ITV’s new adaptation of H E Bates’s The Darling Buds of May, The Larkins, is an abomination. About the best that can be said for it is that it’s no more glutinously sentimental than the original television version, which was rightly euthanised like a surplus piglet about 30 years ago. It is the kind of production that the new secretary of state for culture, Nadine “Mad Nad” Dorries would greatly approve of, mainly because it is precisely the kind of opioid atavistic tosh she churns out in her novels. It’s a sort of Brexit Television, set in a post-war green and pleasant England that never was and never will be, but for which so many feel an overwhelming nostalgia (and so much so that they’re prepared to vote in their millions for a better yesterday). Future historians, or better psychologists, should be in a good position to judge exactly why the British in recent decades have wanted so badly to escape their present. As if time machines, our tellies are transporting us to the idyllic heartlands of Heartbeat, Endeavour and Call the Midwife. Maybe in the 2070s they’ll be making telly dramas set in the 2020s, featuring knowing, loving references to such quaint bygones as the Toyota Prius, Facebook and catatonic people in derelict shop doorways off their tits on spice.
Even for those of us who’ve long tried to maintain our distance from the Darling Buds phenomenon, the new series is immediately familiar, jam-packed with period props (rose-covered cottages, Morris Oxfords, Bakelite phones) and tiresome stereotypical characters. The cast, to be fair, actually doesn’t do a bad job with the thin material they’re handed. Bradley Walsh cheerfully carries the burden of the bustling Pop Larkin, the “golden-hearted wheeler dealer” as ITV propaganda calls him, and does so slightly more convincingly than I recall David Jason managing. Where Jason played Pop as a sort of rural Del Boy in cords, tattersall shirt and a yokel accent, Walsh is a more authentic-sounding Kentish man, less condescending to Pop, and mercifully doesn’t resort to the annoying “perfick!” catchphrase every time he’s presented with an overflowing plate of roast goose (which is to say most of the time). The formidable Joanna Scanlan also lives up to the memory of Pam Ferris’ Ma Larkin, and Sabrina Bartlett takes on the challenge of the two-dimensional figure of eldest daughter Mariette Larkin, a worthy successor to Catherine Zeta-Jones (whatever happened to her?). The supporting players also put in a decent shift, and I almost enjoyed Peter Davison as the misanthropic vicar, Tony Gardner as the snobby Alec Norman, Kriss Dosanjh as the charming Brigadier, Robert Bathurst as the camp local celeb actor Johnny Delamere, and Amelia Bullmore’s neurotic Miss Pilchester, the very embodiment of genteel poverty.
None of it works, though. Far from being a sunny bucolic paradise, the fictional village of Littlechurch comes across as a cloyingly class-ridden, almost feudal sort of place, and bewilderingly archaic to modern eyes. I don’t believe that rural life in 1958 was half as blissful as it is painted, even for these purposes, and if it was it’s even more irritating, if you see what I mean – I found myself wanting the county council to build one of the early motorways next to it, and Bovis Homes to turn up with the bulldozers and planning permission for a “stunning development of 800 new executive homes”, as they say.
And as for the darling Larkin family, well… Pop Larkin is basically a crook who we see conning Delamere out of his lovely yellow vintage Rolls-Royce, then fooling the snob Alec into paying over the odds for some tat at the village summer fayre; selfishly preventing Mariette from following her dreams to go to Paris, and then pimping her out to the Inland Revenue inspector so he, Pop, can evade paying tax. The whole Larkin clan are tax-dodging, filthy-rich, brash, vulgar, gluttonous, feral, greedy, sadistic, humblebragging, self-righteous, parasitic yobs who prey on all around them. What’s to like about that? The Larkins should really be subject to an ASBO, and I really wish ITV hadn’t let them out again. Jaded, hackneyed, lazy programming, it’s far from perfick.
‘The Larkins’ continues Sunday 17 October at 8pm on ITV