The sight of the family leaving the village shop in Kent was extraordinary. Six children and their parents chatting loudly, each sucking on huge multicolored ice creams and nibbling on bags of chips at the same time. And then they all got on a rickety old truck that was unmistakably painted electric blue.
The writer HE Bates, who waited for his wife to finish shopping at the same store, knew they were exactly what he was looking for. He’d had the idea of writing a different book than the serious novels he was known for, and now he’d found a family he could make up stories about.
“A remarkable family,” Bates later wrote of the people who inspired The Darling Buds Of May.
‘Father, a perky, cheerful character with dark sideburns, Ma, a young handsome woman of enormous size, dressed in a bright salmon-colored sweater and trembling with laughter like a jelly, and six children, the eldest of them a beautiful dark-haired girl of 20 or so.
Marion Rogers, 82, talks about her connection to The Darlings Buds Of May as it is revealed that HE Bates was inspired by her family when he saw them leave a village store in Kent. Pictured: Marion, the inspiration for HE Bates’ character Mariette, 16 years old
‘As they got into the truck, there was an air of joyful and uninhibited surrender. Wild laughter echoed down the village street and the whole scene could be from Merrie England.’
The book about the rambunctious Larkins – wily Pop, food-loving Ma and their lovely daughter Mariette – was a hit around the world when it was published in 1958, and Bates wrote a further four novels about them. But it wasn’t until the hit TV series based on the books starring David Jason, Pam Ferris, and Catherine Zeta-Jones aired in 1991 that the Dell inspirational family began to suspect that they had been immortalized in print. .
Now, with a new ITV adaptation airing Sunday night, Marion Rogers, 82, a great-grandmother of nine and the beautiful young daughter spotted by Bates that day, is speaking about the connection for the first time.
“My mother Win’s favorite color was blue, so we painted the truck that color,” recalls Marion. “And we were certainly many—there were 11 children in all—although we rarely all went out at once.
“I loved the show The Darling Buds Of May and David Jason was a lot like my father William. He was not like other fathers – he was a man who lived by reason.
And just like Pop on the original show, Dad kept the money rolled up and tied with an elastic band. Whether I was the beautiful young woman of the family, that’s for others to say. I know I never looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones!’
It was Marion’s younger brother David Dell who first realized that his family was Bates’s inspiration, but it took decades for him to get it all together. He was a builder in his thirties and had enrolled in an evening creative writing class.
Marion’s younger brother David Dell spent decades thinking that his family had inspired Bates. Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Mariette in the 90s
The first essay he got was about a childhood vacation, and David remembered his first trip to Margate in the family’s truck, eating brightly colored ice creams and packets of crisps, and the serious-looking man waiting in his car. and stared at them and at whom they had laughed. The day burned bright in his memory.
He wrote the story for his class and thought nothing more of it. Ten years later, he settled down to watch the new TV hit The Darling Buds Of May.
Not only did it feel like an era he remembered, but the people and their truck all looked very familiar. So David started investigating HE Bates to find out if there was any chance he might have run into the family while they were on one of their adventures.
And then he read about Bates’s memory of the meeting outside a village store and was convinced that the Dells were the family Bates had seen. David wrote about it in his local newspaper.
I never looked like Catherine Zeta-Jones!
Inexplicably they ignored him. It wasn’t until ten years later that he told the story to one of his sisters. A local historian was notified and the whole story became public.
There were six children for the trip to Margate that day, including Marion, one of the middle children. The four eldest were already married (the fifth had died a few months after she was born) – so Marion was the eldest that day, about 18 years old. David was about seven or eight years old.
“We used to take the truck to Margate,” recalls Marion.
“We were such a big family that we couldn’t move in a car. My father had put a tarpaulin for the roof and a mattress on the floor – Mama would have made sure it was comfortable – and off we went.’
Marion was probably already in love when Bates saw her, as she had met engineer John Rogers in a movie theater queue. Pictured: Sabrina Bartlett as Mariette in the new series
The family then lived on a farm in Buckinghamshire. William had bought a house in the village and turned it into a shop where Marion worked. While it sold food produced on the farm, it also sold whatever he picked up during his travels.
“He went to furniture sales and bought pieces,” recalls Marion. “Sometimes there was no room in the store, so he would take it home and put it all on the lawn and people would come and watch.”
Despite her huge brood, Win ruled the house and kitchen with a firm but loving hand.
“Mama always said you only needed to hear two words from her; because no meant no and yes meant yes and there was no point in whining. She was the sweetest lady.
“Mom loved children and when she couldn’t have any more babies, she started taking care of them. She won a prize for the best-preserved family at a summer party.’
Like Ma Larkin, she was also a brilliant cook. ‘She made cakes and such, but her specialty was toffee, I can still smell it’, Marion laughs. “She also made wine for the neighbors to enjoy.”
By the time of the Margate trip, Marion was probably already in love. While Mariette falls in love with tax inspector Cedric “Charley” Charlton, Marion met engineer John Rogers in line at the cinema and it was love at first sight.
Marion admitted she’s already a big fan of the new show because she got tired of the obnoxious stuff on TV. Pictured: Sabrina Bartlett as Mariette in the new series
“He’s the love of my life,” she says. “From the moment I saw him, I wanted to marry him. We have had a wonderful life; we had two sons, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.”
Just before the Margate trip, William bought a dilapidated hotel called Avoncliff in Wiltshire, and that’s where the Dells’ story got a little dark. William left Win for another woman, who became his second wife, barely seeing his children for ten years.
When his second wife died a decade later, he returned to Win. Marion was living in Poole at the time. “I don’t want to upset myself by thinking about it,” she admits. “It was hard for my mother, but my father came back and they remarried.”
Today, seven of the Dell children survive and regularly talk to each other on the phone.
“If something happens in the family, everyone knows within hours,” says Marion. “We don’t see each other much, but we do love each other.”
She is already a big fan of the new show. “It’s just delicious,” she says. ‘I got a little tired of all the unpleasant things on TV. This show is something to have a little laugh about. The girl who plays Mariette is very good – they all are.
“It’s been a long time, but it feels like the Larkins have more money floating around than we do. It was quite a difficult, frugal time, but I don’t look back, just ahead – what I do like to do is smile.’
The Larkins, tomorrow, 8pm, ITV.