The Durrells review – a welcome vacation from our island of nightmares

It’s one last push for the cockle-warming Corfu Brits as a barn owl, an ‘idle walrus’ and the ever-wonderful Keeley Hawes kick off the drama’s final series

The Durrells (ITV) are back, and Sunday nights are soothing once more. How much do we need the warm sun of Corfu and the dry wit of this indefatigably English family (but not in a Brexity way) right now? About as much as we need a vacation from our own island of nightmares. What we continue to get in spades (and orange juice “enlivened with kumquat”) from Simon Nye’s gentle, stylish adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, now entering its fourth and final series, is more of the same. It’s like returning to the same villa year after year, which no one does any more because, well, that’s why we’re running away to The Durrells. So we don’t have to think about any of that.

The formula of such cockle-warming family fare is that the characters can age (a smidgeon) but, like the Simpsons, they must never change. Neither should the location. Nor the animals, so note to Leslie: stop shooting the dog. Fat chance … here he comes, still firing a gun in place of feeling emotions, charging through cypress groves lightly dusted with the spirit of Corfu. Or rather the completely made-up spirit of best-foot-forward Englishness in Corfu. Here’s Gerry, who has done that beanpole thing teenage boys do and sprouted a foot since the last series while retaining the ghost of his adorable little Gerry face. Here’s Margo offering to make “a nice bow-tie by cannibalising some knickers”. Here’s the tortoise and the pelican. And here’s Breton stripe-encircled Larry threatening to throw his typewriter at the pelican. Idiot.

Above all, like the Acropolis towering over Athens, here’s Louisa, the most magnificent Durrell (scrap that, person) on (and off) Corfu, and the reason that this show has stayed delightful and not descended into silliness. Keeley Hawes’s Mrs Durrell is up there with the great small-screen mothers: clever, droll, warm, loving, sexy, tenacious, unravelling and thoroughly unappreciated. Only Mary Poppins could do practically perfect better. With all she has to compete with – the sun, sea, irresistible theme tune, menagerie and ramshackle Greek house of every deluded Brit’s dreams – she wins. Louisa is to The Durrells what Chris Packham is to Springwatch, or impartiality should be to a public service broadcaster. Indispensable.

Paradise can’t last for ever, which is presumably why this is our last visit to between-the-wars Corfu. Happily, the fourth series begins much like the first: with a farce, a new animal (Ulysses the barn owl) and some mild sexual tension (Spiro and Louisa). The family guesthouse is up and running with a single objectionable guest. Cousin Basil, a “great idle walrus” who demands starched clothes – leading to some comedically solidified shorts – and eats for England. He’s the expat of every local’s nightmares, and this is what The Durrells (mostly) gets right. It’s the English who are mocked most in this beloved but nonetheless dated colonial story. “We’re not foreign, Lugaretzia,” Louisa explains to the housekeeper in English because she still can’t speak Greek. “You are foreign.”

There are some nice in-jokes alluding to Gerry as The Durrells’ writer-in-waiting. “Two writers in the house,” Larry notes when a writer-slash-communist-fugitive pitches up looking for a room. “Three if you count animal boy’s scribbling.” Louisa and Spiros still fancy the 30s high-waisted pants off each other, a will-they-won’t-they scenario that has lapped so gently at the shoreline of The Durrells that it took me two series to notice it. He has a wife and children, and I don’t know if I want Louisa to end up with him anyway. I just don’t want her to end up alone: she deserves someone fabulous with whom to share the sunsets – and the responsibility. For now she has to make do with Larry, who on occasion is almost worthy of her confidence. Their scenes are also a reminder of everyday ageism: Hawes is way too young to play Mrs Durrell. I’ve checked, and there are only 15 years between them. Not impossible, but not OK.

A threat of the unthreatening sort arrives in the form of the communist but any mention of impending war or Greece’s shift towards fascism is really in service of slapstick. When the local randy superintendent comes to search the house, Leslie and Larry provide an escape route with a broken ladder, which goes a bit Fawlty Towers. Gerry employs the owl as a distraction. Life goes on for the Durrells. For the rest of us, even the escapist fantasy of running away to a Greek island has had its day.

Contributor

Chitra Ramaswamy

The GuardianTramp

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