Gerald (Gerry) Durrell, the late British naturalist and TV presenter, is remembered in a brand new six-part series on ITV that is set to air in the UK this April. Titled The Durrells, the work is based on the famous conservationist’s life on the island of Corfu as documented in his trilogy of memoirs that includes My Family and Other Animals, a literary masterpiece written between 1935 and 1939 that has sold millions of copies worldwide.
The storyline focuses on the author’s own mother, Louisa Durrell (played by Keeley Hawes), whose life is in a state of meltdown after her husband dies, leaving her penniless. Rather than marry someone wealthy but oppressive, she makes a clean break and escapes from her domestic pressure-cooker environment by uprooting to Corfu. On the island, she and her four children – including the 11-year-old, animal-obsessed Gerry – begin to heal in paradise.
Scripted by screenwriter Simon Nye, the beauties of Corfu, the Ionian isle off the west coast of Greece, are showcased in all six episodes. The series conjures up Durrell’s own vision of a utopia that encompasses both the human and non-human world.
Lee Durrell, the naturalist’s second wife who heads the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is thrilled that her late husband’s work is being adapted for TV screens. “Those sunny, magical days, when eccentric family affairs were interwoven with Gerry’s discovery of the natural world, inspired his life’s work to rescue animals from the brink of extinction,” she says. “I hope that the new series will be a gentle, but timely reminder of the importance of Gerry’s work today, and will inspire others to take up his cause.”
Apart from Durrell’s work itself, Corfu also takes center stage in this brilliant series. “The happy news is that although Corfu has been developed for tourism, it is still beautiful,” says Nye. “We did half of our filming there. Our locations are breathtaking. We all want to live in the Durrells’ house even though bits are falling off it. We also filmed in the house where Prince Philip was born, don’t you know?”
The choice to film in Corfu wasn’t without its risks, especially considering the Greek financial crisis. The decision paid off, however, with the entire cast seduced by the island’s beauties despite the difficulties of capital controls imposed at the time of filming. “On the news in Britain there was speculation about civil unrest in Greece and a definite sense of panic and concern,” says Sally Woodward Gentle, the work’s executive producer. “At one point we were looking to block book hotel rooms (when) there was a rumor that the British consul had booked some hotel rooms for their own staff so they could get British people out of Corfu. But when they actually went out to the island they realized that nothing had changed at all. So we got their hotel rooms.”
“There were quite a lot of people saying, ‘Why don’t you film it in Croatia or Malta, where they’ve got a tax break and they haven’t got a financial crisis?’” she says. “We did recce Malta and realized that it only had about two trees. While Corfu is the most fantastically lush island. Extraordinarily beautiful. Also it’s the Corfu Trilogy. Lee Morris and I realized you really can’t film this anywhere else.”
“Corfu is gorgeous and the people are so lovely,” says Keeley Hawes, who plays the female lead. “They can’t do enough for you. They’re a very generous welcoming people and so friendly. It’s very relaxing everywhere you go. People saying, ‘Why are you so stressed? Just chill out.’ It’s a lovely atmosphere.” She points to the “financial nightmare” that the Greek people are going through, stressing that there’s a big difference between what you see on the news and reality.
The Greek factor in the series is Alexis Georgoulis and he applauds the British production’s decision to soldier on despite the difficulties. “You definitely have to film The Durrells in Corfu. It’s the real location and exactly what we need to tell their story,” he says. “The Greek government want to make this a more film-friendly country and I hope that will happen. There is a historical link between Corfu and Britain. It wasn’t just by chance the family decided to come over here. English people travelled here a lot and some stayed and made their home in Corfu. There is something powerful that kept them here.”