1991: Looking Back At THE DARLING BUDS OF MAY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1991: Looking Back At THE DARLING BUDS OF MAY

Tony’s feeling perfick.
The Darling Buds Of May, based on the books of HE Bates, was always supposed to be idyllic, rural and a hymn to the pleasures of a hardworking but uncomplicated life. When the books were first published in the 1950s and 1960s, they were in a sense the “A Year in Provence” of their day, showing those who were enduring post-war Britain’s urban shortages and uncertainties a world of rural providence that was surprisingly sex-positive, and filled to the brim with good things – fresh fruit, hand-picked and tasty, fresh drink, some of it home-made and gorgeously lethal, hard work in a healthy outdoor environment rather than a grey cubicle on the fourth floor, and fresh men and women who took attraction, sex and child-rearing more as a part of nature’s bounty than as some trussed-up mortal sin.

They were essentially presenting the Larkin family – Ma, Pop, eldest daughter Mariette (because Marie Antoinette was too long to say, naturally), and various other progeny across the course of the books, as an alternative to the restricted city life. If the Larkins had a philosophy, it would be “Eat, drink, snuggle with benefits, tomorrow we die!” They brought life, abundance, a sense of rural cleanliness and an unrestricted sense of possibilities to a Britain still suffering from the post-war (and post-imperial) doldrums.

Oddly enough, when they came to British TV in 1991, there was a similar mood in the nation. The heady, hedonistic days of unscrupulous Thatcherite profiteering (which was about as close to an imperial spirit of free enterprise and piracy as you could get without actually invading other countries) had given way to the government of John Major, a perfectly pleasant and ultimately, reasonably wise human being with the charisma of cold porridge and the dynamism of drizzle.

As the nation woke up after its privatization binge, it discovered it had lost all the things it thought it had owned, and it had a massive societal hangover. It was run by a government of geese in suits and it felt like the reckless days of abandon were over forever.

And for some reason that no-one really understood, the words “The Maastricht Treaty” were waiting on every street corner, ready to leap out and bore you into an early grave.
But, in 1991, there were the Larkins in their new bodies. Already a national treasure, David Jason was Pop Larkin – and you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d more or less just swapped outfits from his Del Boy character from Only Fools And Horses for quite some way into the three series. Pam Ferris, an actor with an impressive resume in both comedy and drama, joined the fun as Ma Larkin – constantly cooking, almost always giggling, either at some double entendre or at things she simply found too funny, such as the name “Cedric” (you probably had to be there, inside her head…). Mariette was played by a young Welsh actress getting her first exposure on national TV, by the name of Catherine Zeta-Jones. No-one knows what happened to her post-Larkin, it’s one of TV’s enduring mysteries. And Philip Franks added another to his long line of slightly repressed authority figures as Mr Cedric Charlton, known for almost the whole series as Charley.

The lighting, the filming, everything about The Darling Buds Of May was bucolic to a fault. It was soft focus, with lots of seemingly natural light outside to exacerbate the allure of the country lifestyle. And at least until – SPOILER ALERT – Mariette and Charley get together, Catherine Zeta Jones cannot MOVE without exuding fresh, natural, positively glorious allure, both for Charley, and because of the purposefully seductive way her scenes are shot, probably also for great swathes of the British public of all genders and sexualities.

In fact, that’s a large part of the point. Bates’ premise sees ‘Charley’ – a civil servant from the Inland Revenue – sent out to the Larkins to point out that they appear never to have paid any tax.


And almost from the moment he gets there, there’s a multi-level movement to corrupt the civil servant from what he sees as his duty. To strip him of his worries, and introduce him to the Larkins’ more ‘natural’ way of life. Each of the three major Larkins works on him in their own way – Pop with his endless bonhomie and largesse, Ma with her absurdly good cooking of all the fresh ingredients from their 22 acres, and Mariette… well, Mariette with her good-natured enjoyment of all things natural, from listening to nightingales in the woods, to strawberry picking and horse riding, to frank sexual chemistry that initially flusters the repressed, uptight city-dweller.
Initially, the idea is to distract Charley so much that he forgets his nonsense about tax demands, and comes to play in the hay of the Larkins’ natural sense of exuberance and fun. And led by all three of them, representing the mind (Pop), the stomach (Ma), and the somewhere-a-little-lower-than-either-of-them (Mariette), by the end of the first series, Charlie has entirely succumbed to the rural idyll and the charm of the Larkins – as the viewer did in turn, using them as a sun-warm distraction from reality, and an almost hippy-style “taxes are The Man” assertion that made us, if not exactly long to give it all up and go rural ourselves, then at least dream happy dreams of an alternative to the greyness of our existence in the Nineties before ecstasy and rave kicked in in a big way.

In fact, you can think of The Darling Buds Of May as a kind of safe, TV version of ecstasy – you took it regularly, it made colours brighter, and left you with an unreasoning ability to love everybody much more than you could before you experienced it.

In the cold light of day, it’s only fair to point out that the Larkins are fundamentally anti-social. In particular their staggeringly conspicuous spending, while it’s an extension of their natural pleasure-seeking lifestyle, is only possible because they’ve opted out from the taxation system that benefits everyone else. That means their rural idyll of warmth and fruitfulness is bought at the expense of their inclusion in the rest of society – a point that’s regularly made by the likes of the parish council. But it’s also worth noting that the parish council for the most part are always portrayed in The Darling Buds Of May as interfering, judgy busybodies who disapprove of the Larkins more or less out of envy and spite.

There’s something in this. The council – and to some extent, we the viewer – can only bring ourselves to disapprove of the Larkins with reference to the world that exists outside their idyllic bubble. While being in their own way furiously capitalistic (buying and selling all manner of things to raise money and keep it for their own needs) and in their own way, socialistic, (protecting and caring for all members of their community, with little by way of criticism or judgment), the Larkins are divorced from the outside world and its concerns. Their pleasures are for today, and for themselves and those they actively invite in, like Charley. In some ways, the escapism of this dream – dropping out of mainstream society, leaving behind its strictures, and existing in a tax-free rural Utopia – was perfectly timed to lift the spirits of the Fifties and Sixties in Britain, and it worked again in the Nineties, to lift us out of our post-rampage gloom. The Darling Buds Of May on TV was a kind of snowglobe where it never snowed, where a thousand sunbeams in soft focus lit a lifestyle we could mostly only dream of.
You hardly need me to tell you there’s a new version coming, do you? In the post-Brexit (theoretically), post-Trump (hopefully), post-Covid (allegedly) world, we kind of need the Larkins again, and so they’re coming to soothe us. With Bradley Walsh stepping into the role so uniquely carved out by David Jason, there’s every likelihood that the Larkins will do again what they’ve done at least twice before – diverted us from a hard reality and given us lots of lovely things to look at.

The 1991 Darling Buds is a thing of beauty, and technically an alternative lifestyle presented to us like a fairy dream of rural possibility. It brought a gang of actors together who helped imbue the stories with the life and warmth they need if we’re to support the Larkins, rather than hardening our hearts against them. It’s a little cute to remember that the year after he started in this show, David Jason also started starring in A Touch Of Frost, the more hard-bitten and worn-down detective series – which is called having your cake and eating it(!). And Catherine Zeta Jones would eventually use her spellbinding performance in Darling Buds to catapult her to Hollywood success.

Watched again from 30 years down the line, you might struggle to find the point or the pace in many of the show’s 20 episodes. If you do that, you’re already missing the point of The Darling Buds Of May. It was an overall vision, not a tightly-plotted storyline. You were supposed to sip it, not gulp it. And if you did, it would give you a weekly hit of relatively inconsequential rural loveliness.

And who couldn’t do with a bit of that round about now?

Watch The Darling Buds of May today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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