All hail the BBC One schedulers. After seven intense, nail-biting Sundays of Line of Duty, they have – in their infinite wisdom – granted us three Sundays of romantic-comic period drama. How delightful! What a treat! The show in question is Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of classic Nancy Mitford novel The Pursuit of Love, featuring such luminaries as Lily James, Emily Beecham, Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Freddie Fox – and it’s just exactly what it needs to be.
Set in the interwar years (and then some of the war years), the story revolves around Linda Radlett (Lily James), who is of the opinion that love is the only thing that matters in the world, above all else. As in the classic novel, her cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) narrates this tale, and it through her sensible eyes that we see flighty Linda. The two girls (turned women) have wildly different personalities, but have an intense, uneven friendship; and while Linda’s love life forms the body of the narrative, it is the cousins’ friendship which is the real beating heart of the story.
Of which, more later. For now, I must tell you a little more about the set-up, and how all those big-name actors fit in.
So: Linda is 17 when the story begins, and living with her mother, father and many siblings in rural upper-class seclusion on the family estate at Alconleigh. Her tyrannical father (played by Dominic West) nurtures a burning hatred of all foreigners (especially Germans), and occasionally hunts his own children on horseback for sport (no joke); he is firmly against the education of daughters. Her mother (played by Dolly Wells) is largely passive. Teenage Linda has a lot of emotions, and she feels them extremely deeply. She yearns to get out there and start living.
On the other hand, we have her practical, conventional, rule-abiding, shy, and well-educated cousin Fanny Logan. As a kid she was repeatedly abandoned by her mother, known only as “The Bolter” (and played, to great comic effect, by Emily Mortimer herself), but she was diligently raised by her Aunt – and she has spent all her Christmases at Alconleigh, hanging out with Linda.
Andrew Scott comes into the story as the eccentric and wealthy Lord Merlin, who lives near Alconleigh and turns up at a ball one evening to dance around with his posse in silk pyjamas in a trippy dream-like sequence. Linda’s father naturally despises him. But Linda is enchanted by Merlin, and he by her; he becomes a sort of mentor, and she a sort of muse.
Like many of the people in Linda’s life (Fanny included), Lord Merlin is always trying to come to her rescue. He also detests every single other man who ever enters Linda’s life, whether that’s aspiring Tory banker Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox), emotionally-detached communist Christian Talbot (James Frecheville), or playboy French aristocrat Fabrice De Sauveterre (Assaad Bouab).
In short, The Pursuit of Love is great fun – and very funny – and, at times, quite touching and sad. The story rattles along through the 1930s and into the 40s, taking us from Alconleigh to London to Spain to France, and back again. It’s pacy, with a modern soundtrack that adds a certain jauntiness; three episodes is exactly the right length.
It is also a beautiful drama to look at. Despite production taking place entirely during the pandemic, The Pursuit of Love was filmed at a variety of good-looking stately homes and National Trust properties. Plus, the costumes are divine – especially Lily James’s glamorous Paris outfits. You’ll see what I mean when we get there.
The big question in Mitford’s novel, and also in Mortimer’s adaptation, is how far you should follow your heart. Is it better to marry sensibly, remain faithful, and devote yourself to your children? (You did, after all, choose to bring them into the world.) Is marriage “wholemeal bread”, like Fanny says: ordinary but sustaining? Or should you pursue love at all costs, as Linda and The Bolter do – even if it means running away and leaving your children behind? There may be no ultimate answer to that conundrum, but the question is prodded and probed until the end.
But what Mortimer really draws out of the story is that relationship between Fanny and Linda, and this is absolutely what made me fall in love with her version of the story. Because there is something very truthful about female friendships in here; something moving and joyful, painful and utterly recognisable.
There’s Fanny, who adores Linda – but resents her self-absorption, and judges some of her life choices; and there’s Linda, who says she can’t live without Fanny – but who shows minimal interest in her life, and is always leaving her behind without much of a thought. Linda brings Fanny alive and pulls her out of her shell in a way that no other person does, but she also breaks her heart over and over again. Fanny is Linda’s anchor, but she has a lot of hidden hurt and anger.
And then just when you think this friendship has turned totally toxic, it turns beautiful again – and you realise they understand each other better than anyone. Oh, those knotty, complex female friendships! Aside from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012) and the Neapolitan Novels (also now adapted into a critically-acclaimed drama), it’s a subject that has rarely been explored so well on the page or screen.
I’ve given The Pursuit of Love four stars, and I might have even given it a five, had the show not employed an irritating dramatic trick that is fast becoming a cliché of TV drama. How annoying is the trend of starting a show off with a key scene from towards the end of the drama, and then flashing back in time to show us “how we got here”? Unnecessary! We didn’t need to start with Linda being bombed out of her London home in the Blitz; the scene did no more than spoil the plot, signposting several things that would happen by the final episode. What’s wrong with keeping things chronological sometimes?
But that’s just a quibble, really. And the performances are truly delightful! Andrew Scott gives Lord Merlin the perfect libertine air, general snottiness and posh drawl. Lily James is both irritating and magnetic as Linda, which I think is exactly right. Emily Beecham is masterful as Fanny, who can appear boring but absolutely is not. Then there’s Emily Mortimer, Dominic West, Freddie Fox… there’s not a dud performance in there, or a dud casting decision.
Will The Pursuit of Love go on to win a bunch of BAFTAs and Golden Globes? Or will it be a pleasing period drama that briefly captures the nation’s attention, and then fades away? Honestly, at this point I’m not sure how the drama will hit, or if this adaptation could become a classic. It could go either way! But I do know that each episode was a joy and a pleasure to watch – and when it comes to Sunday night TV, you can’t ask for more than that.
The Pursuit of Love begins on Sunday 9th May 2021 at 9pm on BBC One, and continues on Sunday evenings. The three-part drama will also be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer. Looking for something else to watch? Take a look at our Drama coverage, or check out our TV Guide.