The Darling Buds of May and Kent

Kent Life celebrates The Darling Buds of May 20 years after the loveable, raucous Larkin family first hit our screens as a TV series in 1991

The Darling Buds of May and Kent

Kent Life celebrates The Darling Buds of May 20 years after the loveable, raucous Larkin family first hit our screens as a TV series in 1991

Pluckley near Ashford provided the ‘perfick’ backdrop for the series set in 1950’s Kent, and it was Kent that gave The Darling Buds of May author, H.E Bates, the real-life inspiration he was looking for.

Richard Bates, the author’s son, was executive producer of the series and recalls how the Larkin family came to be born: “Both of my parents were born in the county of Northamptonshire, but my father hated it and he was determined to escape at the earliest possible opportunity.

“The chance came in 1930 when walking through the Kent countryside with my mother he came across a granary for sale in Little Chart, midway between The Weald and the North Downs. My parents turned it into their home and in his autobiography my father reveals that he was hopeful that Kent would provide fresh inspiration for his work.

“Frustratingly, this was not to be the case, partly because the war intervened in 1939 but also, I suspect, because he found it difficult to identify with the very different way of life associated with The Garden of England, so far from the industrial landscape of the Midlands.

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“By the time he had turned 50 I think he had given up any hope of a Kent-based novel, but all of this changed one summer morning when my parents were driving across the Downs towards Sittingbourne.

“They stopped at a village shop for my mother to buy sweets while my father waited in the car. Suddenly the shop door opened and an extraordinary family burst out onto the street: mother and father with a large brood of children hugging bags of crisps and sweets and licking cones of multi-coloured ice-creams. Laughing and shouting, they piled into a big blue truck and disappeared into the summer haze.

“This display of joyous, outgoing family camaraderie - not long after the end of war-time rationing - instantly intrigued him and he began to wonder about this family and the life that they might lead. Around the same time, he also observed the activities of another family on a nearby smallholding and realised that the subjects for his potential Kent novel were, in fact, living on his doorstep. The Larkins were born!”

A star is born

H.E. Bates’ first study of the Larkin family emerged as a short story, but his publisher urged him to expand it into a novel and The Darling Buds of May was produced in 1957, followed by a further four novels.

In 1959, the Hollywood film company MGM bought the film and television rights to the first novel and it wasn’t until 1989 that Richard Bates had the opportunity to buy back the television rights. At the same time, Yorkshire Television was looking for a new project for David Jason who had just had a big success for them in A Bit of a Do.

It wasn’t long before the deal was done and casting was underway. With David Jason taking the lead role, Pam Ferris was cast as Ma Larkin and Philip Franks in the role of Mr Charlton, or ‘Charley’. Finding the right actress for the flirtatious Mariette, described in the books as a black-haired and olive skinned beauty, was more difficult.

More than 300 actresses were auditioned with no one coming close to H.E. Bates’ description. Finally, with filming due to start, Catherine Zeta Jones was spotted appearing in 42nd Street at the Drury Lane Theatre in London and the rest is history.

Overnight success

When the first episode was shown to the press ahead of its first airing, no one quite anticipated quite what a success it would be, including Richard Bates himself.

“I remember that transmission was set for 8pm on the third Sunday in April, 1991,” he says. “The weather was dull so people were not likely to be out and about, despite the fact that the evenings were light; the Gulf War was over and everyone needed something to cheer them up, so we were hopeful of a good rating.

“My phone rang early on Monday morning. It was my fellow executive producer from Yorkshire Television. He was breathless with excitement. The overnight ratings were in, he explained, and they were phenomenal.

“The Darling Buds of May had overtaken Coronation Street, which usually occupied the top position in the National Audience Ratings. This was unprecedented. No programme in the history of British broadcasting had ever reached the top of the ratings with its very first episode. We were an overnight sensation and the phone did not stop ringing all week.”

A lasting legacy

Twenty years later the memories are still strong and every summer The Darling Buds of May Classic Car Meeting is held at the farm near Pluckley that was used for the series.

“The car show confirms the continuing fascination the public has for the series,” adds Richard. “This enjoyable day out is attended by hundreds of fans of the Larkins as well as cars of the period and it raises thousands of pounds. So the legacy of my father’s struggle to find a unique story of Kent life has resulted in ongoing support for a wide range of local charities. He would have been very proud of that.”

The Larkin lifestyle in Kent today

The Darling Buds of May evokes a gentler bygone way of life. However, many of the things that made that lifestyle possible are still very much part of Kentish life today.  It is no coincidence that local food and produce in particular play a starring role in the TV series. 

Local strawberries crop up in numerous episodes and one of the major storylines is Mariette and Charley’s dream venture to buy a quintessentially Kentish hop garden and run their own brewery – scenes that were shot at Faversham’s Shepherd Neame Brewery. 

The Larkin’s kitchen is also a haven of local produce, overflowing with home-grown fruit, vegetables, local meats and eggs from their own hens.

That taste of Kent is still to be found and is thriving right across the county with a vast array of Kent produce from traditional orchard fruits to baked goods, local meat, award-winning wines and even tea. Restaurants and outlets throughout the county are proud to serve and stock local produce and Kent has more than 40 Farmers’ Markets.

The Darling Buds of May trail

For fans of the Larkins, or the lifestyle they represent, a new tourist trail has been put together by Kent County Council Film Office, Visit Kent and Produced in Kent, so visitors can experience the sights, smells and tastes of idyllic rural Kent.  It includes locations used in the series for a glimpse behind the scenes.

The Darling Buds of May trail is available online from 15 July and to mark its launch, a fantastic prize for two people will be up for grabs.  Visit the Kent Film Office stand at the County Show, Detling, 15-17 July and click on ‘Links’ at: for more information.

Did you know?

•           The Darling Buds of May was first produced as a novel in 1957

•           Hollywood film company MGM bought the film and TV rights in 1959 and it wasn’t until 1989 that son of H.E. Bates, Richard, had an opportunity to buy back the television rights

•           The series first aired in April 1991

•           It went straight to the top position of National Audience Ratings with its first episode

•           Each one-hour episode took two weeks to shoot and another two months post production time

•           300 girls were auditioned for the part of Mariette before Catherine Zeta Jones was found

•           In 1992 Sir David Jason won Best TV comedy actor at the British Comedy Awards

•           H.E. Bates took the title from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18