The Durrells in Dulwich? (Part 1)

I have recently received several links to press relating to the forthcoming series of ‘The Durrells’, the ITV adaptation of the books of Gerald Durrell. The success of the first series has guaranteed a second and, I am told, a third. 

My own interest in the Durrell family comes from being the grandson of the late Margo Durrell, the high tempered sister of Gerry with an interest in boys, spots and feminism. At least that is the impression I gleaned from the first two episodes of the first series of the Durrells. Being a grandson it is needless to say that I came to know Margo in the post-spots and post-boy phase of her life. 

Living now in Dulwich as I do, it was with some surprise that I found out that the real life Durrells had lived in this part of London and actually planned to settle here on their repatriation from India. 

Leslie had spent a time at Dulwich College and my great grandfather, Lawrence Durrell, had purchased a large house in Alleyn Park Road. Unfortunately he suffered a brain haemorrhage and died in India. Louisa Durrell, his widow, and prominent character in the Corfu books, seems to have become the worse for wear for drink and orchestrated the move to Britain with children in tow. 

The house in Alleyn Park Road proved to be too large and expensive, so Louisa moved the family to a serviced flat in the Queens Hotel in Upper Norwood. It was from here that the Durrells' post India life really began. The atmosphere of the place was the setting for Larry’s Henry Miller-inspired ‘Black Book’ that was written in the thirties but banned until the sixties.

Durrells in Dulwich - Queens Hotel Norwood

Less fact, more fiction

It’s common knowledge that the Corfu books are themselves only loosely based on fact. Larry never really lived with the family, having instead rented a house with his wife Nancy on another part of the island. The ITV series quite consciously sets out to build fiction upon fiction. 

For my part I don’t see any issue with it. My father on the other hand was very upset with the way his grandmother was portrayed. His expectation was of a series that portrayed the stiff upper lip of the day interwoven with the eccentricities of Durrell family life.

the durrells
The Durrell's in Corfu in the 1930's source The GD Collection

The trouble is, if the creators had stuck to the truth, the tale might prove to be too sombre. If Louisa’s drinking was as bad as I have been led to believe then the analysis of her problems might replace the carefree solicitations of young men on the island (we've had this conversation and Dad agrees with his head but not with heart). 

The only remaining truth about The Durrells is that there is very little of it remaining in the series. The characters have arrived seemingly at the end of a long line of Chinese whispers. The issues that the family face are far more related to the present day and very likely resonate with a mainstream audience. It leaves a rather confusing legacy for Gerry Durrell though, as the books were written for a grander purpose… money!

The animal man

I grew up in Bournemouth and spent the first ten years of my life living in Margo’s house with my parents, sisters, uncle, aunt, cousins and granny goose up in the attic flat. The house was portrayed in others of Gerry’s books as the place he deposited his animals before he had a zoo of his own. Some of the escapades beggar belief but actually are true but by the time I was resident the only evidence of the pre-zoo fun were the empty cages decaying in the garden. 

garden 51
Gerry Durrell in the garden at 51 St Alban's Avenue, margo's old house in Bournemouth

At sixteen I was lucky enough to spend some memorable time doing work experience in Jersey at the Durrell zoo. It is a beautiful place full of very happy, highly endangered species. The zoo’s mission, set out by Gerry is to rebreed the animals from the brink of extinction to renewed populations, that are returned to the wild. This form of captive breeding was pioneered in Jersey at a time when places like London zoo simply saw the animals as unpaid actors to be trotted before the public as a mild form of amusement. 

Durrell changed this with his island zoo and the success of their programmes has set a standard around the world. The unmitigated destruction of our planet seemed to both motivate and destroy him as a man as he suffered depression and an incredible alcoholism that escorted him to an early grave.

Putting food on trough and table

This is the primary reason that drove the young Durrell to write such populist literature; he simply needed the money to fund his dream. Many people dream of being a successful author whilst Gerry Durrell dreamed of having a zoo on his own terms. He ploughed the funds from his books into his zoo and developing the breeding programmes, often at a great detriment to his health.

Larry Durrell died while I was working at Durrell zoo in Jersey. I was sitting at the breakfast table eating my cornflakes, listening to the BBC as it was announced “The author Lawrence Durrell has died.”… The son of the people I was staying with replied to the news with, “Never bloody heard of him!” I paused and wasn’t really sure what to think. I never knew Larry so it wasn’t a personal grievance, but I knew gran would be upset. It was, for her, tangible evidence of the beginning of the end of their era.

“Signed in the absence of the author by a better one!”

Gerry and Larry Durrell in 1966
Gerry and Larry talking on camera in S France, 1966 for German TV

The above quote comes from a joke made on film in a recorded conversation between Gerry and Larry when the former was asked to sign the latter’s book in a case of mistaken identity. Growing up I preferred to read Larry’s books than Gerry’s as I felt they were more arty and intense. I loved Prospero’s Island, Bitter Lemons and the Alexandria Quartet. 

It was later after reading the official biographies of both Larry and Gerry that I was quite awestruck by the achievements that Gerry had made. He was able to step back and see the interconnectedness of the big picture whereby nature is the life force. He also anticipated that humanity would bring havoc on itself with careless stewardship that we are now witnessing writ large with so many more species facing extinction and the onset of climate change that is a direct threat to human civilisation itself.

Competing legacy

It is largely because of this that in my adult life I have much more respect for the accomplishments of Gerry Durrell. This also feeds into my disappointment that the Durrell name really only ends up being a brand of light fictional comedy. The books were written to entertain, for sure, but they did have purpose.

The Durrell zoo in Jersey is alive and well today and Gerry’s widow, Lee Durrell, still lives in Les Augres Manor in the heart of the grounds. The reach of its projects is far and wide and the species that have been saved from extinction are numerous. It cannot be overemphasised how important this work is. To take a few last pairs of an animal and breed them back into a sustainable population is as noble as it gets. Many of these species that find themselves on the critically endangered list are there because of human exploitation of the Earth. The sooner we all acknowledge our debt to the natural world that sustains us then the sooner we will be able to guarantee a safer future for our children.

Gerry Durrell’s legacy to many people is as the creator of a Grecian dreamland expressed through the eyes of a child. For me it is of a visionary seer who recognised the damage that humanity was inflicting on what we might call a lost Eden. His response was equally biblical. He built his ark.


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