Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

 

There’s a lovely photograph of English conservationist and author Gerald Durrell and his American wife, Lee, hovering around on the Internet. Taken in 1987, it shows Durrell, lion-faced, in a white suit with black tie, trying to dislodge something from between his teeth with his tongue. Lee, somewhat younger, looks on adoringly, while a sharp-faced barn owl sits on Durrell’s shoulder, between them.

As a boy, Durrell lived in a house on Corfu with his mum, two brothers and a sister, his father having died in India when the children were young. His mother, Louisa, brought them to the Mediterranean island in search of a sunnier, cheaper life, and Durrell wrote about the trials and tribulations of that life in My Family and Other Animals.

Described last year in The Guardian as "the Harry Potter of its day", the book has been turned by the BBC into a television series called The Durrells (BBC First, DStv channel 119). Charming, whimsical and full of peculiar English eccentricities, it is one of the more enjoyable items on the rather scratchy menu of late wintertime viewing on television at the moment.

This, of course, assumes that as a viewer you aren’t partial to the goings-on of the Kardashians, have no pretensions to becoming the next Bear Grylls, and find yourself gobsmacked when encountering a programme about the seriously vertically challenged called — wait for it — Little Women.

Let me say, in addition, that this programme is noteworthy for being completely devoid of irony or self-consciousness. A quick, 10-minute watch reveals that the little folk can be just as bitchy, preoccupied and self-obsessed as any other self-respecting reality show wannabe in the great empty cosmos of DStv.

But back to the more wholesomely appetising The Durrells. As one might expect, the narrative dynamo of the series is eccentricity — the clash of Greek custom and English manners — which subtly drives the plot forward.

To make ends meet and avoid being dumped out of their house by a bewitching but vindictive Greek landlady, for example, Louisa makes scotch eggs and toad in the hole. Not surprisingly, neither delicacy is to the locals’ liking.

Charming, whimsical and full of peculiar English eccentricities, The Durrells is one of the more enjoyable items on the rather scratchy menu of late wintertime viewing on television at the moment

The Durrells make kumquat liqueur, which they naturally want to sell, but because miscommunication is rampant, their offerings are interpreted by the inscrutable Greek Orthodox monks as gifts.

Louisa considers marriage to neighbour Sven, a good-looking Scandinavian. Except that while rummaging in his chest of drawers during an interlude over dinner (Sven is tending the goats — this is Corfu in the 1930s, remember), she discovers photos of him frolicking with other men. When confronted, Sven admits to sort-of wanting marriage and children, but his explanation is lame. Louisa makes the decision for him and calls it all off. Sven is heartbroken, as is she, except she is heartbroken in that robust, eternally practical and stiff-upper-lip-ish way we come to rather admire as the series progresses.

Relationship of equals

As all this passion (and sublimated passion) swirls around him, the young Gerald only has eyes for the natural world. The story is told that his ayah (or nanny) once took him to an Indian zoo as a boy and the memory never left him. Indeed, he is a sucker for anything that can be caught in a net or dropped into a specimen jar and observed.

While on Corfu he befriends Theo Stephanides, a local doctor and naturalist, who becomes a kind of surrogate dad. The two go on otter-capturing expeditions together; they pound the hills; they remark and learn. Their relationship is the easy relationship of equals.

Around them the other Durrells fight and shoot dogs (accidentally) and try to climb into bed with young priests. They go for moonlight drives and make toad in the hole. Gerald (played by the 15-year-old Milo Parker) carries on regardless, Olympian in his detachment.

With his bobbin-like nose, butterfly nets and baggy shorts, Parker is very good as the young Gerald. Fiercely independent, he does his own thing, the one stable point in the family’s frenzied orbiting.

In one of the early episodes’ more touching scenes, he decides to set free all the animals that he’s collected, as it is no good keeping a zoo on the lawn. Stephanides helps to open cages containing pelicans and boxes for tortoises. At the last minute, though, Gerald can’t go through with the animals’ liberation. He says he’s not ready — and closes the door and padlocks the latches. He’s a naturalist rather than a liberator.

Sunshine moments

The other warming aspect about late wintertime viewing is the arrival of SundanceTV (channel 108 on the DStv bouquet). The channel is an extension of the annual Sundance Film Festival held on Robert Redford’s ranch in Colorado every year, and it has so far served up any number of quaint indie films and films that may have passed you by.

There’s clearly some clever somebody behind the scenes offering you all kinds of film history prompts, saying things like: "Pssst, have a look at this one. It didn’t have much of a run when it first came out, but it is well worth looking at again."

In exactly this vein, I sat down to watch Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous a couple of nights ago.

The film tells the story of a plucky Californian boy who wants to follow his dreams and be a rock journalist. This is partly because he loves rock ’n roll (he’s inherited his sister’s record collection), but partly because he needs to escape his well-meaning but smothering mother. He attends the San Diego concert of a wholly fictitious band called Stillwater and gets adopted by them, in the process selling a story to Rolling Stone magazine.

It’s a beautiful, fiercely authentic coming-of-age film, entirely predictable in its depiction of lost virginity, rock ’n roll excess and the sheer brazen narcissism of the entire enterprise.

The music is marvellous in its own right in a period kind of way, and there are some beautifully deft touches, including a cameo by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as music journalist Lester Bangs.

As for the rest of the DStv fare, with its accent of violence and tabloid sleaze, it’s rather like venturing into a particularly dangerous part of town after dark.

If you think this is elitism or sour grapes or some anti-DStv rant, I suggest you don’t take my word for it and spend an hour or two channel surfing. Kick back with a stiff drink and the remote in your hand, and trawl. You will see the most amazing idiocy from the outer reaches of human nastiness, vanity and self-importance — I kid you not.

Television is that weirdest of mediums because it does the strangest things to people who appear before it, while seldom being able to account for the changes it brings about.

Wintertime viewing at the moment — bar two or three standout exceptions — is nothing worth staying in for, I promise. But if you insist on staying behind closed doors, remind yourself that the fresh air of spring seems to be just around the corner.

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