Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Viking Cruises, exploring the world in comfort. Learn more at vrc.com
I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Louisa Durrell lived with her four children on the Greek island of Corfu in the mid-1930s. Theirs was a charmed life of prewar innocence, full of quirky locals, frantic misadventures, and intriguing animals. However, in the ongoing MASTERPIECE series, The Durrells in Corfu, it’s clear that life on Corfu isn’t that simple.
Leslie: Please don’t tell me that’s breakfast.
Margo: That’s breakfast.
Louisa: For the last time, we are poor. My widow’s pension is for me, not for five of us.
Based on a trilogy of cherished memoirs from Gerald Durrell, The Durrells in Corfu depicts the Durrell family in more realistic, gently biting tones than the classic books, which are told from the perspective of 10 year-old Gerry. But through it all, Louisa Durrell’s unbreakable spirit shines through.
Keeley Hawes: She is the sort of Mary Poppins-type mother that any child would love to have but also she’s a flawed human being and somebody who is lonely and works incredibly hard and is a single mother and all of those things.
Jace: Actor Keeley Hawes adored the Durrell memoirs as a child, and she joined us to discuss what awaits Louisa this season — and what it means to lead a television family through a series of sun-dappled, ever-so lightly fictionalized adventures.
And this week we are joined by The Durrells in Corfu star Keeley Hawes. Welcome.
Keeley Hawes: Hello. Hi. Thank you very much.
Jace: Now one of your favorite books as a child was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. What did the book mean to you as a child and what was it like as an adult to be stepping to the world that Gerald Durrell wrote about?
Keeley: Well the book meant an awful lot to me as a child and I never could have imagined that it was my destiny to play Mrs. Durrell. I mean I just if you told you know the little 11 year old me that what’s going to happen it just would have blown my mind. Partly because my childhood was so different to that of any of the Durrells, and as a child, I didn’t come from a family who travelled very much, if at all. And I certainly hadn’t left the country. I’d never left the UK when I when I read the book and then the first place I travelled to was Corfu. So it was quite surreal. And at that time which is you know sort of 30 years ago, Corfu was just everything that I that I had imagined and I’d read in the book that that it would be, you know, it kept its promise. And so it just couldn’t have been couldn’t have been better although, you know, saying that even now so much of Corfu is unspoiled and beautiful and we’re so lucky in that, you know, our producer and our location managers and our directors find such wonderful places for us to shoot in that we get to see much more of it than perhaps I would had I just been going on on holiday, so I’m very lucky.
Jace: Now in the memoirs, Gerald Durrell’s portrait of his mother is one of sort of tea-pouring perfection. What did you make of Louisa Durrell when you read Simon Nye’s scripts for the first season?
Keeley: She was everything that I wanted her to be. And she isn’t perfect and I think you’re quite right, in the book she is painted as this yes, this perfect mother. Because the book is told through a child’s eyes. I think Simon Nye strikes a lovely balance between her being this woman that we have read about in the books but we’d all love her to be our mother. You know, she is the sort of Mary Poppins-type mother that any child would love to have but also she’s a flawed human being and somebody who is lonely and works incredibly hard and is a single mother and all of those things that he has put into that character so it’s all on the page and it was it’s a real pleasure for me to play her because she’s just wonderful in the fact that she she did exist is is even more thrilling for me.
Jace: Much of this season focuses on Louisa’s personal quest to find herself and reclaim an identity outside of herself as a mother. What did you make of her journey this year?
Keeley: The first series of course sort of centred on her finding love and then losing it which, which is obviously heartbreaking for her. And then the second series, she she she is approached by somebody who’s a possible love interest. And although they might not be a perfect fit he is, Hugh, is very charming and and makes an attempt to whisk her off her feet. Her relationship with Hugh becomes quite complicated due to his previous relationship with his previous girlfriend who then becomes involved with another one of the Durrells. So it becomes quite complicated.
Jace: On the note of Hugh Jarvis — he’s in an olive oil obsessed Englishman. A decade after the death of her husband. What does Hugh represent to Louisa?
Keeley: Hugh, at first I think you know he represents a bit of stability and someone that, you know, she she can have a friendship with and she she’s interested in finding love. She would like to find love. But I think it’s clear from the beginning that they they’re never going to be a perfect match. They try to make it work. But you know as she says there’s just something that’s missing and it’s that sort of key ingredient really. And so I think in her heart she knows that it’s probably not going to work.
Hugh: Do tell me about yourself.
Louisa: I’m actually rather busy.
Hugh: Forgive my enthusiasm, I’m over-excited at finding a fellow Britton.
Jace: You mentioned Hugh’s previous partner: the enigmatic Vasilia.
Jace: Who is far less understanding than the Durrells’ former landlord — so much so that she seizes the family’s furniture as collateral until they pay their rent. How much of a rival will Vasilia become over the course of the season?
Keeley: Well Vasilia is a rival, and yeah she’s a bit of a wicked witch. She is certainly a spanner in the works.
Jace: Louisa is accused of poisoning Corfu is a plot by Vasilia to punish her for Hugh’s interest. However it’s less of a murder plot than a case of selling scotch eggs in the Corfu heat. Is Louisa’s struggle emblematic perhaps of her status as an Englishwoman in 1936?
Keeley: Yes, I mean I think that must’ve been so difficult for Louisa to to make the decision to upsticks from England, which is just incredible. I mean I’m just amazed every time it occurs to me you know when we’re filming that this woman did this in 1935 and she she upsticks and moved her entire family across the world. I have three children and you know taking them anywhere is difficult enough with all the luxuries that we’re afforded, you know, in 2017. But in 1935 that would have just been unthinkable. They had no money. It really was a huge journey. And just that that the whole undertaking they didn’t have. None of them had a job when they arrived. I’m not quite sure what she was thinking but I’m in awe of her. That she did it. And you know she made a success of it and they all were rewarded with this wonderful childhood and this amazing time and I think it made all of the children into the you know that the people that they were and certainly Larry and Gerry became these wonderful writers because of it.
Jace: I mean she’s either incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy or both perhaps. How much of yourself do you see in Louisa?
Keeley: I see a little bit of myself in Louisa, as I said you know I have three children of my own and I’m constantly laughing as I get the scripts you know chuckling away to myself because Simon Nye our wonderful writer has four children as well and so there are constantly lines that I’m laughing out loud about because I recognize them. Because I have children of my own and I’m sort of in these scenarios you know where they’re all growing up and they say things which make me laugh out loud in an eye and I just recognize it as a parent, and I recognize a lot of what she goes through. You know it might be 1935 and you know we’re far, far ahead in the future but that relationship between mother and her children, probably not a lot has changed. And now you know they’re all going through the same sorts of problems. You know age-old problems…becoming teenagers…it’s exactly the same.
Jace: And that is one of the things I love most about this show is that it’s a period drama but these people feel very real, very much lived in. Do you feel that that’s part of the appeal as well that they’re not mannequins in period styles but deeply relatable, flawed people?
Keeley: I think that’s absolutely…absolutely the appeal. And it certainly was the appeal for me when I when I read the first episode of the first series, um. That there was none of the sort of standing on ceremony you know there’s none of the, the sort of very polite thing that quite often you get in costume dramas. These are people that within the first 10 pages were having stand up arguments and you know saucepans were flying out of the window and. And it’s all a bit messy as life is. And that was certainly appealing to me. They’re not polite with each other. And I don’t believe that whenever whichever era you’re born in you know you’re, you’re able to have those sorts of discussions with each other and it’s all just very real and feels very modern to me which is one of the really great aspects of it, I think.
MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by by Farmers Insurance and their eighty-eight years of experience helping people so that they can prepare for the unexpected. They know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two. Find an experienced agent at farmers.com
MASTERPIECE Studio is also brought to you by Viking Cruises. See the world differently by exploring differently. Learn more at vrc.com.
Jace: My favorite scene in this episode is when Spiros once again has to come to the Durrells’ rescue and in a hilarious scene show Louisa how to make a sale, Greek style. What was it like filming these scenes with Louisa attempting to flirt with their customers?
Keeley: Oh God. That was lots of fun. There are lots of scenes set in the market. So yeah we we spent we spent a lot of time looking at Scotch Eggs and it’s a not terribly Greek dish. You know not, none of them are, so that was great fun. Director Steve Barron, directed that episode and yeah. We we had like we had a lot of fun with Alexi who plays Spiros. He’s very good and he was able to sort of improvise quite quite a lot in Greek which he’s obviously very comfortable with.
Spiros: Now, how to sell. You need more passion. For Greeks, it’s like a game. But a serious one. Always look like you’re going into battle.
Jace: Now Spiros’ always there for the Durrells and he’s always willing to roll up his sleeves and lend a hand or even loan the money for their rent. It’s clear that he and Louisa have deep feelings for one another, feelings that are never actually discussed aloud. Why is Spiros never considered by Louisa to be a suitable love interest?
Keeley: Well Spiros can’t be a suitable love interest because he’s married and he has children. And so he’s he’s never really an option. And they both they both know it. You know it’s an understanding that they have and they’re such great, dear friends. That I think even for them to admit to themselves that there could be something else would be very dangerous indeed. It’s very sad but it does make for some lovely scenes with which we both enjoy very much, I think I can speak for Alexi when I say that. It’s lovely to play that sort of bittersweet thing.
Jace: The Durrells’ lives are made far messier by the fact that there are so many animals about all the time, quite literally in fact. What has been the funniest or strangest animal encounter thus far for you on the show?
Keeley: The strangest animal encounter is one I had about a week ago. We have a sloth up here. And it’s really a very bizarre creature. And I had to pick him up the other day and he’s incredibly dense and unlike anything else I’ve ever come across. It’s really, really very, very odd indeed. So he comes to stay with the Durrells in in Series 3. But usually we have quite lovely. I mean and he’s a lovely animal but usually we sort of have quite lots of domestic animals and sort of farmyard animals–lots of goats and puppies and sheep, and I did have a scene in bed where I wake up and I am in bed with a sheep. That was a quite odd, not something you do at work every day. But they’re always a delight. And our animal handlers are so brilliant and professional. Roger the dog is played by a female dog called Mossup who’s just brilliant and they’re all wrangled incredibly well and incredibly well looked after, as you’d imagine, so it’s a very happy ship as far as the animals are concerned. Although they are completely unpredictable We do have an episode where all the animals are brought in. I think it’s episode episode four of Series 2 where the weather takes a turn for the worse. So Gerry brings all the animals in because there’s a huge storm. I think we had for the first time we were outnumbered by animals in a scene. So there were five actors and eight animals so we all were sort of holding one and there were rabbits in drawers and donkeys and goats running around so and they all come of course with their own animal handler. So there are double the amount of people behind the camera sort of waving bits of food around. So it’s it’s good fun. It is nothing if not lively.
Jace: There’s a real sense of camaraderie and indeed of domestic strife or comfort between these characters. How did you and the other actors create that familial ease with each other so quickly?
Keeley: Well I think it helped that we, we shoot all the scene all of the exteriors in Corfu first and then we come home and we shoot all of the interiors in the studio. So on the first series we all arrived in Corfu and none of us knew each other but we were away together in Corfu and so we very quickly became very close so we spent a lot of time together. We had dinner with each other every night. We have lunch together on set every day and we work together, so there is that that ease you know, it’s inevitable that you are going to become very close. And luckily in this case we became very close and we all get on extremely well so, and that’s still the case now through a series on so I can happily report and all of the children are all great friends. We all see each other out of work as well, so it’s a very happy ship.
Jace: And what sort of mischief do you get up to between scenes on the set?
Keeley: I couldn’t possibly tell you that. Actually between scenes, it’s not too bad actually. And a lot of the mischief happens during the scenes as well. But yeah I mean, they’re all very well behaved. There are no real practical jokers. Actually if any, Milo Parker is a bit of a practical joker. So um, yeah he’s he’s been known to prank call other members of the cast.
Keeley: When they’re not there, much to our delight.
Jace: True or false: You were once best friends with Emma Bunton, better known to the public as Baby Spice, of–
Keeley: Yes, that is true!
Jace: –Of the Spice Girls.
Jace: That’s amazing.
Keeley: She’s still my friend. Yes.
Jace: Oh that’s that’s even more amazing. You both attended Sylvia Young’s stage school?
Keeley: Yes we did.
Jace: Which happened to open across the street from your family’s home in Marylebone, is that right?
Jace: Did you always want to be an actor?
Keeley: I did. I did. I wasn’t sure how that was going to pan out, but it was certainly something that was on my agenda. And I didn’t come from a family of actors; I wasn’t sure how it worked. I didn’t really know you know how you went about these these things. And so I then I went to drama school and I was there for 10 years so. I learnt an awful lot being there. And I was very lucky in that I came out and just started working professionally. A couple of years later really.
Jace: You were discovered by a model scout while walking down Oxford Street. If not for that chance encounter, what might you be doing today?
Keeley: Well I don’t know. I don’t know really because I did when I went off on a model but only for about six months. But I still had my my child agent so. And then it was through her that I that I then did Dennis Potter’s last work. Which was a show called Karaoke. That was just a sort of moment where I was auditioning for things in–Yes, I think, I like to think I probably would just have carried on in in that vein, and I don’t know.
Jace: What can you tease about what’s coming up on Season 2 of the Durrells?
Keeley: Season 2 of the Durrells. Season 2 we have…Well, we have more animals. I think the quota of animals something like doubled. We’re joined by an otter family, which is very exciting. We have births, christenings. Attempted murders. We have an episode where the Durrells play cricket. We have an entire cricket-based episode which is a very, very British sort of moment in Corfu which is great fun. We have the return of Leslie Caron, which is very exciting. We have more action in the market. And yes it’s sort of bigger, better, sunnier, and fluffier.
Jace: Fluffier, I love that.
Jace: Furrier. And finally, has life in Corfu taught you anything that you’ve applied to your life back home?
Keeley: That’s a very good question. It’s probably taught me a thing or two about the pace of my life because the pace of life in Corfu is lovely and gentle. And people tend to take things very easy. It’s very, very relaxed. And so I think when we come back we’re all slightly more relaxed which is always going to be a good thing.
Jace: Keeley Hawes, thank you so much.
Keeley: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s lovely talking to you.
Jace: Next on MASTERPIECE Studio, we speak with Poldark’s Ellise Chappell, who plays Morwenna Chynoweth. As her mismatched romance with Drake Carne continues in secret, can Morwena ever hope for true happiness in Cornwall?
Drake: I’ll come and visit.
Mowena: No. This must stop.
Drake: Can ye stop?
Jace: We’ll get the behind-the-scenes scoop from Ellise Chappell on the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast, appearing in your podcast feeds on October 29th.
The MASTERPIECE Mediterranean Cruise Sweepstakes is happening NOW through November 20, 2017! Enter daily for a chance to win the Grand Prize, a Viking Cruise for two adults. You may also win 1 of 3 monthly prizes of shopPBS merchandise. Visit pbs.org/sweepstakes for Official Rules, including eligibility restrictions and prize limitations. Void where prohibited. Again, that’s pbs.org/sweepstakes.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises, Farmers Insurance, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.