Spoonfuls of Kent’s creamiest ice cream dripped from towering cones and sticky fingers under the dazzling English sun.
“Perfick,” Pop Larkin cried, tossing bulging bags of salty crisps at his ramshackle brood as they squeaked in the back of his battered farm van, mocking their loot.
Messy, cheerful and heady on life. It was our introduction to the Larkins family when the much-loved Yorkshire Television adaptation of HE Bates’ 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May first aired on ITV in April 1991.
Starring Sir David Jason as Pop, Pam Ferris as Ma, Philip Franks as Charley and Catherine Zeta Jones, 20, as the eldest daughter Mariette, he enchanted viewers with his nostalgic nod to an era. where the sun was still shining.
He also captivated his youngest stars. “I just remember being in the back of that truck eating endless ice cream – it was heaven,” laughs Steph Andrews, 39, who played youngest daughter Victoria Larkin at the age of eight.
“That first day of shooting was just ice cream. I was like ‘Is this a job?’ Says Chrissie Giles, 41, who at 10 played the cheeky Petunia Larkin alongside twin Katie as sister Zinnia.
On Sunday, a new adaptation, The Larkins, starring Bradley Walsh as Pop, will air on ITV, promising to be just as uplifting as the ’90s version.
But the memories of filming that first adaptation, which lasted for three series, will always hold a special place for the original Larkin children.
“I just remember being told to roll in the mud to look disheveled,” recalls Julie Stitchbury, 43, who at 11 played the second eldest daughter Primrose in the first series, before older actress Abigail Rokison – now a senior lecturer at The Shakespeare Institute – was brought in for more adult stories.
The younger ones were chosen because they were not trained actors.
Advertisements were placed in Kent newspapers and scenes were filmed in a village near Ashford. Steph said a letter sent to his school appealed to “lively, outgoing children” with “natural Kentish accents”.
Meeting David Jason was an immediate pleasure. “I remember the phone call telling us that David was going to be our father,” Katie smiles. “My big sister was screaming ‘Oh my god, Del Boy is going to be your father’ and we all screamed.”
On the set, he did not disappoint. “He was joking, knocking people’s hats off,” she said. “When they called ‘All the artists on sets’ he would joke, ‘The artists … and the twins!’.”
Chrissie remembers showing up in “a snorkel and fins” for the scene where he and Pam were eating a fry naked in the tub. “I remember he was waddling and everyone was cracking.”
Julie remembers her pants slit in a scene where the farm shed burned down. “In rehearsal we heard that massive tear, everyone was hysterical.”
He was nice too. When the actors traveled to Brittany to film a vacation in France, Julie had her biggest scene with David and was nervous. “He was so nice, he came to my dressing room and sat down and rehearsed with me.”
The holidays were particularly busy for her because she caught chickenpox.
“I must have missed a few days of filming in the UK, so they must have joked on the show that Primrose was in the bath. I was then given the green light to travel to France, but I was covered in scabs so it had to be written in the script.
Julie remembers, “Pam, David and Catherine were so adorable cuddling me. Pam was, they all remember, actually Ma Larkin, giving her regular hugs.
“She loved cats and brought me a kitten picture book,” says Steph, who is now an occupational therapist at the NHS but still lives in Kent.
Her family’s farm is “not a million miles” from the Larkins, she laughs.
Catherine acted as a “big sister” to the children. “She gave us postcards between the sets and a Biggles teddy bear when we went to France,” says Chrissie, from Guildford, Surrey, and now a journalist. “Even at 10, we were like, ‘She’s amazing’.
“We once had Smash Hits magazine on set. Catherine had just released a single and there was a poster of her in it. We ran over to her and she was really excited, she thought it was funny.
The shoot was dominated by food, which wasn’t much fun for the vegetarian Pam, explains Julie.
Still living in Kent, Julie is the only child working on TV, first behind the scenes and later as a cashier on Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep. She now works in a general practitioner practice.
“I remember a scene where we had to feed the geese and the next thing I, Steph and Pam were sitting there plucking them. They were still hot. We also ate them. I remember eating a lot, but much of it was cold by the time you finished take after take. The filming of life was not always as happy as it seemed.
“To film the rain scene in France, we all had to shower in our clothes,” Chrissie recalls.
Steph remembers the swimming pool Pop built – filmed in Leeds – as “absolutely freezing”.
It can also be precarious. The twins had a scene where they had to climb out of the roof of a boarding school. “Everyone was worried about our safety, but we were used to climbing trees,” says Katie, from London, who now specializes in medical law.
Ian Tucker, who played son Montgomery, was born with cystic fibrosis and, despite an early career in theater and television, quit acting to study English.
Between David’s jokes, Pam’s hugs and Catherine’s care, the four women can only remember a warm, family atmosphere on set.
“I remember sitting in Pop’s Rolls-Royce in Philip Franks lap, driving down country roads singing songs from the 1950s,” Katie recalls. “It was like a real family, all crowded together, laughing.”
As viewers, we wanted to join them. No doubt a new generation will too.
* The Larkins, Sunday on ITV at 8 p.m.