I was in two minds as to whether to watch ‘The Durrells’. I read ‘My Family and Other Animals’ for the first time when I was about eleven and regard it as an exceptional work (worthy of a Desert Island Discs selection!); parts of it still reduce me to helpless laughter. Like meeting your heroes, a misjudged adaptation can sour the original, especially if it’s on ITV, which recently gave us the mangled Dr Thorne. Happily I can report this is not the case. I’ve not seen any of the other versions of it, but so far, this manages to capture both the spirit of the novel and the eccentricity of the family versus that of the islanders rather well.
It follows the fortunes of the widowed Mrs Durrell and her four children as they flee a damp and depressing England to start a new life in Corfu in the 1930s. Larry, Leslie and Margo are young adults, Gerry, the narrator and author of the book, is the youngest and strikes terror into the hearts of his family by his fondness for bringing any number of living creatures (rampant gulls, scorpions and tortoises) into the house as pets to be admired. Naturally there are deviations from the original, which work best when they highlight this eccentricity. A particular example being the decision to place the dining table in the shallows of the sea to keep cool while they eat without having having checked to see if the tide was going out rather than in. Knowing the viewers are probably expecting more human drama than David Attenborough-style documentary, some of the animal observation has been jettisoned (to be honest I used to skim those when reading). In its place, the older children all have their various dramas – Larry’s ruptured appendix, Leslie’s jilting by a local girl and Margo’s short-lived turn as doctor’s receptionist , but they point up the natures of the characters well.
The casting of the males is particularly good. Larry, the moody writer, all louche and Byronic, Leslie, resembling a young Matt Damon, clumping awkwardly and young Gerry, full of impish charm. Mother (Keeley Hawes) and Margo are equally well acted, although Hawes is probably a bit too young and definitely more beautiful and dynamic than the novel suggests. I expect they think the viewers need some eye candy because Daisy Waterstone is also prettier than we imagine Margo, whose preoccupation with her acne drives a lot of the book’s comedy, although she has an appealing quirkiness much like the sadly departed Charlotte Coleman.
There’s only a few jarring notes when I wished they’d been more faithful. Mrs Durrell’s genuine anger at their impoverishment and the unruly state of her brood is more unsettling than the book’s description of this bespectacled, vague woman quite contentedly pottering about in her garden in an attitude of benign neglect. Spiro isn’t half as eccentric as he is in the book, which is a great pity. Another is the elevation they have given to the bit part of Kosti, a convict whom Gerry befriends on his weekend release, which consequently loses some of the offhand charm. In the book, Mrs Durrell objects,” ‘I don’t like the idea of your going about with a convict. You never know what he’s done.’ Indignantly, I said I knew perfectly well what he’d done. He killed his wife.” After a cursory inspection from Mother, their relationship continues undisturbed. Here they’ve given him a whole back story, which pushes us into soap territory.
Minor quibbles aside however, this is an affectonate and well judged adaptation with scenery as lush and enticing as any viewer could wish for and a free flow of local wine. Yamas!