Each Sunday through November 18, public television’s Masterpiece is airing the third season of The Durrells in Corfu, which is loosely based on Englishman Gerald Durrell’s memoirs of his childhood shortly before World War II on a lovely island off the coast of Greece. The series, also available through various streaming services, has gained a legion of loyal viewers who might be surprised to know about its striking departure from Durrell’s original story, which is considerably quirkier and thornier than this once-over-lightly production.
Durrell (1925-1995) was born in India, but after the death of his engineer father in 1928, the family returned to England. They spent some time on the Continent, too, and in 1935, Durrell’s widowed mother Louisa moved the household to Corfu, a decision that Durrell blithely explained, in his bestselling 1956 memoir My Family and Other Animals, as part of a search for a better climate: “We sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows.” The reasons for relocating were no doubt more complicated, including the fact that with little money, the Durrells could live more cheaply abroad.
Corfu deepened Durrell’s fascination with wildlife, a passion that pointed him toward his work as a professional naturalist. The Durrells lived in Corfu until the arrival of World War II in 1939, when they returned to England. Gerald would go on to found the Jersey Zoo and the Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust, launching expeditions to the remote reaches of the globe to collect specimens. His interests were expensive, and he claimed that he wrote books simply to help pay the bills.
Gerald Durrell’s writing invited comparisons with that of his older brother Lawrence, who focused strictly on a literary career and is best known—to the degree that he’s still known at all—for The Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels set in Egypt.
Gerald Durrell took pains to dispel any sense of a rivalry with his author sibling, crediting Lawrence with helping him thrive in the world of letters. Gerald dedicated one of his memoirs, Fillets of Plaice, to “my brother Larry, who has always encouraged me to write and has rejoiced more than anyone in what success I have had.” Explaining the distinction between him and Lawrence, Gerald Durrell once said that while Lawrence wrote literature, he merely wrote books that people wanted to read. Lawrence died in 1990, and although he’s not read much anymore, Bitter Lemons, a 1957 autobiographical account of his later years in Cyprus, deserves a wider audience.
The Durrell brothers were both great at travelogue, but Gerald had the common touch. In My Family and Other Animals, as well as two follow-up Corfu memoirs, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives in 1969 and Fauna and Family, alternately published as The Garden of the Gods, in 1978, Durrell told stories that read like a cross between James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times. Though naturalists aren’t known for their humor, Durrell had a keen sense of the absurd—and an abiding assumption that among the vast exotica of earthly life, the most bizarre species was his own.
Durrell mentions that My Family and Other Animals “was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of [Corfu], but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.”
Even so, Durrell’s impressions of butterflies, beetles, birds, spiders, tortoises, lilies, fireflies, and other wonders are the beating heart of his books. Here, with his usual gift for metaphor, Durrell describes Corfu’s toads:
Each one had a girth greater than the average saucer. They were greyish-green, heavily carunculated, and with curious white patches here and there on their bodies where the skin was shiny and black in pigment. They squatted there like two obese, leprous Buddhas, peering at me and gulping in the guilty way that toads have. Holding one in each hand was like holding two flaccid, leathery balloons, and the toads blinked their fine filigreed eyes at me, and settled themselves more comfortably on my fingers, gazing at me trustfully, their wide, thick-lipped mouths seeming to spread in embarrassed and uncertain grins.
The passage reads like a transcription of a Chuck Jones cartoon, amply embracing anthropomorphism and slapstick, two elements not typical in nature writing. But Durrell’s narratives, conveyed through the eyes of a child, bubble with the subversive sensibility of boyhood, which is one of their prevailing charms.
Another signature of Durrell’s memoirs is the moment when the farce of flora and fauna evolves into domestic comedy, as when he brings his newfound toads indoors, prompting the family’s squeamish friend and all-around fixer, Spiro, to lose his lunch.
My Family and Other Animals, a one-episode 2006 Masterpiece adaptation that took its title and source material from Durrell’s most famous book, deftly captured his wry vision, with the acerbic Imelda Staunton on board as Durrell’s resilient if slightly daft mother, Louisa.
The current TV version, extended to series length, is beautifully filmed on location in Corfu, but the plots, which bear only a passing resemblance to Durrell’s books, have about as much emotional resonance as an episode of The Love Boat. The production centers on Louisa, rendered as a blandly beatific matriarch by the flawlessly dressed and coiffed Keeley Hawes. She seems much too composed to portray Louisa—a mother who, as drawn by Durrell, navigated life as an erratic exercise in improvisation.
Other deviations from Durrell’s original vision abound, but the most notable change is that Durrell himself, the youngster ostensibly driving the story, has been relegated to a minor supporting character played by Milo Parker. So the show downplays depictions of little Gerry’s encounters with outdoor plants and creatures—underscoring the challenge of dramatizing the lives of naturalists on film and television. They’re often loners, and crafting yet one more scene of a curious soul having an epiphany over a cobweb or a rabbit hole will get a screenwriter only so far.
What the series does convey, with sterling fidelity to Gerald Durrell’s vision, is the geographical beauty that informed his memoirs. Every episode of The Durrells bathes the retinas in Mediterranean blue, evoking scenery he described so masterfully in his prose. His first sight of Corfu is captured with the language of a memorable stylist:
The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock’s tail, glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and stained with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu. . . . The endless, meticulous curves of the sea flamed for an instant and then changed to a deep royal purple flecked with green. The mist lifted in quick, lithe ribbons, and before us lay the island, the mountains as though sleeping beneath a crumpled blanket of brown.
Were he still alive, Durrell might be surprised at how his memoirs have been adapted lately, but he might not be disappointed. He wasn’t above his own bits of poetic license, masking darker aspects of his family life. The Durrell clan was prone to depression and drinking, two demons that dogged him as well, although those unpleasantnesses don’t figure directly in his work. He doesn’t even mention the approach of global conflagration as the family leaves Corfu at the end of My Family and Other Animals, instead casting the Durrells’ return to England as prompted by his need for a better education.
Yet there’s a note of elegy resonating just beneath the surface of Durrell’s books, a sense that nothing grand is ever permanent. It’s what drove him, once he grew up, to advocate for wildlife conservation. “Durrell was conscious of loss all his life,” British journalist Simon Barnes once noted. “The fact that wonderful things can be taken away forever was something that defined him.”
Gerald Durrell’s Corfu was, like most Edens of youth, a paradise ultimately lost. To read his memoirs of those early days is to regain that vanished world in all its former vitality—and to remember our own childhoods, when anything seemed possible.