One of the sweetest television series of 2016 was The Durrells in Corfu, an adaptation of My Family and Other Animals, the first part of Gerald Durrell’s much-loved autobiographical trilogy about growing up on Corfu with his mother and siblings in the mid-1930s. Yet unlike the two previous BBC adaptations – a ten-part series in 1987 and a telemovie in 2005 – this new ITV adaptation takes considerable license with its subject matter, creatively combining elements from all three of Durrell’s books to paint a portrait of an unconventional and improvisational family. As the story stands, we’re presented with Louisa Durrell (Keeley Hawes), a struggling widow who decides that the best way to rally her impoverished family – Gerald (Milo Parker), Lawrence (Josh O’Connor), Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and Leslie (Callum Waterhouse) – is to join the British expatriate community in Corfu. Yet once the family arrive Louisa discovers that subsistence farming and manual labour is much more difficult than she was expecting, even in a Mediterranean climate. To make matters worse, Corfu seems to fragment the family, sending them all off on their own slightly crazed pursuits, as Gerry starts to develop a serious interest in animals, Leslie finally discovers space and scope for his passion with shooting, Margo pursues love in every imaginable form, and Lawrence (now only Larry) starts to embark upon the writing career that would eventually turn him into a world famous novelist.
Yet that dispersal of the family also turns out to be redemptive, since it sets the main rhythm of the series in place, which alternates between expansion and contraction, centripetal and centrifugal momentum, with the family continually spiralling out to discover themselves in the surrounding people and landscape but also always eventually returning with something or someone new to include in the family hearth and home. That profoundly elastic sense of family produces a fluid, liquid sense of space, with series creator Simon Nye favouring underwater shots that gaze back up at the surface of the water (or cognate shots, such as a series of perspectives from within Larry’s typewriter), along with periodic drone cinematography that allows the camera to capture the vertiginous shifts in the Corfu landscape in a really evocative manner. In both cases, it feels as if The Durrells in Corfu is offering a counterpoint to the traditional BBC costume drama – emphatically shot on location with one event bleeding into the next, this is a period narrative that seems designed to be streamed and binged, rather than watched in stately theatrical instalments.
In fact, so expansive and inclusive is the Durrell family that it allows Nye to be quite irreverent about them individually. As in Gerald’s memoirs, there are animals everywhere, but they’re more raucous and integral to the series as a whole than any previous adaptation, producing a zoomorphic atmosphere that collapses the family into just another one of Gerry’s menageries. If anything, his caged animals enjoy better living conditions than the Durrells in their run-down, rented, decaying house, which is perhaps why there’s something so bestial and vital about the family’s various efforts to propel themselves out into the surrounding landscape. Once there, however, they’re never permitted to be a force of civilisation and culture, since all of them are imbued with a slightly chaotic, cretinous demeanour – even or especially Larry, whose continual efforts to adopt some kind of critical or contemptuous intellectual distance just end up clarifying how much of a Durrell he actually is. Insofar as there is an overreaching narrative arc, it revolves around each character discovering and embracing what makes them grotesque, so it’s a testament to the series that it never sinks into a consistently grotesque tone as a whole, or loses its fluid, liquid sense of life either. Instead, the family’s continual oscillations allow them to domesticate their jagged edges even as they develop new ones, in an emergent collective identity that is never closed or completed.
As might be expected, that creates a wonderfully provisional and open-ended atmosphere that sees the Durrells emerge, as a true family, out of the Corfu community, rather than adapt or accommodate to it in any kind of colonialist way. Not only does that imbue every relationship with a potent potentiality – it could be nothing, it could be everything – but it produces some quite startling revelations around identity and sexuality in the later episodes that nevertheless manage to feel naturalised the moment they’re announced. In that shifting provisionality and romantic mercuriality, The Durrells in Corfu often plays as an adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s prose style as much as Gerald Durrell’s life, which perhaps explains why he occupies such a central role in most of the episodes. In fact, Larry had come to Corfu before the rest of the family and encouraged them to make the trip, but by framing him as part of the original migration Nye turns Larry’s burgeoning literary voice into a way of bearing witness to this new fruition of his family life.
The result is a kind of domestic modernism, or off-modernism, in which Lawrence’s’s notoriously blended, allusive voices are simply presented as a way of articulating himself within his family. More to the point, perhaps, these authorial voices are presented as his family’s voice – as the way his family articulated itself during these inter-war years of melancholy and liberating uncertainty. Far from the staid “literary” aspirations of most period drama, then, which insists upon the dead pastness of literature, The Durrells in Corfu embodies and enlivens a particular literary style, contemporising it with a precious, poignant precarity that is an utter joy to watch and experience.