots seem rushed through within a forty-five-minute episode, yet this could likely reflect the nature of the chaotic Durrell life. Overall, the show is easy watching and heart-warming, it will no doubt transport you from the perils of isolation and to the anticipated joy for when the world eventually reopens. It seems that the resonance of The Durrells is amplified by a watch during lockdown, as we are teased by the things we presently cannot have, that we must all appreciate when we next can.  Moreover, we are reminded of the things that we still do have; the things that endure – love and hope.

Image: Michael Gleave via Wikimedia Commons