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The happy-go-lucky clan at the heart of Darling Buds Of May books return in The Larkins

Rumbunctious, gluttonous, irreverent and utterly joyful, the Larkins are back on TV – and perhaps they’ve never been more needed. As we head into an uncertain winter, the upcoming reboot of The Darling Buds Of May will be as welcome as one of Ma Larkin’s pies or Pop Larkin’s heady cocktails.

From the moment HE Bates introduced the world to the unruly family who live in a Kent farmhouse in 1958 they’ve been much loved. 

ITV’s adaptation of his books 30 years ago was a huge hit and made a star of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played frisky daughter Mariette (a contraction of Marie Antoinette, which Ma liked but Pa felt was too big a mouthful), alongside David Jason and Pam Ferris as her parents.

Pop and Ma Larkin (Bradley Walsh and Joanna Scanlan, far right), Mariette (Sabrina Bartlett, standing, top left), Cedric ‘Charley’ Charlton (Tok Stephen, top, centre) and the rest of the clan

‘I think we can learn a lot from a family like this,’ says Bradley Walsh, who plays Pop Larkin, the garrulous wheeler-dealer patriarch, in the six-part series.

‘I think the pandemic has made people realise how much they miss people in their lives and want to stop racing around and spend more time with their family.’

For Joanna Scanlan, in the role of Ma Larkin, who loves nothing more than feeding her brood of six children and anyone else in the village, The Larkins reminds us that pleasure doesn’t need to be prefixed by the word ‘guilty’. 

‘I hate that wrong-headed phrase, as we’re not meant to spend our lives on a constant treadmill,’ she says. 

‘We live in a society that makes it very hard to feel OK about enjoying life. The Larkins work hard – one episode shows Pop doesn’t stop all day – but they also know how to relax. 

‘They know pleasure can be found in good company, having a drink and a lovely meal, a few cuddles or just being with people you love. They take pleasure where they can and I hope viewers see the importance of that.’

Mariette (Catherine Zeta-Jones) – plus family and friends, left – in ITV’s version of The Darling Buds Of May in the 1990s

Mariette (Catherine Zeta-Jones) – plus family and friends, left – in ITV’s version of The Darling Buds Of May in the 1990s 

Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Mariette in the 1990s

Sabrina Bartlett in the role

Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Mariette in the 1990s (left). Right, Sabrina Bartlett in the role

A riot of post-war colour 

The key to the show’s look, says producer Serena Cullen, is that it’s ‘a release and a relief from the slightly depressing post-war austerity. That’s really important in the costumes.

In the books there’s a lot of reference to colour – Pop describes strawberries as having red paint on them, and the pickup truck is ‘gentian blue’.’

They found inspiration, intriguingly, in TV’s The Simpsons. ‘You recognise Simpsons characters because they always wear the same outfit,’ explains Serena. So each of the characters in The Larkins is given their own silhouette through outfits created by costume designer June Nevin and her team. 

Producer Serena Cullen, revealed they took costume inspiration from the Simpsons. Pictured: Joanna Scanlan as Ma Larkin

Producer Serena Cullen, revealed they took costume inspiration from the Simpsons. Pictured: Joanna Scanlan as Ma Larkin 

‘The fabrics are nearly all vintage,’ says Serena. ‘The main problem was the temperature. It was often freezing and there was a lot of wrapping people up and then unwrapping them as we filmed to make it look like a hot day.’

Ma’s look is a printed summer dress, all mid-calf in length with pleated or darted skirts. 

‘She has a geometric printed dress in a mustardy yellow, and for the seaside a blue one with little boats on it. She has cardigans in white, pink and yellow and sometimes she wears an overall – definitely not a housecoat – over her dress. It’s a cacophony of colour and texture.’

One scene-stealing outfit is Ma’s spectacular swimming cossie, which appears when she and Pop holiday in Margate. ‘It’s tangerine and the wool is a bit nylony,’ says Serena.

‘We see her knitting it. She’s so proud of it. She looks fantastic marching into the sea in a swimming cap with multi-coloured flowers. I won’t give the story away but the costume isn’t as solid as you think!’

Mariette wears full skirts with tight tops, often in a different colour. ‘There are arms on show and decolletage,’ says Serena. 

‘She wants to live in Paris and often wears a beret. She has a green silk dress for dates. She looks divine.’ Because Mariette’s horse-mad she has a second look. ‘She wears jodhpurs with little knitted tops, and shorts with shirts tied at the waist for picking strawberries.’

Pop’s clothes reflect his ‘passion for life’. He wears three-piece suits for smart events but is often found in separates with eye-catching waistcoats in yellow, green and brown.

Joanna first fell for the books when she was off school for a couple of weeks and her mother bought her the set of five. ‘I fell in love with this family,’ she recalls. ‘I loved the way they looked at the world, how they’re generous-hearted, but most of all they made me laugh.’

The series has been written by Simon Nye, who had a huge hit with The Durrells, and he hopes viewers will once again fall in love with an unconventional family. 

‘They’re all bonkers and eat and drink themselves stupid. There are many children and animals and they all have fun,’ he says. ‘There’s a wish-fulfilment element there. I think watching them will be an escape from modern Britain.’

Simon had the challenge of making something today’s viewers would want to watch.

Feast your eyes on The Larkins’ food

The series was shot mainly on location in the lush Kent countryside, the setting for HE Bates’s Darling Buds Of May books. ‘We wanted to create those sun-bleached summer days of times gone by,’ says production designer Lucy Spink.

‘We had a theme of green to echo the fields and orange to bring back those sunny days.’ Many scenes were shot with a gold filter for added warmth.

Romshed Farm, just south of Sevenoaks, was perfect for the Larkins’ home. ‘It’s beautiful and felt so right,’ says Lucy. ‘The flow of the rooms made it easy to film in and a lot of period features were intact.’

The owners moved into a barn on the property, running their farm from there, and the house was emptied of their belongings. The production team brought in Victorian furniture such as dressers and Ma’s beaten-up wing armchair. 

‘The scenic artists knocked the kitchen dressers about so everything feels as if it’s been there for generations. We moved through the ages to bits like Ma’s electric mixer and 50s fridge, so there’s a layered feel. 

‘We added pops of colour. We put Art Nouveau doors in and painted them salmon pink. They’re exaggerated to bring out the Larkins’ personalities. This is about having fun.’

A home economist produced all the food, including the huge feasts cooked by Ma. ‘We had a rule that the Larkins’ food should be 25 per cent bigger than normal so it felt sumptuous. 

‘There were huge platters of turkeys, pies and puddings. Because of the different dietary requirements of the actors, food had to be made gluten- or dairy-free but still looking perfect. The farmhouse had an electric cooker we couldn’t take out, so we dressed it to look like an Aga.’

Another nearby location was the strawberry field where the Larkins pick fruit to augment their income as scrap merchants. ‘Unfortunately we filmed there before the fruit was out,’ says Lucy.

‘We brought in strawberries raised in polytunnels and put them on the plants for the shot as if they were growing there, holding some in place with chopsticks or skewers. You can’t get the old wicker punnets any more but we found some in Poland.’

‘They love crime dramas, they like to unwind by watching shows about the dark side, but there’s a risk we’ll forget that drama doesn’t have to be about horrible things,’ he says. ‘Of course there’ll always be tension and jeopardy, but that can happen within a happy family.’

The series starts with Mariette (Bridgerton’s Sabrina Bartlett) making a shock announcement to Ma and Pop – she wants to move to Paris. But then two things turn her head – and they’re both men. 

The first is the arrival in the village of the mysterious, handsome Tom Fisher (Stephen Hagan). He appears charmed by the beautiful Mariette but why is he there, and is he all that he seems? ‘He’s a city boy with ambitions of making his mark on the village,’ says Stephen.

‘When he meets Mariette he isn’t scared of her like most of the men she meets, and she likes that.’

Also entering her life is Cedric ‘Charley’ Charlton (Tok Stephen), who works for the Inland Revenue and arrives at the farm wondering why Pop Larkin has never paid any tax. He’s smitten by Mariette and the entire Larkin way of life. 

‘I think what Mariette is most curious about with Charley is his innocence,’ says Sabrina. ‘What he offers her is honesty and I think he really respects her. The more she gets to know Charley, the harder it is for her to stick to her plans for leaving home.’

The casting’s been made deliberately inclusive, though race is never mentioned. ‘There’s a fairytale element to the show, we’re not doing a social documentary,’ says Simon Nye. 

‘The most important thing for us was that our leading couple were gorgeous, with fantastic chemistry. They’re both exotic to each other, they come from different worlds.’

Simon has expanded on the world of the books, bringing in stories from his own rural upbringing, including a pram race. 

‘In our village the men would push prams with grown men or women dressed as babies in them, stopping at each of the six pubs and having a pint in each,’ he recalls.

‘I still remember as quite a prissy 12-year-old being astonished when I saw lots of men dressed as babies vomiting in the bushes – but I knew the memory would come in handy one day!’

There are also lots of characters who either aren’t in the book or have just a few lines including the wonderful creation of the vicar, played by Peter Davison. ‘There’s a motley collection in the village,’ he says. 

‘We started filming soon after the infamous Handforth Parish Council Zoom call in which they were all rowing and it reminded us these eccentrics really do exist. In the village there are all sorts of alliances and the vicar, who’s more interested in drinking and smoking, changes sides a lot.’

Pop somehow still manages to come out on top with both the local snobs and the out-of-towners, and even the vicar. But his biggest pleasure lies in that rare thing on British television – his happy family.

‘These are people who care about each other, who enjoy one another’s company and respect each other,’ says Joanna.

‘Whenever they make mistakes – which they do because they’re human – they’re quick to apologise and make things right. I think there’s something very moving about that.’ 

Pop’s sideburns are a bit rock ‘n’ roll

While following the styles of the period, the series never makes characters slaves to fashion. ‘Pop is a bit of a dandy,’ says hair and make-up designer Jill Stansfield. 

‘He’s smart, he’s landed gentry in his own head. Men’s hair would have had Brylcreem in it but he had his own look with a little quiff at the front. We grew his sideburns, which is a bit rock’n’roll. He tries to ingratiate himself with the locals but is rebellious too.’

As Ma, Joanna Scanlan wears the only wig of the series. ‘I wanted her hair to look sexy, curly, soft, a bit Marilyn Monroe – hair that would fall over her face when she’s plucking a goose,’ says Jill. 

Hair and make-up designer Jill Stansfield, explained that they grew Pop Larkin's (pictured) sideburns for a bit of rock 'n' roll

Hair and make-up designer Jill Stansfield, explained that they grew Pop Larkin’s (pictured) sideburns for a bit of rock ‘n’ roll 

‘Her own hair doesn’t keep a curl in the damp so I had a wig made for her, with each hair put in by hand. Fitting it involved pinning her hair close to her head and putting clingfilm on it, then the wigmaker drew around her hairline. 

‘We called the wig Florence as it seemed to have a life of its own. At the end of the day we’d set the wig in curlers, and if she was back to a scene plucking birds the next day we’d put little feathers in it.’

Sabrina Bartlett, playing Mariette, has ‘the most magnificent hair, which was well-behaved whatever we did to it’, says Jill.

‘We cut layers in so it looked voluminous when we curled it. Mariette is a natural beauty so we used an airbrush machine that sprays foundation on and gave her a dewy look. She wore eyeliner with a 50s flick for going out. Fake lashes were only for parties and then just applied to the corners, and a vibrant red lipstick finished the look.’

Moira Petty

The Larkins, Sunday 10 October, ITV. A TV tie-in edition of HE Bates’s book The Darling Buds Of May is out on 14 October (Penguin, £7.99).