The Durrells: Much less fun that I told everyone it would be

So here’s the thing. It’s 60 years since Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ was first published. If you’ve ever read Durrell, you’ll know he is proper LOL funny. So when I heard that it was being made into a TV series, I had high hopes.

This is actually the third time that this family story has been captured on camera. It was first unleashed on the public in 1987, when Spiro was played by Brian Blessed.

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More recently it was shown by the BBC in 2005 as a TV movie, where Spiro was played by Omid DJalili.c1f32dacbbf0a0c681b744430e4b9e92f6689e4a

Now it’s being made again, by ITV, and this time I’ve never heard of the guy playing Spiro.

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Is it any good? You might have to wait for a verdict there. But it certainly isn’t as fun as the original book. This is a story that has been told so any times in recent memory that without a fresh angle, there would be no need.

So the fresh angle ITV hit on was to take the viewpoint away from playful young Gerry, and transfer it largely to his worry-struck mother. Suddenly what had seemed charmingly chaotic turned sadistic and terrifying. This might have been over-egging the drama; ratcheting up the tension in order to improve the payoff. But the problem there is that, when this is a TV series about a family’s everyday lives, constant tension is just too much.

The books I read were funny. And even some incidents which could be played for laughs (one brother locks another in a bat-infested toilet) are just dark here. Parallels could be drawn to Batman V Superman. Both just miss the intended audience by removing all the fun.

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Why spoof history > real (fake) history

I think we can all agree with one self-evident truth: history would be better if there were more jokes in it. I’m not saying it’s not funny. Just that the bits that we tend to remember are the scandals, diseases, wars, civil wars, religious wars and general persecution of the powerless by the powerful. Hardly a recipe for frivolity.

So if you can’t laugh with history, why not laugh at history? Films like Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are cult classics.While their telling of history may not be a 100% realistic version of events, films never are. What’s more, they have stood the test of time well when compared to spoofs of other genres, like horror.

Moreover, the fact that they are not trying to tell a ‘history’ story gives them extra reason to ground themselves in the reality. To tell a good joke, you have to have a convincing stooge. The realism has to be there before you can add comedy to the mix.

Most serious historical films are, well, dark. Seriously dark. For some reason I keep thinking of Kingdom of Heaven, so let’s take that as an example. Balian’s wife has committed suicide before the start of the film after miscarrying their child. Her body is buried without ceremony, but after the priest (in the extended cut he is Balian’s brother) has stolen jewellery from her and ordered her head to be cut off. Balian then murders the guy in a fit of rage. Then finds out that he was a bastard of not-quite-rape. Then his newfound father is killed. So far we’re only about half an hour in…

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I realise that Life of Brian ends on the cross, and Men in Tights starts in a Middle Eastern dungeon, but in both situations there is a lot of levity. The past wasn’t a bad time. Sure it didn’t have our fantastic modern amenities, but neither did it have our modern worries. Good times were there to be had. So let’s focus on them for once…

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Bernard Cornwell: Powerhouse

So, yeah, it’s been a while. Reasons, excuses, back to the main event. In the intervening time, I have been reading. First it was Sharpe’s Triumph, then it was Sharpe’s Tiger (which is definitely the wrong order). My local bookshop stocks nowhere near enough Sharpe books, so I have moved on from Sharpe.

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Poor, sad, Sharpe

In any case, I am now reading the first of the Starbuck Chronicles, ‘Rebel’, which is also by Bernard Cornwell. I decided to skip ‘the Saxon Stories’ because I don’t want to spoil The Last Kingdom TV series for myself. It’s a weird world where I avoid the original novel, to preserve my enjoyment of the adaptation, but there you go.

In any case, Starbuck is actually pretty good fun, once you get past the 15-year-old pregnant statutory rape victim love interest. Yeah, that bit freaked me out…

Having now read of few of his novels, I’m enjoying Cornwell’s work. The guy can write a good war story. It’s 9/10ths preparation, baggage and worry, and 1/10th rollicking adventure. His baddies are appealing because you know they are baddies. Real bastards. The goodies are usually the dashing rogue types. Willing to steal from their own side if they have to, but equally willing to muck in.

For all their boy’s-own-adventure qualities, they have regular seams of ugly reality. Cornwell’s plots play out like an RPG. For every step along the journey that the heroes take, there are three or four side-missions for them to go through.

All in all, Cornwell’s novels are fun. And really, that’s all I want. If I want unbridled misery and death I’ll watch Game of Thrones. Occasionally, I just want a good time.