For as long as I can remember, Sunday nights have been the home of the kind of TV drama cunningly designed to warm the sternest of heart cockles. Think, for example, of Robert Hardy cheerfully bellowing his way through almost every scene of All Creatures Great and Small (‘PASS THE SALT, JAMES!’). Or of Pop Larkin’s impressive commitment to chuckling indulgently in The Darling Buds of May. Or of Heartbeat somehow racking up 372 episodes.
Even so, ITV has now taken this tendency to surprising new lengths, with not one but two Sunday-night dramas that run consecutively and contain such traditional elements as gorgeous sun-dappled scenery, cute animals, gruff old-timers with hearts of gold and any number of lovable eccentrics.
First up, at 8 p.m., is The Durrells, now back for a third series, but clearly in no mood to change a winning formula. The opening episode began with a voiced-over letter from Mrs Durrell (Keeley Hawes) to her Aunt Hermione obligingly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened to her family since we last saw them — not a great deal, as it turned out. And with that, the programme got down to the serious business of making sure we liked it.
In this aim, very little is left to chance. For one thing, the Corfu setting, and everybody in it, remain unremittingly charming. But perhaps more importantly, the show — based loosely on Gerald Durrell’s memoirs of his early life — is as considerate as ever when it comes to sparing us from having to do much work.
Particularly helpful here are the Durrells themselves, with their pathological aversion to the unsaid. In some families (maybe even a few of our own) one or two of the members might keep one or two of their feelings hidden from each other. Here, though, nobody concerned — including the viewers — is ever left in any doubt as to what anybody is thinking at any given moment. Equally reassuring, meanwhile, is the certainty that no problem will prove intractable — or, indeed, all that problematic.
In Sunday’s main plot, middle brother Leslie found himself juggling three girlfriends, a situation that, naturally, his siblings and mother were soon aware of. For the purposes of the drama, this briefly filled Mrs D. with some alarm, but naturally, too, she needn’t have worried. A few mildly comic misunderstandings later, Leslie had made his choice, and although it differed from his mother’s, she didn’t mind in the least. After all, as Aunt Hermione put it, somewhat anachronistically for someone speaking in 1937: ‘Good parenting isn’t about meddling in your children’s lives. It’s about loving them.’
And in the unlikely event that this didn’t leave your heart warm enough, you didn’t have to wait long for The Good Karma Hospital — a programme so similar in tone that it felt almost as if ITV had spent the ad break speedily replacing the Greek music, fauna and scenery with their Indian equivalents.
The series features Amrita Acharia as Dr Ruby Walker, who, after getting fed up with her life in Britain, is now working in a hospital in southern India run by Amanda Redman in her usual role as a wise and tough-but-kindly old broad. Needless to say, as a young woman, Ruby has to deal with her unfair share of blokes who’ve yet to be convinced that she’s up to the job, and who communicate their sexist suspicions largely through the medium of looking askance.
One rural patriarch, mind you, took the process further than most by shouting ‘What are you? A girl of 15 or 16?’ and threatening to hit her with a stick. Fortunately, once her all-round competence had saved his son, he was instantly converted to the feminist cause. As was Ruby’s hunky colleague Gabriel, who’d disagreed with her diagnosis and was duly shown to be wrong. (‘Sometimes it’s hard being a man in a woman’s world,’ observed Amanda Redman’s character in a neat summary of pretty much all current TV drama. ‘Being born with a penis is a huge disadvantage.’)
Of course — as I’ve possibly demonstrated — it’s easy to be sniffy about this sort of programme. Yet there has to be some reason why The Durrells and The Good Karma Hotel are so popular that on Sunday BBC1 more or less gave up the ghost by showing only a film against them. That reason, I’d suggest, is their neat combination of shamelessness and undeniable efficiency. ‘OK,’ the makers seem to be saying, ‘so you’ve seen plenty of shows like this already — but, if you’re honest, isn’t that because we all enjoy a pleasantly undemanding and good-natured wallow every now and then?’ And annoyingly enough, this might well be true.