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'I do spend a lot of my time sitting there thinking that I'll be back on the dole soon'

Keeley Hawes tells Gerard Gilbert why it has been a pleasure to work on Sunday night drama The Durrells after two harrowing roles in Line of Duty and The Missing

By Gerard Gilbert

Amidst all the hoo-ha about The Night Manager, The Missing and Line of Duty being largely ignored in this year's Bafta award nominations, one mighty feat has been overlooked - that an ITV Sunday evening family show, ostensibly a cosily escapist costume drama, should find itself on the shortlist for best TV drama.

The Durrells is loosely based on naturalist Gerald Durrell's best-selling memoir of his family's four-year stint on pre-war Corfu, My Family and Other Animals - his widowed mother, Louisa, having upped sticks from genteel Bournemouth, taking her daughter and three wayward sons to the Greek island.

And it's Louisa, rather than her more famous offspring, Gerald and author Lawrence Durrell, who is the central protagonist of the ITV series - juggling her eternally squabbling children and their quixotic interests (animals, guns, novel-writing) along with the need to grub a living from this beautiful, but peasant-poor corner of the Mediterranean.

The part of Louisa was a godsend for actress Keeley Hawes, coming off the back of a run of emotionally-draining roles - as the demented DI Lindsay Denton in two series of Line of Duty, a murder victim in The Tunnel and, in the latest harrowing series of The Missing, as a grief-stricken mother. "I think after Line of Duty and The Tunnel, then you've got something like The Missing and Line of Duty again, it's really nice to then play the opposite because she really is the opposite of those characters," says Hawes of Louisa Durrell.

We meet on the 16th floor of ITV's offices on the South Bank, rain spattering the windows with their panoramic views of London. It's a long way from the ochre and blue-saturated backdrop of Corfu - the setting being undeniably part of the appeal of The Durrells.

"Corfu is another character and it's made to look even more beautiful because our location managers find the most amazing locations and it's shot so beautifully," she says. "People work very hard to show Corfu at its best."

But vicarious warmth on a chill April evening is not the only benefit offered by The Durrells. There is also a deft script by Simon Nye, a writer best known for his comedy work - principally with Men Behaving Badly. "Simon Nye has four children of his own, so he knows what it's like," says Hawes. "It's so modern in that way. The reaction I got from the majority of people who I spoke to about it was that they could watch it as a family, and it's rare to have a programme like that. We all watch Modern Family as a family, and my children, who are 16, 10 and 12, and my husband, we all like different things, but it's the only show I can watch with all of them and really enjoy.

"We have the same thing with The Durrells in my house." Her husband is, of course, Matthew Macfadyen, the couple meeting on the set of Spooks shortly after Hawes divorced her first husband (and the father of her older son), the cartoonist Spencer McCallum. She's wearing a pair of brogues she bought with Macfadyen while visiting Rome - "my sensible shoes" - along with a black cashmere top and a black skirt. The combo sets off a pale complexion that goes well with the famous cut-glass accent, the result of ten years of elocution lessons at Sylvia Young's stage school. (Young set up shop opposite the house that the young Hawes shared with her black-cab-driving father; her two older brothers now also work as cabbies.)

Hawes left home at 17 to work in a casino before being scouted by Select Model Management while walking down Oxford Street. Appearances in pop videos (for Suede, The Lightning Seeds and James) were followed by a role in Dennis Potter's posthumously broadcast final TV play, Karaoke.

Subsequent parts, including a young Diana Dors in Blonde Bombshell, tended to emphasise her intelligent good looks, until her first breakthrough in the 2002 BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters' Sapphic novel, Tipping the Velvet, led to Spooks - and Macfadyen. She lasted three series before her character, Zoe Reynolds, was given a new identity in Chile. What are her main memories of the groundbreaking BBC spy drama, I wonder, other than, 'Cor, I fancy the bloke playing my boss at M15's Section D'...?

"It was the first thing a lot of us did, a mainstream and very successful show with amazing writers, and incredibly technical, all of those things," she says. "So that was a gift really, looking back on it. But at the time, you're thinking, 'Oh bloody hell, this is hard work'. Somebody mentioned Spooks being 15 years old this year and I look at Josh O'Connor (who plays Larry in The Durrells) and Josh is the age that I was when I did Spooks, and he's just starting out. It's extraordinary because when you're at that age, you do think, 'This is how it's all going to be'..."

The next career milestone came playing DI Alex Drake - a modern policewoman transported back to the 1980s - in Ashes to Ashes, a role she accepted without ever having watched the show's predecessor, Life on Mars. "Some people were sort of anti the casting of me because I was taking over from John Simm," says Hawes. "Life on Mars was an incredibly male show and people liked that. It was the dramatic equivalent of Top Gear in a way, and suddenly it was ruined by this woman coming in with permy hair and, you know, a tight pair of jeans on."

There has also been the odd flop along the way, including the BBC's re-boot of Upstairs Downstairs, disastrously (arrogantly even) scheduled so that Downton Abbey was allowed to run first and slake the thirst for stately-home nostalgia. But if Hawes's role as 1930s aristocrat Lady Agnes Holland somewhat typecast her as the standoffish chatelaine, her appearances in Line of Duty proved a decisive corrective, along with subsequent darker and more abrasive performances in The Casual Vacancy and last year's second series of The Missing.

Her performance as the grief-frozen mother Gemma Webster, a British Army officer's wife stationed in Germany, offered hope when her missing daughter turns up after 11 years, may not have received a Bafta nomination, but it was undoubtedly one of the acting feats of 2016. "People ask, 'Do you think of your own children when you do those scenes'?" says Hawes. "No I don't ... they are the last thing I think about. I know some actors do, and it's really fascinating to see how actors get to where they get to, but personally, for me, I can't think of anything worse. When you're doing something like that, which is so well written, you just need to be in the scene, and that's enough.

"I do spend a lot of time sitting there thinking, 'I'll be back on the dole soon' - I actually do," she adds apropos of nothing in particular, before returning to The Missing. "But I really enjoyed it as well. David Morrissey is so funny, and Abigail Hardiman and Jake Davis are now bizarrely the flatmates of Daisy Waterstone, who plays my daughter in The Durrells."

Hawes says that working with younger cast members has re-ignited her own enthusiasm for her chosen profession. "A couple of them are on their first jobs out of drama school," she says. "The enthusiasm they bring to a long day's filming, it's reminded me what a lucky person I am to be doing the job that I do."

A new biography, The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, paints a less appealing portrait of the family and their sojourn on the island, than the one offered by the ITV show. According to Haag's version of events, Louisa was a chronic alcoholic, "drinking gin and smoking Balkan Sobranies in bed", while, less penniless than portrayed in The Durrells, the family made homes in a series of grand villas. In the second series of Simon Nye's version of events, the family are struggling to get by, and have finally realised that they have to make a living. "They've decided to stay and they need to make it work," says Hawes. "And so they set about doing the farmers' market and creating their produce and trying to flog it ... badly.

"There's a lot of goat milking that had to go on - it's much more difficult than it looks.

"The pelicans did try to eat a hedgehog, but we've never had any really badly-behaved animals. I worked with a monkey who punched somebody in the face - that was on Upstairs Downstairs."

ITV are promoting the second series of The Durrells as "more sun, sea and animals", but that's ignoring the dexterous writing and skilled performances, none more than Hawes as Louisa. It's up against heavyweights The Crown, Happy Valley and War & Peace in next month's Baftas, but given the great TV drama around at the moment, perhaps nomination alone is a victory of sorts.

  • The Durrells, Sunday, ITV, 8pm

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