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TV review: The Larkins and A Year in Provence with Carol Drinkwater

Benjie Goodhart / 08 October 2021

A new series takes another look at the life of The Darling Buds of May's Larkin family, and Carol Drinkwater shows us an idyllic way of live in France.

The Larkins is a simple, heart-warming delight | (C) ITV Plc / Objective Fiction / Genial Productions

The Larkins 1/6, Sunday 10th October, 8pm, ITV

As a rule, I’m pretty keen on telly, which is just as well, given my profession. There’s not much of it that I don’t like. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch a gameshow, and I don’t have the commitment to see through a proper addiction to the soaps, but other than that, I’m pretty happy. High-brow, low-brow, factual, fictional, reality, current affairs, sport, comedy, light entertainment, I’ll watch it all.

Apart from one thing. I’ve always had a complete aversion to whimsical Sunday night dramas. You know the sort of thing: Ballkykissangel, Monarch of the Glen, Heartbeat, Where the Heart Is, that sort of thing. They are all the same: A warm, slightly offbeat look at a rural community, with a cast of ‘amusingly’ eccentric characters, lots of shots of bucolic scenes bathed in sunlight, and everyone getting far too exercised about the new family coming in to run the village shop.

I can’t bear it. It’s all so twee and quaint and vanilla.

So when The Larkins appeared in the TV schedules for this week, my heart grew heavy. As a flagship new ITV drama, I knew I would have to write about it, and I also knew it would irritate the hell out of me.

Well, reader, I was half right. I did have to watch it. And I flipping well loved it. I mean, I shouldn’t have done. All of the tediously predictable tropes of the whimsical Sunday night drama popped up almost immediately: Warm, slightly offbeat look at a rural community? Check.  A cast of ‘amusingly’ eccentric characters? Check. Lots of shots of bucolic scenes bathed in sunlight? Check. Everyone getting far too exercised about the new family coming in to run the village shop? Well, no, in this case the ‘drama’ centred around who was going to be named the Master of Hounds for the local hunt. But close enough.

Maybe I’m growing soft as I approach my sixth decade. Maybe I was won over by an excellent cast. Or maybe I’ve decided that there’s been enough cynicism and misery in the world of late, and that it’s time to take a warm bath in some televisual treacle to sweeten and soothe the soul. Whatever it was, I found the first episode of this new six-part series an absolute delight, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

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In some respects, ITV are taking something of a risk with this series. They had an absolute smash hit with the drama The Darling Buds of May 30 years ago. David Jason, Pam Ferris and Catherine Zeta-Jones starred in the adaptation of H.E. Bates’ novel, and the nation lapped it all up. Apart from me, obviously. It was a whimsical Sunday night drama, after all. But the point is, it was so widely adored, the idea of remaking such a treasured show is not without its pitfalls.

For me, though, unencumbered by a love of the old version, this was a simple, heart-warming delight. Bradley Walsh and Joanna Scanlan are pitch-perfect as Pa and Ma Larkin, funny and generous and not above a little bit of harmless scheming. And the role of Mariette (which, let’s not forget, made a global superstar of Zeta-Jones) is beautifully performed by Sabrina Bartlett (last seen in Bridgerton).

The Larkins live in a delightful, if slightly ramshackle, farmhouse in Kent, near the village of Littlechurch. The village itself is picture-postcard beautiful, and peopled by a retired Indian brigadier, a grumpy, boozy, chain-smoking vicar (Peter Davison on top form), a ditzy but well-meaning shop girl, a pretentious actor (Robert Bathurst), a nervous spinster (Amelia Bullmore) and a snobbish couple called the Normans. All of the characters are comically eccentric, all of the tables are groaning with irresistible roasts and cakes, and everybody wanders around whistling and smiling. If you came across them today, you’d cross the road, assuming they were on drugs. There’s even a maypole, complete with Morris dancers skipping around it.

Reading that back, it all sounds hideously saccharine and, frankly, it is. But if I wanted grim, gritty melodrama with an undertone of menace, I could just switch over to the news. The Larkins is a perfect antidote to Britain in 2021, and I, for one, am all in.

A Year in Provence with Carol Drinkwater 1/6, Sunday 10th October, 9pm, Channel 5

Now that I’m in this delightful warm bath of gentle Sunday evening loveliness, I don’t want to get out. So I’m staying in until my fingers wrinkle up like sun-dried olives. Which brings me neatly on to Sunday night’s next heavenly offering, A Year in Provence with Carol Drinkwater.

You remember Carol Drinkwater, right? I certainly do – be still my beating heart. Along with Isla St Clair, she was my first ever crush. I must have been seven. As a family, we would all sit down on a Sunday night to watch All Creatures Great and Small, and be transported, by that heavenly theme tune, back to 1930s Yorkshire, and to the veterinary surgery at Skeldale House. And oh, how I fell in love with Carol, who played James Herriot’s wife Helen. I’ll never forget the episode where James went off to war (at the end of series three). I cried my eyes out when he said goodbye to Helen. I think it’s fair to say that, even then, I was never destined to be an Alpha male.

But enough about me as a lachrymose child. Let’s talk about Carol.

Almost 40 years ago, when she was in Australia for work, Carol Drinkwater met a dashing German TV producer called Michel. For him it was “love at first sight”. It was much the same for me, but he slightly had the edge on me in the battle for Carol’s affections, as he was a dashing and successful man of the world, and I was an eight-year-old who cried at family TV dramas. He asked Carol out for a drink, and the next day, they went for dinner. Before the first course had arrived, he had asked her to marry him. He worked fast, the scoundrel!

The pair embarked on a life together in France, and over 35 years ago, they bought a dilapidated old olive farm. Today, that olive farm is a beautiful ten-acre haven overlooking the sea outside Cannes, and is a picture-perfect, flower-clad home for the pair. Here Carol writes, Michel cooks, and the pair farm olives from their 300 trees. In this charming six-part series, Carol invites the cameras in to film her idyllic life, and to reveal more about the heavenly place she calls home.

First up, we’re off to the island of Sainte-Marguerite, to a museum with a difference. Opened earlier this year, the underwater sculpture park features six three-dimensional sculptures of human heads situated 3-4 metres down on the seabed. The brainchild of British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, they are thrilling works of art in a unique setting, as a gamely snorkelling Carol can attest.

Next up, our hostess travels to a lavender farm 160 miles northwest of Cannes, to meet Sylvie and her family, who have been farming the flower since 1947. Sylvie’s father, a remarkably sprightly 89, still harvests much of the crop by hand. After that, it is processed into lavender oil. With each hectare of land producing only 15kg of oil, it is understandably pricey, and is known as blue gold.

After the de rigeur trip to the food market (this is France, after all) there’s work to be done in the olive groves. And it turns out that Carol and Michel have adopted a rather unusual organic method of keeping the insects away from their precious fruit. Suffice to say, don’t be surprised if you find sardines hanging from the trees if you’re ever lucky enough to visit Carol and Michel for dinner.

And you would be lucky! The final scene sees the pair, and their nephew Marvin, dining al fresco on Michel’s home-made ratatouille, sipping chilled wine and looking out over the olive groves to the sea. It would be easy to feel jealous and resentful of Carol’s glorious Mediterranean life, but I’ll fight anyone who actually feels that way. Sorry. First crushes never really go away.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 9th October

Live International Football: Andorra v England, 7pm, ITV: Mark Pougatch introduces coverage of England’s World Cup qualifier against the tiny nation that should present Gareth Southgate’s team with few problems.

Princess Michael: The Controversial Royal, 9pm, Channel 5: Profile of the Czech-born member of the Royal Family, who married Prince Michael of Kent in 1978.

Sunday 20th October

Bargain Brits in France 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: Documentary series following the lives of three families relocating for a new life in France.

Angela Black 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt stars as Angela, a seemingly happily-married mum of two with an idyllic life. But she has a dark secret: her husband Olivier (Michiel Huisman) is a violent and manipulative man, who has secrets of his own.

Tom Parker: Inside My Head, 9pm, Channel 4: Former boyband member Tom has an inoperable brain tumour. This feature-length documentary follows him as he negotiates family life, chemotherapy, and organising a massive charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Monday 11th October

Paul Merson: Football, Gambling and Me, 9pm, BBC One: The footballer-turned-pundit bravely opens up about his gambling addiction, and speaks to other footballers who have battled similar demons, before asking whether we are doing enough to prevent young people going down a similar path. 

Tuesday 12th October

Live International Football: England v Hungary, 7:15pm, ITV: More World Cup qualifying action, with England hosting Hungary at Wembley. England won the corresponding fixture 4-0 in Budapest, and will be confident of repeating the feat at home.

Who Do You Think You Are? 1/7, 9pm, BBC One: The genealogy series returns to delve into the backgrounds of another host of famous faces, beginning tonight with comedian Josh Widdicombe, whose roots can be traced back to Tudor nobility.

Wednesday 13th October

Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary revealing how Essex police caught the people responsible for the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the back of a lorry in October 2019. 

Thursday 14th October

Guilt, 9pm, BBC Two: Welcome return of the Scottish crime comedy thriller starring Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives as two brothers who accidentally become embroiled in some dangerously illegal activities.

Friday 15th October

Stand Up to Cancer 2021, 7:30pm, Channel 4: The biennial TV fundraiser returns with its winning mix of comedy and pathos, presented by Davina McCall, Adam Hills, Alan Carr and Maya Jama, plus a host of famous names. Hankies and credit cards at the ready…

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary telling the life story of the hugely successful author, as told by the people who knew her best.

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