The name Catherine Zeta-Jones conjures images of smouldering glamour, Zorro–slashed dresses and Jazz-era stockings – not Yorkshire tea and the sod of God’s own county. The Hollywood star nevertheless had her breakthrough not, as we might remember now, in the 1998 swashbuckler hit The Mask of Zorro, but in more humble territory: early Nineties ITV comedy-drama.
The Darling Buds of May, broadcast between 1991 and 1993 and based on the eponymous H. E. Bates novel series from the late 1950s, follows the boisterous Larkin family – Ma, Pop and their brood of children – making a haphazard living on their farm in rural Kent. Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Mariette, the stunning eldest daughter and eventual wife of tax-collector Cedric “Charley” Charlton. The role propelled Zeta-Jones to instant British recognition – and opened the floodgates to a tabloid frenzy that, in her own words, made her life hell.
Now the inevitable reboot, The Larkins, which debuted on ITV last night, sees another young actress step into the role – Sabrina Bartlett, 30, known from Bridgerton as the steamy soprano Siena Rosso. And as we reevaluate the effect of media scrutiny and paparazzi harassment on female celebrities of the Nineties and Noughties, a conversation about Zeta-Jones feels long overdue.
Unlike many “classic” shows of the era, which to see as national treasures require rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, The Darling Buds was an immediate hit: the first new series to ever top the ratings from pilot. David Jason, who played Pop, was already burned into public consciousness as Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. The idealised view of the English countryside and familial warmth was a balm after Gulf War-era violence, and chimed with a renewed sense of hope. In 2016, Zeta-Jones told The Telegraph (when discussing the possibility of a big-screen adaptation): “It touched people’s hearts, it was warm nostalgia. There was an innocence to that time.”
But it was the voluptuous, 21-year-old Zeta-Jones as Mariette that really captured the public’s imagination – and the media’s attention. So accustomed are we now to an American accent in big blockbuster films, you could almost forget her Celtic roots. The daughter of a sweet salesman and a seamstress, Zeta-Jones was born and raised in humble Mumbles. By the age of 15, she had dropped out of school without qualifications, and moved to London to act in musical theatre performances. But nothing could have prepared the young performer for the reception to Darling Buds. “Literally, with one hour of television my life completely changed,” Zeta-Jones said in 2004. “I couldn’t go anywhere.”