Common wisdom says family viewing is over: children play video games while teenagers watch YouTube on their phones, then, late in the evening, parents binge on violent thriller box sets. Yet The Durrells, back for a third series, is sunnily bucking the trend.
The show, set on Corfu and starring Keeley Hawes as the mother of naturalist and author Gerald Durrell and novelist Lawrence Durrell, is one of a small group of television hits that have re-established cosy evening dramas that can still appeal across the generations.
The first series of the surprise ITV ratings success won eight million viewers, while the second was close behind. Like other gently comic dramas such as Doc Martin, Death in Paradise and Call the Midwife, The Durrells is reviving a forgotten age, one when families sat on the sofa together on a Sunday evening to be jointly amused or moved.
“Sometimes I wish The Durrells was shown on a Wednesday night, when we all really need a lift from the working week,” said Simon Nye, who has adapted the series from Gerald Durrell’s classic memoir My Family and Other Animals and its two follow-up titles, and who is best known for his sitcom Men Behaving Badly.Nye’s latest show has already made a new star of one of its younger cast. Josh O’Connor, who plays eldest son Lawrence, was a Bafta contender last Sunday in recognition of his role in the acclaimed independent film God’s Own Country.
Now the two actors who play the lesser-known Durrell children – second son Leslie and daughter Margo – are also in demand, thanks to their clever portrayals of two English eccentrics. Daisy Waterstone, 23, will take an 18-year-old Margo through a love affair in this third series. “She is still tottering around, trying to find out who she is,” Waterstone said this weekend. “It is that age when you think you have grown up, but you haven’t.”
Waterstone, who grew up in west London and went to the exclusive Francis Holland School for girls before appearing on stage at the Old Vic in The Crucible in 2014, has also been seen on television in Testament of Youth, Silent Witness and the Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. It is The Durrells, however, that has boosted her career.
“I do get recognised when I am looking grumpy or angsty on the Tube,” Waterstone said. “That is when I must look most like Margo. But I am flattered, because she is such a great character. She is made of steel and yet with so many flaws. She doesn’t take advice and sort of enjoys her mistakes.”
Waterstone is now choosing other work but hopes she can play Margo for as long as possible. A fourth series is in preparation but has not yet been confirmed by ITV. “I had a feeling when I was auditioning for the part: I felt very connected to Margo, and that I’d be annoyed if someone else got it. That hasn’t happened before or since.”
The appeal of the show, Waterstone thinks, is the mix of light and shade, as well as the beauty of the island. “Margo has actually grown up more than I have in the time we have been filming. She has surpassed me in her maturity now, which is interesting.”
Nye weaves Durrell’s books together with the facts of the family’s rackety lifestyle on the island in the 1930s. Notes of real pain and difficulty are sometimes sounded in his dialogue.
“There are hints of an underlying darkness because they had lost their father. They all share a feeling of incompleteness,” said Waterstone. “And, sadly, it was Leslie in the end who was on his own. None of the others even went to his funeral.”
Whatever the bleak truth of Leslie’s later life, 24-year-old Callum Woodhouse plays him with an oddball comic touch that has earned him fans. The Geordie actor, who has also appeared in Cold Feet, said he feels “a very strong connection” to the real man, although he is wary of sounding pretentious. “I felt it from the word ‘go’. It wasn’t something that built up. I remember just falling into his skin, and it is horrible that his real life was so tragic,” he told the Observer.Woodhouse, who trained at Lamda, is now writing a comic television series with a group of fellow former students as well as auditioning for serious roles.
“I always play Leslie straight and it is still funny. I am never trying to make anyone laugh. I hope we portray the family as they would be, with a lot of bickering and arguments. This series starts off with Leslie having three girlfriends, making up for lost time, but it blows up in his face, in typical Leslie fashion,” the actor said.
Although Woodhouse had not heard of My Family and Other Animals before he took the role, he now identifies so much with Leslie that he has learned his onscreen skills: he can take apart and rebuild a shotgun, milk a goat and keep bees. “Unwittingly I have got into the Leslie thing so much that I find myself looking at Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet of novels and thinking, ‘I am not reading my brother’s boring books’.”
Nye produces a new series of The Durrells each year (“Harry Potter style”) and promises that Leslie has “a particularly strong story line this time”.
Although Nye has been criticised by some fans of the books, the writer said he feels licensed to play with the truth because Gerald Durrell did the same – largely excluding Lawrence’s first wife Nancy from his memoirs, for instance. His main aim is to avoid “going all American” with too much sentiment. It would be anachronistic and un-English, Nye believes.
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