It may boast a cast of supremely talented actors and be set on the beautiful Greek island of Corfu but as ITV’s The Durrells is an adaptation of the late Gerald Durrell’s memoir, My Family and Other Animals, it’s only fitting that it’s the animals taking centre stage in series two.
“People love the animals,” says Keeley Hawes who plays mother-of-four Louisa Durrell. “There is one scene in this series where I had to take a puppy off young Gerry and for the rest of the scene I’m holding it. There was a discussion because the director said, “Nobody’s going to listen to anything you’re saying,” and I knew that! Even with the other cast, if there’s a scene and someone else is holding a cute puppy, or hedgehog, or any animal, no one is looking at you. This show is not about the actors; we’re way down the list, and that’s quite good!”
Animals are hardly the most co-operative of co-stars, though? “It is difficult, but it’s always funny,” Keeley goes on. “In this series we have an episode where it rains endlessly, so Gerry wants to bring the animals into the house because he thinks they look depressed. So we have the donkey and the pelicans in the house, hedgehogs, the dog, goats and a chicken. . . When you read it in the script, you think, ‘That’s going to look fantastic’ but filming it isn’t easy – ten hours later we’re still filming! Then I was filming a scene with lots of dialogue and my hands were on the table. A chicken decided to come over and just sit on my hands! You just have to carry on and act like you are used to having chickens sitting on your hands while you’re talking to people!
“You can train an animal as much as you like, but you can’t train it to tell you when it needs the bathroom, so there’s lots of dustpans and brushes and it’s a rather smelly set!
“The animals are such a massive part of the series, though, and this time the quota has gone through the roof. Last series there were barely any in comparison but this series is full of them.’”
Does Keeley (41) have a favourite creature? “I liked the hedgehog,” she smiles. “That was really cute and very sweet. I’ve never really seen a hedgehog up close like that before. The pelicans are beautiful, too. Last year they were babies but they’re fully-grown now. They are called Peli-can and Peli-can’t! I have more to do with them this time – at one point I had to take one for a walk on a lead. I also have a one-way conversation with the seagull called Steven Seagal plus we have magpies who have a starring role, canaries and a falcon.”
Keeley, who’s married to actor Matthew Mcfadyen, says she thinks the series is so popular because – in addition to the animals and stunning setting - it reflects family life.
“You see people having stand up rows and running away from home, or whatever they are doing. It’s all very real. It’s so close to real life sometimes that it makes me laugh out loud when I read it – and definitely reminds me of my own family. Our brilliant writer, Simon Nye, has four children and you can tell. It’s written in a way that children and adults can respond to. It’s a period drama and the attention to detail is extraordinary but, at the same time, it’s not a rod-down-your-back costume drama where everyone is behaving impeccably all the time. It’s real life.”
For Keeley, an added bonus to starring in The Durrells, which has already been commissioned for a third series, is that her four screen children and the three she has in real life have become close.
“My family came out while we were filming in Corfu and they were very impressed by my Durrell family,” she reveals. “They think they are very cool while my on-screen family are very kind and generous with my own family. They all get on very well. We all go out for dinner and things. It’s really, really good.”
- The Durrells is on Sunday evenings on ITV
- Words and interview Alison James
- Take our Durrells quiz here