The Durrells star Keeley Hawes on motherhood and her new period drama
As a child, one of Keeley Hawes' favourite books was My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.
"I'd read it when I was about 10 and adored it and so I was terribly excited when the following summer we had a family holiday in Corfu where it was set," she says. "It was the first time I had been abroad and it was literally like stepping into the pages. It was amazing. So I've always been very close to it."
Thirty years later and she is back in Corfu playing Gerald Durrell's mother, Louisa, in a six part drama series based on the famous conservationist's trilogy of books, including the much-loved My Family And Other Animals.
"I had started reading the first book to my two youngest children when The Durrells came along so it was all rather nice and timely," she says.
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Set in 1935, the story follows Louisa, who is struggling financially to bring up her four children alone in Bournemouth, as she takes drastic action and leaves rain-sodden Britain behind for the sun-baked Greek island of Corfu.
Eldest son Lawrence, 21, has ambitions to be a novelist, Leslie, 18, is the family misfit infatuated with guns, Margo, 17, is obsessed with boys and the youngest, Gerald, prefers animals to humans.
In Corfu, they set about finding a home and over the course of the series they make friends, rivals and lovers in one charming adventure after another.
"Everything about what Louisa did is quite extraordinary," says Hawes. "In the 30s there was no EasyJet to make such a huge journey smoother. Getting to Corfu now is easy but back then it was a massive undertaking and she was a single mother travelling with four children, a dog and all her possessions to a Greek island with a different language, no electricity or telephone and no quick, budget flight home. But she wanted to give them a better life and was really brave to do what she did.
"Louisa is a loving, protective mother. Her children are the be all and end all. She doesn't work and they weren't wealthy so there were struggles. What do you do if you have no money? There's no fallback. You have to feed four children and yourself.
"Yet when one of them is taken ill, money is suddenly meaningless. Money doesn't matter at all when real things happen."
Hawes, 40, has two children of her own, Maggie, 11 and Ralph nine, with her husband of 14 years, Matthew Macfadyen who she met when they both starred in the British spy drama Spooks. And she has a 15-year-old son, Myles, from her first marriage.
Despite her success as an actress in what seems to be one hit series after another, including Ashes To Ashes and Line Of Duty, she too, can recall the pressure of lack of money when she was waiting for her acting breakthrough.
"I'm pleased I had a time like that because it does make you appreciate things more," she says. "With acting, it's feast or famine and if you're not very good at putting something aside for when you're not busy then that's that. There's no holiday pay for actors."
During filming in Corfu, she enjoyed a night out at a restaurant with her screen children and her real children who flew over to visit. "It was lovely and everyone got along but at one point it occurred to me that at that moment I was Angelina Jolie!"
Having children of her own may have not been a requisite to play a mother-of-four but Hawes is in no doubt that it gave her more of an understanding.
"It helps to work with children if you have children because you know what to say and behave and how they think," she says.
"At one stage Louisa says, 'Nothing is about me, my life is devoured by my children.' Anybody who is a mother will know what that's like.
"Once you're a mother it's not about you anymore, ever again. But I wouldn't have it any other way."
The Durrells, Prime, starting Wednesday October 26.
- TV Guide