Written by Alison James
Keeley Hawes has had some terrific TV roles in her time – the young Diana Dors in ITV biopic The Blonde Bombshell, Zoe Reynolds in Spooks, Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes and DI Lindsay Denton in Line of Duty all spring to mind. But, she says, her role as mum Louisa, in the new six-part series The Durrells, pretty much tops the lot.
“It really is up there with the best I’ve done,” says Keeley. “Being on Corfu – where, single mother Louisa actually moved to in the Thirties with four children aged from ten to 21 – was sublime.
“We just had to film this series in Corfu,” she adds. “Nowhere else would do. The area around the house that was found for filming is just unspeakably beautiful. You look down over the wall at the front of the house and the sea comes right up but the tide never gets too high.
“There was one scene in which a table and chairs were placed in the shallow water and the family ate their lunch there in order to keep cool (pictured above). That was pretty much paradise.
“The house itself couldn’t have been more perfect, either. It all looks so authentic – just how it would have done 80 years ago. Usually I get to film in places such as Bermondsey or Luton so I don’t think anyone could blame me for jumping at this and making the most of it.
“The people are lovely – very friendly, generous and open. They can’t do enough for you – you wouldn’t know that they’ve been through a financial nightmare. It’s a lovely place to come to.”
It was to Corfu that Keeley first travelled abroad – on a family holiday when she was nine.“I’ve never forgotten that,” she smiles. “I’d just read the book My Family and Other Animals and it was literally like stepping into the pages – that’s stayed with me ever since. I’d just started reading it to my two youngest children when The Durrells came along, so it was all rather nice and timely.
“All three of my children came out to Corfu while we were filming and there were times when my real family and my Durrell children were having dinner together, for instance, that I felt like the mother of seven. It was my Angelina Jolie moment!
“As far as my screen children are concerned, it immediately felt like we were a real family – it’s not anything we worked at, it just happened.” Some actresses of 40, especially glamorous ones like Keeley, would baulk at the thought of playing the mother of a 21 year old. But not this one.
“I’m playing my age,” she says happily. “In those days, Louisa wouldn’t have been much older than me, as women started their families earlier. My own mum, for instance, had my older brother when she was 19.”
Louisa wanted to give her children a better life and she made it happen. I'm totally in awe of her
Does Keeley, who is married to actor Matthew Macfadyen, think she could have played the part of Louisa Durrell if she wasn’t a mum herself? “I hope so, but it absolutely helps to work with children if you’re used to them and you know how you behave with your own children.
“Screenwriter Simon Nye has adapted Gerald Durrell’s work for the series and one of the things I really love about the scripts is the fact that the family arguments are very real. They take your breath away at times because they’re so full on. Some of the things, particularly that eldest son Larry says to Louisa, make you think, ‘That’s a bit strong, that’s a bit hurtful – even if it is true’. But actually that’s what families are like, aren’t they? If your family can’t say those things to you, who can?
“Louisa is a very loving, protective mother and her children are the be-all-and-end-all. At one point she says, ‘Nothing is about me, my life is devoured by my children’. Anyone who is a mum will know exactly what that’s like. Once you’re a mother it’s not about you any more, ever again – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Keeley has immense admiration for the real Louisa Durrell. “Everything she did was extraordinary. When the story opens, she’s living in Bournemouth and has been a widow for eight years, struggling to bring up her family of four on very little money.
“Today it’s relatively easy to get to Corfu in a few hours by plane, but to move there would still be seen as a big step. Back in 1935, Louisa, as a single mother, left for this Greek Island with a different language, no electricity, no telephone, no quick budget flight home…
“It was a complete change but she wanted to give her children a better life and she made it happen. That is such a brave, forward-thinking, modern thing for a woman on her own to do. I’m totally in awe of her.”
Did you know...?
- She is known for her roles as Kitty Butler in Tipping the Velvet, Zoe Reynolds in Spooks (2002–04), Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes (2008–10), and Lady Agnes in the 2010–12 remake of Upstairs, Downstairs
- In 2011, Keeley narrated the documentary Kate and William: A Royal Love Story on BBC One, prior to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton
The Durrells is on Sundays on ITV
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