“I saw quite a few edits – and it still made me cry,” says Simon Nye, screenwriter of The Durrells.
Watching Louisa have her heart broken again and again by Spiro took quite an emotional toll – as did that heart-wrenching moment when Leslie found out that Daphne’s baby was not his and that she was marrying the true father (“that did make me feel guilty as the cause of their misery,” Nye admits).
But through the tears, there is still plenty of joy to be found in the family’s story.
“As you’re on Corfu, with that family, those people, I hope there’s always a sense that there’s no point in being too sad for too long,” Nye tells RadioTimes.com. “So I hope people carry that away from the end of the series.”
The romantic tension between Louisa Durrell (Keeley Hawes) and Spiro the Greek taxi-driver (Alexis Georgoulis) has been building for a long time, perhaps even since the moment the Durrells first set foot on the island of Corfu. But it has now come to a dramatic conclusion. When Spiro’s wife took the kids to Athens and left him, suddenly he could be open about his feelings – and Louisa could finally admit she was in love.
But it was not to be. When Spiro’s wife came back, he was forced to decide between Louisa and his kids – and so he made the devastating choice to bury his feelings for the English widow and end their relationship before it even began.
So – is that it?
“They’re still together on the island, and who knows what the future is,” is Nye’s noncommittal answer. “But it was, at the very least, lovely to see some absolutely stupendous acting.”
Who does know what the future holds? Nye isn’t sure whether there’ll be a fourth series – but he’s poised and ready, just in case.
“We’re still waiting,” he tells us. “Obviously the viewing figures have been pretty good, and there’s been a lot of love for the show, so I’m hopeful. But we don’t assume anything. I was commissioned to write two episodes for the new series a long time ago, so if the call comes…”
Having such a talented collection of actors in The Durrells has been a blessing and a curse. Recently Josh O’Connor (Lawrence Durrell) starred in the film God’s Own Country and won a BIFA for Best Actor, while the ever-busy Keeley Hawes has been filming starring roles in Jerusalem and Jed Mercurio series Bodyguard. It’s increasingly difficult to get the show made.
“It does get harder, it always gets harder,” Nye says. “Especially as it requires us to find a way to be together out in Corfu. If we’re allowed to continue, it will be quite a jigsaw to get people to go. But that’s a good problem to have.”
The real Durrells arrived in Corfu in 1935 and lived there until the outbreak of the Second World War (so far, politics hasn’t intruded into family life a great deal, except for homosexual Swede Sven’s run-in with the increasingly fascistic local police, and the occasional mention of Adolf Hitler). That’s a defined window of time for The Durrells to cover.
“Maybe it’s a good thing that we’re not – even if we’re allowed to go on – going beyond our natural life, because they were four years in Corfu, and although they kind of lingered on here and there, it’s not something we can endlessly re-run,” Nye says.
The “lingering on here and there” refers to Margo and Larry, who struck off by themselves when war broke out. While Mrs Durrell took Gerry and Leslie back to Bournemouth along with their Corfiot maid, Margo stayed behind in Corfu, met and married an RAF pilot, and moved to South Africa. Larry stayed on the island for longer, until the fall of Greece to the Italians and Germans; he escaped with his young family to Alexandria and Egypt and became a war correspondent.
In series three it’s already 1937, meaning that the Durrells’ time on the island will soon come to a close – surely by the end of series five at the latest. But can that really be the end? Would Nye ever be tempted to follow one (or more) of the Durrells through the war years and beyond?
“Absolutely, yeah,” he says. “I mean they’re all – I don’t want to use the word mythology, but there is a whole mythology about the Durrells and they have a fantastic draw.”
Part of the family’s story that fascinates him is what happened when the Durrells (excepting Larry) settled again in Bournemouth after the war, “and the gang continued in different forms, with Gerald bringing back animals and kind of an impromptu zoo in the back garden in their house in Bournemouth.
“So it might be nice to carry on this but – you know, one thing at a time. We’ll see them off Corfu first!”
This is not the first time Nye, also known for Men Behaving Badly, has put the Durrells on screen. In 2005 he adapted Gerald Durrell’s memoir Mr Family and Other Animals for a one-off BBC special starring Imelda Staunton, Matthew Goode and Russell Tovey – with the British Iranian actor Omid Djalili as an unlikely Spiro. But turning the story into a long-running drama for ITV has been liberating.
“For a writer it’s kind of a dream scenario really – well, for me, anyway,” Nye explains. “Because it has all the appeal of arriving at your desk without the terror of a blank page, because there’s quite a lot of material out there obviously. But there’s so much creative freedom within that framework.”
Certain events and characters come directly from the book – and the rest is the work of Nye’s imagination.
“We’re given the freedom partly by the fact that Gerald really pushed reality into semi-fiction in a few places,” Nye says. “For really treasured books, obviously you have to be careful about fiddling with the work.
“But this is a different creature, and as much as I love doing straight adaptations, you don’t get the joys I’ve had with being able to create satisfying storylines.”
He adds: “There are a few people online who do get cross about the liberties I’ve taken with the stories. But there wouldn’t be one series – let alone three – without us adding to what’s there.
“And what’s great is that Gerald, in his books, didn’t mention some quite glaring realities from the Durrell’s family life, like Lawrence’s wife Nancy.” (In real life, Lawrence was actually married when he moved to Corfu and lived separately from his mother and siblings.)
If anyone is still in any doubt, he also has the ultimate stamp of approval: praise from Gerald Durrell’s widow.
“I’ve been waiting for a call from Lee Durrell, Gerald Durrell’s widow, saying ‘you really can’t do that!’ or ‘why have you done that?’ But she’s been great about saying it captures the spirit of the Gerald she knew. And so I hope that’s enough for those people who think we’re taking a few liberties,” he says.
So what is it about Gerald Durrell and his family that we still love so much? Why do we go back again and again to the story of a teenage boy among the animals in Corfu?
“It’s about growing up,” Nye reflects. “And it’s beautifully unsentimental about it. It’s a robust view of the joys of growing up and although there can be fantastic books about the pains of adolescence, you know it’s nice actually, just occasionally to find one that celebrates those golden years.”
This article was originally published on 6 May 2018