Men Behaving Badly’s Simon Nye on new Sunday night drama The Durrells

The cast of The Durrells. Picture: ITV

The cast of The Durrells. Picture: ITV - Credit: Archant

Writer of hit ‘90s sitcom ‘Men Behaving Badly’ Simon Nye talks to Tony Padman about trying to live up to past successes, not pleasing everyone, and adapting the memoirs of much-loved naturalist, Gerald Durrell, for a six-part Sunday night drama series.

Comedy writer Simon Nye. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Comedy writer Simon Nye. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Mention the name Simon Nye to a group of middle-aged men in any pub on a Saturday night and the response you’re likely to get is: Men Behaving Badly. It was the ‘90s lad-culture TV comedy series starring Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey that firmly placed him on the comedy map of Britain and made him a writer of substance.

So when it was announced that he’d got the commission to adapt the much-loved naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy of memoirs – including the classic My Family and Other Animals – as the six-part series The Durrells for ITV, some of the purists must have raised an eyebrow.

However they needn’t have worried because Nye has come a long way since those heady days with adaptations of The Railway Children, Pollyanna and his heartfelt tribute to one of Britain’s best loved comedians in Tommy Cooper: Not Like This, Like That. Just like Tommy Cooper, Gerald Durrell is one of the few real people that Nye has written about.

He feels that both Cooper and Durrell’s stories are great “as long as you are allowed to depart from reality for a little bit – without offending anyone”. He adds that the first thing the Durrell family would probably associate him with is gags – and Men Behaving Badly. “Gerald’s widow Lee understands the demands of TV storytelling and she’s been great,” says Nye, 57, enthusiastically.

“She hasn’t tried to mould what’s there – she knows that TV is different and that you can’t just take the book and faithfully reproduce it because there wouldn’t be much pleasure from that. But I did fret about what she and the family would think.

“Lee knows that Gerald’s books are both a true – and fictional version of reality and Gerald knew that to make a good piece of entertainment you need to distort and embellish and we’re very much in that same spirit.”

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And it’s that same spirit, which drives the drama forward with “vibrant characters” who are according to Nye “in some ways a bit delusional”.

Set in 1935, The Durrells tells the story of Louisa Durrell’s chaotic life after she is left to bring up four rebellious children following the death of her husband. Bereft, broke and no longer able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in Bournemouth, she believes the only way to escape the family’s misery is to re-locate to a new, idyllic life in sunny Corfu.

Nye, who read the books – My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and The Gardens of the Gods – when he was 18, is also the executive producer. As a result, he admits to being “much more active” on this show compared to others.

He explains: “I wanted to follow this drama through its many stages and got involved in the casting. A lot of people auditioned and it’s a tribute to this group of actors – led by Keeley Hawes, who is amazing as Louisa Durrell – that they look like a family.”

Born in Sussex, Nye’s background was in languages, which enabled him to translate books on Wagner and Matisse among others before turning to fiction. He arrived in Camden Town in the early ‘80s, where he found the inspiration for Men Behaving Badly – firstly as a book – from sharing a flat with others.

He recalls: “It was about timing, luck and meeting Beryl Vertue who had read it and wanted to produce it.”

The comedy about two friends, Gary and Tony, who share a flat was a runaway success and lasted six series. But this modest and quietly spoken man is quick to concede that not everything he’s done has hit the jackpot like Men Behaving Badly.

He says: “Some comedies I’ve written haven’t been as successful and while I sometimes dwell on it, they’ve still been fun to do. People are nice to me – except for a few reviewers and that’s probably just as well because you can’t please everyone – especially with comedy and I do like sit-coms.”

Incredibly, Men Behaving Badly was over 25 years ago and it’s led to a variety of writing offers, which brings us to his next assignment and that happens to be a new version of the hit ‘70s comedy: The Good Life.

It’s a challenge he’s faced before when he wrote the revival of The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin –renamed Reggie Perrin starring Martin Clunes. “It went as well as it could have gone,” he reflects. “There again, people have cherished and revered memories of Leonard Rossiter. It was a risk, but the audience figures were fine and Martin did a good job being so different from Leonard.”

With adaptations of popular pantomimes like Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella for television, plus a long list of comedy series and dramas to his name, Nye is a busy man.

He now lives in Belsize Park with his wife Claudia whom he says, smiling, he was introduced to by friends.

“They took pity on me,” he laughs. “They gathered together all their single friends and Claudia and I fitted really well into that single group.” They have four children - just like The Durrells had.

Everyone can be rest assured that The Durrells story is safe in Nye’s capable hands. He has brought wit, warmth and affection to it and besides, he’s the man who adapted My Family and Other Animals in 2004 for an acclaimed BBC TV drama starring Imelda Staunton as Louisa.

But what does he think Gerald Durrell, who died in 1995 aged 70, would make of the series?

“With any show I write, I just want people to watch and enjoy it. I hope it ticks all the boxes, that it’s entertaining and I’ve done my best to get all the zoology in there that Gerald loved so much.”

He pauses to think more about Gerald. “I hope he would approve of the fact that we have brought some of the magic of the natural world to life in The Durrells.”

Episode 1 of The Durrells airs on Sunday on ITV at 8pm.