Simon Nye, the creator and head writer of The Durrells In Corfu, doesn’t see Gerald Durrell’s books as necessarily sacrosanct, but his fictionalized family is awfully similar to the Durrells’ actual four years in Greece. Now, as the fourth and final season begins, Nye joins us for a conversation exploring the family’s journey from page to screen, with a special preview of what remains for everyone’s favorite Bournemouth Britons in sunny exile overseas.
Jace Lacob For the past three years, the gentle breezes and sunny Mediterranean climes of Corfu have meant but one thing to MASTERPIECE viewers: the Durrell family is back. Emigres from Bournemouth, the oft-squabbling clan is firmly ensconced in the warm embrace of the Corfiot island, but the distant winds of war are whipping up around them.
Larry: We hate Greece’s drift towards fascism. The Nazis are polluting Europe country by country.
Vangelatos And Greece is next. Radical solutions are required. We must join together!
Louisa: Oh, spare me the water works.
Jace In their ramshackle house by the sea, Louisa, Larry, Leslie, Margo, and Gerry Durrell — plus scores of wild animals, extended family members and confused locals — have provided viewers a home away from home, and a gentle reminder that the only constant in this life is family.
Louisa What have I done? I’ve spent the last of our money getting the house fit for guests. None of you are interested. One lodger I want to kill, and the other who probably wants to kill us…
Larry That’s ridiculous. Shut up.
Jace But now, the fourth season of the series — which premiered on MASTERPIECE on PBS this week — will sadly be the show’s last.
Simon Nye: It was good to be the grown up and say, ‘No that’s to stop now. But there were more stories to tell. But the family itself you know rather sort of conveniently by 1938 and nine when we joined them in the fourth season they were they were starting to sort of spread their wings and they weren’t the nuclear family…that they were before and they…were starting in a way to say goodbye to each other and to us.
Jace With five episodes to go, series creator and executive producer Simon Nye joins us to discuss adapting Gerald Durrell’s beloved books for the small screen, those beautiful animated title sequences, and what he’ll miss about this wacky Durrell family as we all say goodbye to this beloved British clan.
Jace And this week we are joined by The Durrells in Corfu creator and executive producer Simon Nye. Kalimera.
Simon Hello. Kalimera
Jace Before we jump into this fourth and final season, let’s go back to the beginning. You had previously adapted My Family and Other Animals for the BBC. What drew you back to Corfu and to the Durrells a second time around?
Simon Well the cheap answer is a producer asking me to revisit the territory which I’d reluctantly abandoned after finishing what was a pretty straight adaptation of the first of the trilogy, My Family and Other Animals. And as always with that with a one-off film you think, ‘It’s a shame I’ve got to go off, the characters are gone now!’ So this was great when Sally Woodward Gentle, the legendary producer, asked me to look at it again and with a slightly different angle on it. And for a returning series, drama series, plenty of hours to explore the family in all their majesty and a little bit you know just a chance to sort of extrapolate a bit and fill in some of the gaps.
Jace And what is it specifically about the Durrells and their history on Corfu that makes for such an appealing subject?
Simon It’s a beautiful island, this is one aspect it’s it’s a simpler lifestyle. They’ve come from a stuffy English seaside town, Bournemouth. No offense, Bournemouth, but it’s a very English in it’s sort of stultifyingly sort of class ridden structures. And Corfu had none of that. It had certain rules which they learnt sort of slowly and painfully at times but at its simplest it was sort of a sensual bath and it’s sort of a chance to explore themselves get to know each other better as a family to work out for the problems along with adding to a few of them and just to have a completely revolutionary time. People didn’t travel as much back then, they certainly didn’t know what they were getting into. They didn’t know there was no electricity. They didn’t know that there was sort of only this digital idea of how to speak English among the Greeks and who can blame them and the Durrells didn’t speak Greek either. So there were a lot of challenges but it was the innocence of the Greek island was a lieu, for them and I think it has been for years.
Jace Given that these are real life figures, how much dramatic license did you allow yourself and how much did you view Gerald Durrell’s books as sacrosanct?
Simon I didn’t regard his books as sacrosanct because he certainly played fast and loose with the truth. Famously, he sort of adapted what happened to his own needs in terms of entertainment and the natural history element as well. I think he sort of made stuff up really but there was obviously a core truth and he knew that he was there to entertain. He didn’t want to transgress the Greek people and turn them into, mindlessly turn them into comic foils. But he certainly didn’t regard the facts as an impediment to a good story so I took on I took that sort of guiding light. I mean, he missed out whole characters. Larry’s fiancée, Nancy, doesn’t feature in the book. Theo is not married in the book ,so I took his view that sort of you could sometimes enrich the stories by not making them up but by looking at what actually happened and some of the things that Gerry didn’t actually mention, like Leslie working for the police force, we use that in a few episodes and I, so I use the fictional world and also the reality that wasn’t reflected in the books and together, I mean you do you know, you’ve got to come up with a lot of stuff, you know a lot of plot and I in some cases I sort of didn’t like doing it but I did feel that for the sake of a modern TV audience, you need to have had a few liberties taken.
Jace Do you see this ultimately as the work of say faction, rather than fact or fiction?
Simon Let’s go with faction shall we? I know it’s a different, a book is different from a TV series, which is different from a life lived. So we’re already in the realms of fiction. But I am as I say I think Gerrald would have approved. Larry certainly, Lawrence Durrell who wrote about his family in a completely different way again would have approved. So I’m going to hope that the the view is generally approved. I mean if there’s people that haven’t read the books or taken them to their hearts it was it was harder for one or two viewers to hold themselves back from saying how dare they make this show which wasn’t as I thought the Durrells would be, but that’s always the way, I’m afraid.
Basil Coffee in the northern gazebo please.
Louisa Make your own! I’ve got better things to do than flap around after you. There’s a fugitive upstairs.
Louisa We wouldn’t have needed to take in guests, fugitive or normal, if you hadn’t buggered up Auntie’s legacy like the big idle walrus you are!
Basil I may be a walrus, but I’m a paying walrus.
Jace How much involvement has Lee Durrell, Gerry’s widow, had within the show?
Simon She’s been there for us. I’ve talked to her certainly in the beginning and she was there as a benign presence I hazarded and half-expected the phone to go at any time and to say, ‘How dare you, what have you done to my the memory of my husband? But she didn’t. I think, I mean she’s a practical person, she knows Gerry’s books obviously inside out. She knows that that he was, he embraced the idea of making things work for entertainment purposes whether they’re true or not. So she’s been great, basically, and her main focus is a practical one of getting people to go to Jersey Zoo and which is where, which was started by Gerald Durrell and is it’s a fine place to go, do go, listeners. But I do think it’s you know it is it can be a battle sometimes, too, in commercial terms so. And also, you know, Gerald Durrell’s body of work is waiting to be read by a new generation so she regarded it as a the very least as a marketing tool, and was just fantastic about the whole show.
Jace Is there something immensely powerful about the fact that this is in 2019 a series that is ultimately about immigration?
Simon It is. And we did try to embrace the rule that you know, no funny foreigners. I mean, we everybody, it’s a kind of comedy drama. So we make fun of everybody and we take everybody seriously. But the idea of alien cultures not being there just to be laughed at and just take seriously culture clashes and take seriously cultural enrichment was hopefully a guiding influence to me. It is a bit of a I hope a sort of hymn of praise to Europe and its differences and similarities. Yes. So I hope we we didn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But we, but the themes of go into a foreign country, being embraced in the large part, being gently told off also as part of the process. All those themes, I hope we did some due justice to.
Jace You come from a family of four children. You yourself have four children. How did that intimate knowledge inform the writing of the Durrell clan?
Simon Well I tried not to be smug about the maths working, because after all, you could be a perfectly good writer without having children at all. But I think it did help a bit. I tried not to draw too many parallels between my own siblings and my children. But you do see certain patterns emerging, you know, this sort of the process is a thing that you people adopt roles. They there’s a certain rather than a narrowing of focus. There’s a kind of everybody’s personality becomes slightly more extreme ,which is helpful dramatically. And I think that the Durrells were just slightly extraordinary in that they are so very different and they really were so different and yet they really did ,especially in the Corfu years, they did get on beautifully when they weren’t arguing that they wouldn’t say, say they’d hate the idea that anybody verbalized the idea that they got on beautifully but they sort of underneath the crying and the screaming and the laughing at each other they did they did form a sort of a lovely whole.
Jace One of my favorite elements of The Durrells is its constantly morphing title credits which are not only beautiful to watch but also clue us in to the events of each season. Where did the idea for these animated credits come from and are you happy with the reaction they’ve received from viewers?
Simon Yeah. That they’re beautiful. It wasn’t my idea it was some Sally Woodward Gentle, the exact producer’s idea. And he’s a genius. I mean, you know. And we did ask him to, or at least at the team asked him to tweak things and you know that you ask for an animator and that to tweak something, it’s two weeks of I presume fiddling in in a darkened room with an image. So it’s a labor of love but it’s just, it’s a bit of a visual feast. We couldn’t have an ugly credit sequence after you know after the visual splendor to come of Corfu.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace This week’s episode marks the start of the fourth and final season of The Durrells. Was there any temptation to keep the series going beyond this fourth outing, or was it fortuitous that the real life Durrells had spent four years on Corfu?
Simon A bit of both. Milo Parker, who plays Gerry so beautifully, his voice is broken. He’s getting taller than Keeley Hawes. So it would have been, we’d have had to dig a hole for him to stand in and other ways of making him look like the child he was. So we’ve done them in real time over four years. Certainly, it felt like four years was about right, and I reluctantly say goodbye to them and I know especially America, I think they think you’re a bit mad if we if we do the minimum number of episodes we normally do in Britain but I am, it was good to be the grown up and say, ‘No, let’s just stop now.’ But there were more stories to tell. But the family itself you know rather sort of conveniently by 1938 and ‘9 when we joined them in the fourth season they were they were starting to sort of spread their wings and they weren’t the nucleus of family that they were before and they were starting in a way to say goodbye to each other and to us already so. But you know, a bit of me thinks, ‘I’d have done this for ten years, it would’ve been great!’ but I mean…
Jace World War II is looming. The series continues to track after last year particularly the wave of fascism that is taking hold of Europe and now Greece. Does the discussion of the rise of fascism feel perhaps even more timely today?
Simon It does. Does it not?
Jace It does.
Simon Yes, we sort of need a voice over, sometimes to draw the, it feels, but people do the voice over at home for themselves and without mentioning names. There’s a lot of you know political figures that spring to mind. I mean Greece was a complicated set up it, wasn’t quite as simple as, they were there was sort of split as a country as most countries are between you know the sort of the allure of Nazism but there were certainly there was a bit of a fascist element there and there was. But your average Greek was looking appalled of across the sea at what was happening so I’m yeah, we hopefully we tread a bit lightly but it was a I mean in My Family and Other Animals the book the reason the Durrells leave is for Gerry to get an education back in Britain. So that’s one area in which we departed from the books and used real life, because there’s so much going on. And the Durrells themselves had sort of amazing wars, you know, the sort of scurrying around avoiding Nazis, going to Africa, flying in, and getting married and not getting married. So it was, it would just knowing what the kind of war that’s ahead of them made it all the more poignant to write, really. But you know, it’s not a political show and we wouldn’t want to jeopardize the feel good factor too much by dwelling on, you know, the clouds above. We want to enjoy the last series for its ongoing joy. But yeah it did cast, it made everything more charged I think, because of knowing what was ahead.
Jace I mean it does feel palpable this season, despite the sunshine and the omnipresent animals, I mean there’s darkness on the horizon.
Vangalotus No, I am a passivist now.
Leslie That’s a bit of an over-reaction.
Larry If there is war we’ll have to get used to these sorts of ordeals, crisscrossing the Mediterranean in search of safety.
Jace How difficult was it to toe the line then between those two tones in terms of the writing?
Simon What each character has it sort of has their take on it really. And Gerry just wanted to look after his animals and it was only towards the end when he realized that there was obviously potentially a problem in having a zoo in a time of sort of cataclysmic change. Louisa as the sort of mother figure fearing for her vulnerable children having lived through the First World War is sort of in denial. Margo doesn’t know what’s going on, or again chooses not to know, she’s got enough problems of her own. So Leslie, the one person who likes to wield a gun has also got a few distractions, so. So it’s not like everybody is worrying about the war. It’s odd how people, we all find distractions and you know and also it’s something beyond your control, what you do. I mean Lawrence Durrells was, the rumor is that he became a sort of spy and he certainly worked for British authorities in various places in Greece and in Egypt during the war and at the beginning of the war. So you know, he was more active in trying to remind his siblings and mother that actually a war was going to happen and they should perhaps, maybe, you know, have a few thoughts about how they might survive it. But yeah. So it’s a dark cloud and it’s, and knowing also what happened to the Greek characters which I perhaps won’t spoil by…I mean in real life, they had sort of you know very tragic war some of them so, so yeah it’s going on, but in the end the personal sort of always trumps the political in most people’s lives. You know, we just get on with our lives and if things are happening it certainly was happening to the Durrells then. It’s amazing what we can forget.
Jace It’s Leslie who is the sole member of the girls to actually master Greek while on Corfu. This season we do get to see Gerry and Louisa each attempting some broken Greek in their own way. It seems almost fitting however that Larry should stick to English is that slow sanding away of Englishness intentional here?
Simon Well I may have taken a few liberties in terms of the language learning, because I think it was Gerry who, given that he just go off into the into the island and talk to peasants who didn’t you know as they called them then who didn’t speak English, he actually had a practical knowledge of Greek which was the best. Laurence as a sort of card-carrying internationalist who ended up I think being pretty much bilingual in French. There’s something about him, maybe it’s a writer’s trait the fear of losing English. So I don’t think he learnt too much Greek. Louisa was hopeless. I think she felt, ‘Well it worked in India, I just spoke English rather slower and louder and it seemed to be fine.’ So I think she adopted, apparently in real life and in it which is the sort of thing we did in the series that she thought that would work and it sort of did work because she had the charm and the looks and the natural authority for people to not tell her they didn’t understand what the hell she was talking about. But I used to be a translator actually said I am quite evangelical about learning foreign languages and I although I do struggle myself with Greek but I love the idea in theory of us all finding out about ourselves and culture by learning the language.
Jace The Corfiots have been by and large rather welcoming to the Durrells. We begin to see that shift particularly in this first episode with Mitsosis’ attitude towards Leslie.
Leslie Spiro, thanks for recommending the Durrell Guesthouse to Mr Vangelatos.
Spiro He hid his face a bit under a hat, I hope he is not peculiar.
Leslie No, we love him…Is he talking to us?
Spiro He’s being rude about you, because you are not Greek.
Leslie Well I’m in Greece, doesn’t that- no I see, that makes it worse.
Jace I mean is animosity towards the Durrells growing, or is this a general xenophobia on the rise?
Simon It’s a bit of both I think. The xenophobia that comes with the war is felt by some. But I think the Durrells, they relaxed and they and they felt that, ‘Oh we’re at home now, so we don’t need to worry about swimming naked in the sea we won’t offend anybody because they know we’ve been here for four years. ‘ And so they slightly let their guard down in them in and that was what happened in the Durrells sort of later years particularly, though some I suppose that the local people thought, well, ‘They’ve been here a lot they should espouse our values of sort of slightly more caution and not necessarily expecting her to dress in black because she was officially a widow but certainly to understand their sensitivities a bit more.’ Whereas in fact I think the Durrells just felt, well, ‘This is our home now. So we’ll invite people that we know are perhaps risk affecting people’s sensibilities,’ you know well, I mean apart from Henry Miller turning up and he was naked most of the time and that’s just what he preferred. And other guests particularly were just quite wild and then they came from Britain and they were you know they were sort of the full crazy louche bohemians so that did from all accounts really piss off a few of the Greeks. But you know they were basically beloved but nobody, but the rules apply to all and I think they infringe them at times, the Durrells.
Jace Louisa has thrown herself into the guest house scheme and now complete with a penthouse room to get over her heartbreak. She and Spiro mend their fences and agree to be friends again. But it’s clear that she loves Spiro.
Louisa It’s too sad being strangers.
Spiro I know. Can we stop?
Louisa Yes please.
Jace How will their storyline continue to play out this season?
Simon Well obviously I can’t give anything away. But we will, it’s they’re stuck. Really that’s their problem and they know they are. Spiro, for reasons that he does finally articulate, he feels he can’t walk away from the marriage. We meet his wife later on and see their sort of mutual frustrations. And he ,you know, he respects the institution of marriage, his father was a philanderer and he does want to be that person. So it’s you know he is an honorable man up to a point. And Louisa doesn’t want to be the marriage breaker so it’s that poignancy of unfulfilled desire. And the fact that sort of Spiro is such a friend of the family and the island and is everybody’s affable pal means that it’s hard to extract him from their lives, so every day for Louisa is slightly torturous. And also it’s you know it’s a lovely romantic problem to have from the writing point of view, you know the various ups and downs and that’s one area where perhaps having four seasons makes it all the more easier to write, because you know that then there’s a there’s a crisis looming at the end of the season. I won’t say any more than that.
Jace Larry moves out of the family home taking a place just up the coast. How much of this plot point was based in story, and how much due to Josh O’Connor playing Prince Charles in The Crown?
Simon It’s a happy coincidence, actually. I mean it’s not happy, in that I would have loved to have Josh in every episode fully. But there actually was that by, I mean quite early on, Larry was not among the family as much as you’d think from the books because he’s written about the Corfu years in a book called Prospero’s Cell in which the family barely get a mention at all. And the truth obviously between the two, he did visit a lot and stay in the house. But he lived up in the north east. And yeah, well we’ve got you know we’ve got a letter writing thing going on. But there is such a lot to be said about the letter writing that went on and what people said and hid and how they know you could you could create an image for yourself because nobody knows the truth of what you’re writing or not. So we have Larry writing letters home. There is enough going on in the rest of the Durrell family for us to sustain a bit of bit less Larry.
Jace I mean I will say that the Larry-Louisa dynamic is one of my favorites.
Larry You need to be friends with Spiro again.
Louisa I can’t. Look where that got me. Months of sniveling.
Larry I know, but apart from missing him, we’re all really tired of having to walk everywhere.
Louisa I’m working hard, and not thinking about Spiro. Don’t mention him again.
Jace How delightful is it to write those scenes for Josh and Keely?
Simon It is great. I mean they’re not just saying this. It is rare for a writer to not, maybe I’ve just been unlucky in my career, to not feel that I want to write for every character equally and it certainly does show that. But those are a particularly great pair to write because they sort of you know, Larry is a funny mixture of his occasionally vulnerable, but he’s a real, you know, he’s a real show off and he likes to use words that I’ve had to look up and he likes to dazzle. And Louisa like all good parents is there to bring him down a peg or two and yet be supportive. And the scenes when Larry left actually in a previous series was just I found heartbreaking because it speaks to me as my youngest child is now 18 and they’re all leaving home, I mean it’s just it’s the worst feeling of you know losing a limb when it when a beloved child leaves home. So they’re great.
Jace A large swath of the cast of The Durrells has essentially grown up during the production of these four seasons as you noted earlier, I mean. Milo seems to have grown four feet in that time. What is it like writing for the rather grown up people these actors have become now, versus who they were when you first started the show?
Simon Well they’re nice people, or at least they’re discreet, people so they don’t come up to me and say, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be 14? Have you forgotten? And you’ve got them completely wrong.’ I mean part of the sort of comedy of the Gerry and his mother relationship is that she gets it wrong, actually getting the number of years he is wrong sometimes, she just doesn’t always understand how, and it is hard, let’s face it, to know what your child is thinking, especially one that spends you know 20 hours out in the under a tree looking for insects. So she sort of is, I think in the viewers’ eyes obviously are wondering how what they’re feeling because it’s such time change obviously. And Gerry’s changing the most because he’s the youngest. But Margo as well, you know she moves from what is it 15 to 19 over the show’s length and she’s you know she’s engaging with sort of feminism I hope in in a sort of era-appropriate way and she’s finding out that men can be a mixed pleasure. So they are changing a lot and the more and Larry’s that is it’s a grown up, so he should know better really but there’s a lot of child in him which is perhaps where he’s you know he’s a he’s a playful writer. And in that kind of urge to show off he’s sort of that’s a particularly sort of childish trait perhaps but I hope no know basically I just wanted the more to look like they were real young people rather than actors sort of representing viewpoints.
Jace In the broadest of terms what can viewers look forward to on this final season of The Durrells in Corfu?
Simon Well there’s a certain amount of tying up of events. There’s a certain I hope deepening of knowledge of them all, otherwise what am I playing at, as we spend more time with them? I can reveal that Margo goes home to England at one point. So there’s a bit of phase of accelerated sort of self-knowledge from that travel gives you. And there’s a whole new sort of set up in that it’s a guest house now, because as a as a sort of way of heading off romantic disappointments and also to get some money obviously Louisa rents the house out to a variety of guests, I guess, so I hope rather than diffusing sort of our interest in the family that sort of makes it all the more real, because there’s nothing like a sort of stranger in the house to make the family either sort of rally round or the opposite. So I hope it’s a full season of things happening and I hope you know more about them by the time we end the show.
Jace Simon Nye, thank you so very much.
Simon Thank you.
Jace Coming up next on MASTERPIECE Studio, a surprise visit from a rather ghostly actor as we sit down with a blast from the Poldark past. Or is just a figment of our imagination?.
Valentine Papa, look what I found.
George Take it away.
Valentine But papa…
George Take it away!
Jace Tune in Sunday, October 6 to hear from our surprise spectral guest.
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