The Durrells’ Keeley Hawes on how she juggles family life with being TV’s most sought-after actress

"It's hard to be a mum"

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Each thwack of leather on willow releases a new cloud of butterflies from the long grass around the cricket pitch. Stationed behind scones and cucumber sandwiches, ladies in shady hats cast appraising glances at the players. Then the pelicans invade the pitch…

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It could only happen on The Durrells. The hit Sunday night drama is back for a second run, and holding a Bafta best drama nomination, to the delight of the nation, and Keeley Hawes.

“Throw a stick round here, and you’ll hit a lovely man,” says Hawes, with satisfaction. And indeed the lush Ropa Valley, 20 minutes from Corfu Town, is not short of talent as Greek and ex-pat British extras shoot a “Greece v England” cricket match for the new series.

Adapted from Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoir My Family and Other Animals, The Durrells stars Hawes as an English widow and mother of four, who strikes out for a new life on Corfu. In the book, Mother is a comfortable figure, a sketchily drawn dispenser of tea and good sense. Hawes’s Louisa is altogether more entertaining. Funny, courageous and – when she gets the chance – sexy, she’s the emotional lode-stone of the drama.

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“I think it wouldn’t be too bad, having Louisa as your mum,” considers Hawes. “She’s got the right mix of worrying about her kids and letting go. She’s a wonder, really, and I slightly love the fact that she’s on her own, because there are some amazing single mothers out there and they’re not always advertised that way. And I think it’s great that Louisa isn’t considered ‘past it’. Nobody’s ever ‘past it’, of course, but a woman of Louisa’s age would arguably be more ‘past it’ in a drama set in 1930s England.”

At 41, Hawes is unquestionably in her prime. The daughter of a London cabbie, she trained at the Sylvia Young stage school and landed her breakthrough role in Dennis Potter’s Karaoke). Her English rose looks and a particular kind of screen intelligence opened up an astonishing range of performance; she has turned her hand to period drama (Our Mutual Friend, Tipping the Velvet), comedy (The Casual Vacancy, Inside No 9) and contemporary thrillers (she met her husband, Matthew Macfayden, on the set of Spooks).

Last year, at a stage when actresses are wont to report diminishing returns, Hawes pulled off the spectacular hat-trick of starring in three of TV’s most-watched – and most harrowing – dramas. She made a triumphant Shakespearean debut as Elizabeth Woodville in The Hollow Crown, scared the bejesus out of viewers as deranged cop Lindsay Denton in Line of Duty, and played a mother hollowed out by grief in The Missing. She was rewarded for her efforts with a Broadcasting Press Guild best actress award in March.

“The Shakespeare was one of those ‘go-for-it’ moments,” she says. “I’d never done it before and I thought, ‘Well, if it’s rubbish, I’ll never do it again’. And it was great to put Lindsay to bed. Then it was slightly funny because I had to do some dubbing for The Missing when I was here on set in Corfu. So I was standing dressed as Louisa Durrell, voicing this really dark, grim ‘child-in-the-cellar’ drama.”

Not every actor would welcome this near-schizoid division of labour, but Hawes used it to her advantage: “When we were shooting The Missing, it was good to have the thought of The Durrells in my head. Having all this to come back to,” she says, opening her arms to the golden Greek afternoon, “was a lifeline!”

Much of the first series revolved around the Durrell children’s attempts to fit their mother up with a man – she was courted by a terrible old sea-dog and engaged to a sexually conflicted Swede (though viewers, some seven million of them, were willing her into the arms of Spiros, the family’s Greek “fixer”). Now, in the hugely anticipated second series, Louisa finds a new love interest in a raffish ex-pat, Hugh Jarvis.

In terms of plot, the second series steps away from Gerald Durrell’s memoir, but it loses none of its heart. “As a child I really loved My Family and Other Animals,” says Hawes, “and I was reading it to my two littlest children when I got the call for this part. But of course the book was written from a child’s point of view and what Simon Nye has done so brilliantly is to make this fantastic, layered drama that appeals to all ages.

“I’m sure that’s why we had such a great reaction to the first series. I had a lovely email from a woman in her late 50s, who said she’d watched the show with her mother, her daughter and her daughter’s daughters. So they were aged 9 to 93 and they all loved it.

“Simon is a father of four, so there’s very little that he wouldn’t have been through with his own kids that Louisa isn’t going through with hers. Her heart goes out to the child who needs it most at the time – I’ve got three kids and I know that feeling – it’s really hard, sometimes, not to feel that you’re spreading yourself too thin, to remember that you’re dealing with three completely different people. All that’s brought to the surface and stripped to the bone in The Durrells, so it’s really truthful.

“It still blows my mind, really, that the real Mrs Durrell just upped and took her family to a country where they didn’t speak the language, with no money or jobs to go to. And there was no easy way to get to Corfu in the 1930s – it was like travelling to the other side of the world. It’s difficult enough for me to take three children on holiday with the help of Easyjet!”

There was, she recalls, an “Angelina Jolie moment” when her own children Myles (16), Maggie (11) and Ralph (ten) and her “adopted” Durrells all came together. “My kids came out on set for a week, and yes, a bit of eyeing-up went on. But my three think the big ones are super-cool, and the guys here made such a fuss of them. So it was a big treat. I absolutely adore them all.” Hawes immediately brings herself up short, embarrassed by the inflections of luvvie-speak.

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“Oh, I know. It might be a bit sickening, and everyone always says how marvellous the people they work with are, but the kids are just amazing. Well, I call them the kids, though apart from Milo, who plays Gerry, they’re all in their 20s. They treat me very sweetly like one of the gang, and then I look in the mirror and remember that I’m twice their age.

“But we do spend an awful lot of time together, even when we’re not shooting. We have birthdays and meals together and there’s not a week gone by when I haven’t been in contact with all of them in some way, and that’s very unusual. There really is this huge warmth, and I think that does transfer to the screen.”

Lunch with cast and crew on the verandah of the Corfu Golf Club, which is doubling today as a cricket pitch, is hectically convivial. The actors, from Milo Parker (14) to the very elegant Leslie Caron (85), who plays Countess Mavrodaki, share an easy intimacy. There are nicknames and in-jokes, and many, many hugs.

Working with Greek actors has enriched this atmosphere. It was, from the outset, a point of principle to cast Greek talent as The Durrells’ Corfiot characters. “Alexis Georgoulis, who plays Spiros, is a massive star in Greece, just huge,” Hawes points out. “It’s been such a privilege to act with him and Yorgos Karamihos (Dr Theo), and it really brings home the point about two cultures coming together.

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“Although actually, the human actors in the series are now outnumbered by the animals – which can make things complicated on a small set,” she muses. “We have animal wranglers out of shot, dangling bits of food. And a lot of dust-pans and brushes for the goats.”

This series Hawes is particularly excited to play a scene with the “Rose-Beetle Man”: “Die-hard Gerald Durrell fans will understand how thrilling that was,” she promises. “There I was, with all these flying beetles and crates of canaries, and it was such a lovely thing, like watching a magic show.

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“But then,” says Hawes, looking about at the lovely illusion, conjured from “heart”, nostalgia and the Greek sun, “so much of The Durrells has been like that. Just magical.”