Don’t believe The Pursuit of Love – not all aristocrats are bigots, buffoons and bounders

Lily James as Linda in The Pursuit of Love - BBC
Lily James as Linda in The Pursuit of Love - BBC

Emily Mortimer’s production of The Pursuit of Love presented her with an interesting conundrum. She was not just bringing the eccentric aristocracy to the screen, she was adapting them from Nancy Mitford’s adaptation, so she was already two steps away. A series such as The Crown is easier to dissect since it is the fictionalisation of real life people – it makes no attempt at reality at all, but does the unforgivable thing of creating cooked up situations for real people to the point that a large number of viewers – and even documentary makers - believe it to be true.

Nancy Mitford was writing about the dilemma of finding love, something which eluded her in life. So whereas The Pursuit of Love does deal with an aristocratic family, it is more about love than class. In books, Nancy Mitford and her friend, Evelyn Waugh, did a good job at portraying the aristocracy. This is never so easy when the exercise is brought to the screen; it seems to be the rule that they must be portrayed as absurd figures, living rarefied and privileged lives.

There is little mileage in presenting peers as men weighed down with the responsibility of running a large estate, or spending hours in committee meetings in the House of Lords, tidying up clumsy legislation. Instead they must be portrayed as "toffs" – versions of Mr Nice-but-dim – leading lives so distant from normality as to be ridiculous – often as chinless wonders, talking of huntin’ and fishin’, incapable of understanding anything not directly relevant to them.

Emily Mortimer knows this world well. She is the daughter of Sir John Mortimer, who wrote a screenplay for the wonderful 1981 series of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (though in the end it was not used), but I bet she was brought up on it. She was at Oxford, and she appeared in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (2003). I much enjoyed her in the role of the perfect sweet girl in both Notting Hill and Matchpoint.

Her task was to make the world of the aristocracy relevant to viewers reared on series such as Downton Abbey. She does so by further exaggerating the portrayals, the incidents and the violence, introducing bizarre touches by way of music and flashing images more appropriate to nightclubs such as Xenon in New York.

At times I thought her production influenced by Brideshead, or by the smouldering versions of DH Lawrence films (all those girls in baths), and then it veered towards the 2014 film, The Riot Club – inspired by the excesses of the Bullingdon Club. But overall she was faithful to the 1945 novel.

There did seem to be very few servants around in the stately homes (maybe this was due to Covid restrictions). All we saw was the odd car door or front door being opened by a liveried figure. So we were spared the bobbing maids that used to annoy Lady Diana Cooper so much whenever they appeared on screen. "Yes M’Lady," the maid would say and then drop a curtsey. "Nonsense," said Diana. "I only saw that for royalty." And yet of course the viewer does have to have it banged home to them - who is the lady of the manor and who the servant. That is the device.

Why does no film production ever allow a white tie to rest on, rather than under, the wing collar? Witness the dull peers in the desultory ball scene. Did we need Linda’s line: "I masturbate every time I think about Lady Jane Grey"? That was most certainly not in the text. And Nancy Mitford, whimsical guide to "U" and "Non-U", would have blanched at Lily James and her pronunciation of "perr-fect", thrice delivered. Thank goodness there were no racing scenes – so we were spared ‘Ass-cott’.

The Mitford sisters in 1935 - Alamy
The Mitford sisters in 1935 - Alamy

The real life ‘Uncle Matthew’, Lord Redesdale, was an interesting mixture of the absurd and the conscientious. He was amused by his fictional portrayal. In the book Nancy has him railing against ‘Frogs’, ‘Dagos’ and ‘Huns’, whacking his children, hunting them with bloodhounds, loathing clever females, bellowing at housemaids, reading but one book (that was enough) and so on, already an over-the-top depiction of many a country squire of the day. In real life the children liked to see how far they could tease him before he resorted to rage. Their line was ‘his bark was worse than his bite.’

Again in real life, James Lees-Milne related how he upset Lord Redesdale by an injudicious remark at dinner about how it would be a good idea to make friends with the Germans since the war was now over by eight years. Lord Redesdale flushed scarlet, called him a "damned young puppy" and stormed out. The daughters chanted in unison: "We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go." Lees-Milne set off in the rain to find his motor scooter would not work. Forced to return to the house in a bedraggled state, the peer greeted him, plied him with whisky and urged him to stay another week.

In this production, there is little humour in ‘Uncle Matthew.’ Watching Dominic West in the part, I wondered if ‘Uncle Matthew’ had been inspired by General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, he of the one arm, the one eye and the one VC. (Certainly West should be cast as that splendid general one day). Incidentally, Debo claimed that they all knew perfectly well that the entrenching tool had been wielded by Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss, a gallant (once court-martialled) First World War soldier.

I don’t know why Emily Mortimer wreaked such havoc with Lord Merlin. Mark McGinness, Instagrammer extraordinary, with an encyclopedic knowledge of this world, has pointed out that Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin is hardly Lord Berners, as in the book, but more Robert Heber Percy, his heir at Faringdon, known as ‘Mad Boy’ for his wild and erratic behaviour. Here Scott seems to have based the inspiration for his character on Rupert Everett, Julia Roberts’s friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Lord Berners approving costumes for a his new ballet, in 1939 - Getty
Lord Berners approving costumes for a his new ballet, in 1939 - Getty

Since Lord Merlin provides an element of reason in the novel and even in this series, he would have been better portrayed as a rotund, avuncular, albeit mischievous figure. In real life Lord Berners was much given to teasing. He penned a satire called The Girls of Radcliff Hall, in which he was the schoolmistress presiding over a bunch of naughty girls, based on Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Peter Watson.

I cannot resist adding that I caught the tail-end of that world. I stayed at Faringdon (Merlinford) in Robert Heber Percy’s day, and he still dyed the doves, which had the unfortunate effect of making them vulnerable to predators. (I missed a trick when a day tripper asked how they got green ones. I should have said how hard it was to get a blue one to mate with a yellow one to make a green one. It would have been in the spirit of the "tease".)

Whatever conflicting views people have of this series, surely they will come away with the impression that these aristocrats are some kind of alien race. It is always the cheap jibe in a film that gets the laugh – a doctor discussing "the royal stool" with Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul, or the Duke of York standing on ceremony as to how he is to be addressed in The King’s Speech. The aristocracy and their foibles may be subtly explored in books, but on the screen they have to be caricatures.