The crystal-clear waters and turquoise skies, not to mention the cute lemurs, have provided perfect Sunday night escapism for four idyllic series of The Durrells.
There have been foreboding glimpses of the looming shadow of the Second World War in recent episodes of ITV’s hit, set on Greek island Corfu in 1939.
But the tremors of conflict two miles across the sea in Albania, following the invasion of Mussolini’s army, have not wiped away the smiles of the Durrells, who were first made famous by My Family And Other Animals, the 1956 autobiography by youngest son, Gerry.
On Sunday we will see mother hen Louisa, played by Keeley Hawes, realise the threat to their idyll and reluctantly pack their suitcases and swap their makeshift zoo for Britain’s home fires.
While the finale of series four is a tearjerker, it will give little clue to the violence which was to head Corfu’s way, first under Italian, then Nazi, occupation.
And nor does it tell of the trepidatious exodus taken by Larry (Josh O’Connor).
While Gerry (Milo Parker), Leslie (Callum Woodhouse) and mum Louisa returned safely to Bournemouth before war overtook the island, and stubborn Margo (Daisy Waterstone) joined them later, events took a more hairy course for Larry.
Author Michael Haag, a family friend, who wrote The Durrells in Corfu biography, reveals while the eldest son eventually also left Corfu, he then worked for the war effort on the Greek mainland.
And his final escape from there entailed a dramatic flit by fishing boat with hundreds of others under cover of night as German bombers dived overhead.
He made it first to Crete as bombs fell there and then, by luck, to Egypt.
Michael writes: “There were lots of people in the boat, it was tipping, really precarious.
“The Germans were bombing the boats in the day, so they had to sail by night and hide by day, pull in at little ports, and that’s how they got to Crete. It was a three or four-day voyage.
“It was very dangerous, other boats got bombed. Everyone was fleeing, and some people did get bombed, lots of boats were sunk.”
Larry had a wife, Nancy, and one-year-old child Penelope, not portrayed in the series. They had left Corfu in late 1939 and lived first in Athens and then Kalamata.
Larry, who died in 1990, was with the British Council doing anti-propaganda work against the Nazis.
Initially, the mainland resisted the Italian invasion when Corfu fell but the Germans were to swoop instead.
In April 1941, days before the Nazis closed in, Larry and his family took drastic action and, like countless other desperate souls, commandeered a boat.
Michael says: “Penelope was just a year old. Larry told me he was holding her like a loaf of bread, holding her in his arms the whole time, just very tightly.”
In true Durrell fashion, there was a fun interlude along the way.
Michael says: “The first place they got to on the Greek mainland, the villagers had a goat or lamb they were going to eat.
“It was coming up to Easter but they cooked it there and then and they all had a feast. Eventually, that village was occupied and the people suffered.
“Penelope went back years later. At a taverna, the only one, she asked an old man if he remembered anything about that time.
“He remembered some English people who came with their little girl and how they slaughtered their lamb.”
When the family made it to Crete they faced more danger.
The island was being bombed, and days from being occupied by the Nazis, who captured it via a mass parachute drop in the first occupation of its kind.
Michael recalls how Larry dodged death while “looking for tinned milk for the baby”.
Thankfully, an Australian troop ship pulled into harbour and got them to Egypt.
Larry rarely spoke of their journey.
In fact, Penelope – brought up by her mother after her parents separated – didn’t learn of it until she was an adult.
But Larry, an author like brother Gerry, described lying in that fishing boat in his book, Prospero’s Cell. He wrote: “I lay on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete, I found myself thinking back to that green rain upon a white balcony, in the shadow of Albania.”
He described the wreck Corfu would be after the Italians had invaded in April 1941.
He said: “We never speak of it, having escaped: the house in ruins, the little black cutter smashed. I think only that the shrine with the three black cypresses and the tiny rock-pool where we bathed must still be left.”
Based in Alexandria, Egypt, Larry continued working as a press attaché to the British embassies but when he and Nancy separated, she moved to Jerusalem with Penelope.
Margo, like Larry, had stayed in Corfu until late 1939. She was there to witness the outbreak of war and described the emotion as men went off to camps facing Albania to defend their shores.
She said: “That was when the men disappeared – the very night when war was declared. It was a very emotional scene, everywhere, because everybody had lost their men.
“Only the women were left and the uncomprehending children weeping.”
Corfu Town was full of people trying to escape. Margo said: “Such passionate farewells, so many tears, so much language, it made one deaf.”
By the time she left, Margo had met RAF pilot Jack Breeze.
They wed and she went with him when he was posted to Ethiopia but ended up in an Italian prisoner of war camp, where she gave birth to their son in October 1942.
She had an emergency caesarean section without anaesthetic and risked bleeding to death.
The nuns caring for her smuggled her out and she went to Mozambique, before returning to the UK, where the couple had a second son.
As for Corfu, the Durrells’ paradise was devastated by the war. After the Italians surrendered to the allies in September 1943, their occupation ended but the Nazis’ began.
The Germans’ arrival signalled the massacre of several thousand Italian prisoners. Around 5,000 of Corfu’s Jews were sent to Auschwitz.
Michael writes: “They bombed the Pension Suisse where the Durrells had first stayed and they killed many people, including Gerry’s tutor Mr Kralefsky. Corfu Town burnt for three days.”
The Ionian Islands were liberated in October 1944 by the British.
Corfu rose like a phoenix from the flames but was never again the island the Durrells knew and adored.
- The Durrells of Corfu, by Michael Haag, is available on Amazon, published by profilebooks.com
The Durrells finale is on Sunday, ITV at 8pm
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