Former Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") clearly puts no stock in the old showbiz admonition against working with children and animals.
The pixieish actress stars as a resourceful English widow surrounded by her large brood and just about every form of critter imaginable in "My Family and Other Animals," a delightful family comedy premiering Sunday, April 9, on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" (check local listings).
"Having played Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz' many years ago, I had covered that [working with children and animals business], really, so this wasn't daunting in that respect," Staunton says by phone from England, where she currently is filming "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
"Bottom line is, it's a wonderful script, and that for me is what's important, and the other things are just made to work. The thing that hampers you is that children can't work all day, so you have to stop at a certain time as you lose the kids. But the tortoises were very keen, I have to say."
Adapted from the best-selling memoir by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell, "My Family and Other Animals" recalls the idyllic childhood years Durrell spent with his eccentric family on the Greek isle of Corfu.
As the story opens in 1935, 12-year-old Gerald (Eugene Simon, "Casanova") and his siblings are nearing the end of their rope with the rainy climate of their native England. At the suggestion of oldest son Larry (Matthew Goode, "Match Point"), long-suffering Mrs. Durrell (Staunton) decides to make a leap of faith and move to Greece with her four children: Gerald and Larry; middle brother Leslie (Russell Tovey, "Poirot"), a gun-obsessed sportsman; and teenage sister Margot (Tamzin Merchant, "Pride & Prejudice"), whose budding beauty causes quite a sensation among her new Greek neighbors.
Once in Greece, the unflappable Mrs. Durrell moves her family from villa to villa to accommodate its changing needs, especially when Larry, a budding avant-garde writer who will grow up to write "The Alexandria Quartet," keeps inviting even more eccentric friends to join him in sunny Corfu. Meanwhile, young Gerald discovers his destiny as a student of nature, surrounded by the myriad insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals the island has in abundance.
While more traditional parents may find themselves startled by the rather bohemian lifestyle Mrs. Durrell tolerates and even embraces for her family, Staunton applauds her for her courage and for recognizing that her unconventional children might best thrive in an unconventional household.
"I think you can see from the start that this is a family of eccentrics, all of them," Staunton says. "She was widowed, and I think you see that she believes in grasping the moment as it happens and thinking, 'Oh, to hell with it!' For a single parent, as it were, to go to a very male-dominated island, Corfu, and to make her way and survive, I think is absolutely remarkable.
"Certainly you think the world is a better place for having had Gerald Durrell in it, and certainly the animals also gained from his life. So I think she was just incredibly brave. I also think there is an awful lot to be said for the university of life."
And while Mrs. Durrell might appear to let her children have the upper hand all too often, especially bossy Larry, she clearly knows where to draw the line, as in one memorable scene where she tells Larry, "You are my son, not my husband, and you are not driving this slightly ramshackle vehicle," referring to the family.
"It's all very well and good to see this woman as being quite eccentric and even daft in some respects, but I honestly think it takes a will of iron to get through what she got through," Staunton says. "I think she must have had a strength that was disguised by all the [dithering]. It may not seem like it, but I think she thinks very seriously about what she is doing. I think she has an inner core, which is part of that whole British stiff-upper-lip thing: 'We're going there, and we'll do it somehow.' And she makes it work."
As the years pass, Mrs. Durrell begins to consider shipping Gerald off to boarding school, fearing that his formal education is lackluster, despite Gerald's protests that "I like being half-educated; you're so much more surprised at everything when you're ignorant!"
Ultimately, however, the growing clouds of World War II send the Durrells back to England, accompanied by Gerald's menagerie, which has grown so large that a puzzled official notes the party as being "one traveling circus and staff."
Staunton says she greatly enjoyed her own, much shorter season in Corfu while filming this production.
"We did terribly well, actually, doing the whole thing in five weeks, I think," she says. "It was all day, every day. It was both hard work and great fun, filming there on Corfu. I had been there many years ago, and my family and I went out a week before we started filming so we could have a little holiday before I started filming.
"What's wonderful about filming like this is you get to see wonderful places that you'd never get to see as a tourist. The houses, the villas you see, are all 300- and 400-year-old houses that have just been left. It was so wonderful to go up into the mountains and just see these extraordinary places that we would never have had a chance to see otherwise."
Originally broadcast in England last Christmas, "My Family and Other Animals" drew rave reviews from the U.K. press.
"I was away when it was on, but I have had loads of people telling me, 'I loved it!'" Staunton says. "The response has just been fantastic over here, so I really hope it's well-received in America.
"This was a delightful job, but you can only do your work 'on the day' and then walk away and hope for the best. I'm so happy at how this turned out, just a lovely piece of work that started with a very fine piece of writing, plus some very competent actors."