Adapted from Nancy Mitford’s breakthrough novel, the BBC drama also stars Dominic West and Andrew Scott
From the first moments of The Pursuit of Love (BBC One), it’s clear Bridgerton is going to cast a long shadow over this period bonkbuster. Netflix’s Christmas-time romp made up for its lack of subtlety with overflowing enthusiasm. Out of the window went any fidelity to history or nuance; in came costumes as bright as sweet wrappers, lavish sets, a knowing tone, and oodles of very 21st-century shagging. It was as if the algorithm had cast its eye over all previous examples of the genre and sifted what audiences pretended to like from what they actually liked. The viewing figures were monstrous.
Rather than a loose “Regency” period, The Pursuit of Love, adapted from Nancy Mitford’s breakthrough novel, is mostly set in the years leading up to the Second World War. It’s the twilight of that upstairs-downstairs Wodehousian vision of Edwardian England, in which everyone spends all their time in big houses moaning about how ghastly everything is. Our narrator, Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham), is a bookish but not irredeemably nerdy young woman, who was taken under the wing of her uncle Matthew Radlett (Dominic West) when her mother, “The Bolter”, abandoned her as a baby for a life of serial romance. Fanny’s best friend is her cousin Linda Radlett (Lily James), Matthew’s sprightly second daughter, whose head is filled with nothing but romantic fantasies. Cooped up in the grand old Radlett house, the teenage cousins share baths, beds and dreams of escape. Specifically, with boys. Possibilities finally arrive in the shape of Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott) and the Bright Young Things he hangs out with. Linda’s eye is taken by Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox), a central-casting young Bullingdon chin who is obviously bad news, set to be the first in a series of unhappy liaisons.
Despite superficial differences, with its frank contemporary sexuality, abrupt comedy and elaborate set pieces, The Pursuit of Love feels like a post-Bridgerton work. Lord Merlin’s arrival, with carnivalesque costumes and a dance routine set to T-Rex, is a case in point. Free to pout and strut and grumble like a teenager, James relaxes more into her role than she did on her last outing, as a lovestruck archaeologist in The Dig. Fox has a ball in a part he was born to play. Continuing his recent tradition of only playing gigantic bastards, West cracks whips, “hunts” his own children on horseback and grumbles about “the hun”, eight of whom, he likes to remind us, he bludgeoned to death with an entrenching tool in 1915.
The challenge of adapting Nancy Mitford is to retain the desired acid without lapsing into charmlessness. It’s a delicate balance. The script, by Emily Mortimer, who also directs and stars as The Bolter, weaves the original novel together with other Mitford material. At one point in the first episode, Linda confides to Fanny that she masturbates whenever she thinks about Lady Jane Grey. It’s a Mitford line, but pilfered from a letter to Evelyn Waugh rather than the source text. In 2021, we can stomach the full private Nancy, rather than what was acceptable to the reading public in 1945. All the same, at times the adaptation doesn’t seem to know how fully to commit to all the cruelty. Mitford’s great gift was to be an equal-opportunities assassin. U or Non-U, few of her subjects emerge unscathed. In TV, though, it helps to have someone to root for. Perhaps for that reason, this adaptation, for all its technical proficiency, crisp one-liners and confident performances, sometimes feels a little chilly. Admiration comes more easily than love.