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"I felt like Angelina Jolie while filming"

When a bookis adapted for the screen, there's always the fear of disappointment. Keeley Hawes tells Gemma Dunn why she's thrilled with ITV's take on The Durrells

Never work with children or animals, they say, but consummate professional Keeley Hawes insists she "wouldn't change a thing" about her time on ITV's new six-part drama The Durrells.

The 40-year-old actress, known for her roles in Line Of Duty and Ashes To Ashes, plays Louisa Durrell in the heart-warming series based on Gerald Durrell's timeless trilogy of books, including My Family And Other Animals.

Set in 1935, the classic story - adapted by the creator of Men Behaving Badly, Simon Nye - focuses upon mother-of-four Louisa, as she contends with her husband passing away years before, money troubles and four unruly offspring aged between 11 and 21.

As the siblings - Larry (Josh O'Connor), Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and Gerry (Milo Parker) - veer further off the rails, Louisa, mid meltdown, makes the unthinkable decision to uproot the entire family, including Gerry's menagerie of animals, to Corfu. Of course, chaos ensues.

A lifelong fan of Durrell's books, Hawes says signing up to the "hilarious and poignant adaptation" was a no-brainer.

"It's been one of my favourite books since I was a child, and I'd been reading it to my two little ones about a year before this came up, so I know the story really, really well," she says.

"I'm a genuine fan; I was just hoping that everybody would have the same take on it as me, because when you read something and it's a personal favourite, you have a real set idea of how something should be. But it was better than I could have hoped for. When I read the script, I laughed, cried and said, 'Yes please!'"

Louisa's decision to move the family from Bournemouth to Corfu for a better life is one of the things she says she's always admired most about the story.

"It's just extraordinary!" she exclaims. "You couldn't do it - well, you wouldn't be allowed to do it - now, as social services would be after you like a shot.

"Today it's relatively easy to get to Corfu in a few hours by plane, but it would still be seen as a big step. Back in 1935, Louisa, a single mother, took four children to a foreign country with a different language, no electricity, no telephone, no quick budget flight back home.

"I just can't quite get my head around it. You're thinking, 'God, this is incredible' - and it's true!"

Having landed the coveted Sunday evening spot, The Durrells - which has a bit of a Darling Buds of May feel - looks set to be a family hit, with Hawes, who has three children (a son with ex-husband Spencer McCallum, and a son and daughter with former Spooks co-star Matthew Macfadyen, whom she married in 2004), stating: "There is nothing that would make me turn over if my children were watching".

Of the rapport shared between her on-screen brood, she is similarly full of praise.

"It really does feel like we've been a real family forever, and that's not anything we've worked at; it just happened. I couldn't wish for a better 'foster' family."

Returning the sentiment, Woodhouse, who plays son Leslie, adds: "Keeley has taken all of us under her wing. It really does feel like we're a family and have known each other all of our lives. We have our own private in-jokes now."

Waterstone, who portrays daughter Margo, agrees: "Keeley is wonderful. She's so great, lovely, bubbly and fun, and she's such an easy actress to work with, so easy in scenes."

As for offering up advice to her youthful co-stars, London-born Hawes laughs: "I was more likely to ask them for some," she jokes.

"We spent a lot of time together and we talked about all sorts of things, but it wasn't that sort of relationship. I'm not their grandmother's age - I'm 40!"

Aside from enjoying the handful of "gorgeous" Greek men involved, the paradise filming location was a welcome treat, too. "That part was all very easy; I've asked for a spin-off," Hawes notes.

"The area by the Durrell's house in Corfu is just unspeakably beautiful," she adds. "It could go into saccharine territory and be a bit twee maybe, but the thing that cuts that is it looks so beautiful and just as you are thinking, 'Ahhh', somebody shouts 'Clear off!' in Greek."

But shooting abroad is an uncommon occurrence for the actress, who confesses she's "usually filming at the back end of nowhere".

"I was determined to come here and enjoy it. There are children and animals and every day is different. You have to embrace it and have fun."

Her real family came out to visit, too, which made working away much easier - and led to a particularly amusing evening.

"My children came over and we all went out for dinner, so there were these four [her on-screen kids] and my own children, so I was sat there with seven of them.

"It occurred to me: 'I am Angelina Jolie at this moment'. Some of them are my adopted guys and some of them are my own!"

The Durrells, ITV, tomorrow, 8pm

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