As far as British period dramas go, there are some characters that are pretty much guaranteed to make an appearance: the wisecracking matriarch, the soldier with a heart of gold, the young couple falling madly, hopelessly, desperately in love.
The latter is of course the most integral part of a period piece, with every show from Bridgerton to Downton Abbey putting a swoon-worthy couple at its centre. Once in a blue moon, however, an old-timey drama diverges from the genre’s cliches and chooses to focus its story outside the realms of romance.
This spring, the BBC is doing just that with its new three-part drama, The Pursuit Of Love. Based on the acclaimed Nancy Mitford novel, on the surface the series is like any other relationship-based drama. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find that the story really revolves around the importance of female friendships. Starring Lily James as the lead character, Linda Radlett, the drama charts Linda’s journey from sheltered 17-year-old to worldly woman alongside her beloved cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham).
Starting in 1920s Oxfordshire, the first episode sees a teenage Linda ‘confined’ to her family’s gigantic countryside estate. While she dreams of escaping her privileged yet stale day-to-day existence, her father, Matthew (Dominic West), forbids her from getting an education, preferring that she stays locked away from prying eyes and books that might (gasp) empower her mind. Thankfully, she is allowed one visitor to keep her company: her favourite cousin, Fanny, who attends a nearby girls’ school.
Although rather different on the surface, the pair’s relationship is deep-rooted, based on thousands of late-night sleepovers and secret meetings held in a cupboard. It’s there that they discuss their detailed plans for their future selves, from Linda’s fantasy fairytale marriage to the Prince Of Wales to Fanny’s somewhat less ambitious relationship with the local postman. Their fantasy suitors speak volumes about their lived experiences: Fanny’s motherless childhood leads her to seek stability, while Linda’s controlled existence sees her craving faraway castles.
With plenty of time to kill before their coming out balls (a high society version of ITV’s Take Me Out), Linda and Fanny have to find other ways to entertain themselves, which leads them to their sophisticated and fantastically fashionable next-door neighbour, Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott). A true embodiment of a Bright Young Thing, he verses the girls in everything from new wave artists to modern literature, showing Linda a world beyond the walls of her stately home. It doesn’t take too long for things to heat up, though, when Lord Merlin’s friend and Oxford student Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox) is introduced to the Radlett cohort.
While the first episode of The Pursuit Of Love does wade into romantic territory, the overall theme of the drama bases itself around familial love. In a world where both young women will be expected to fly the nest and become homemakers, their earnest desire to stay together forever is a reminder of how close friendships can be when you’re young. Sure, there’s a cringeworthy amount of childish giggles and shared bathtimes but watching the characters graduate from romantic teenage dreamers to all-grown-up realists is believable and heartfelt.
This ‘end of innocence’ theme is present in the art direction too, with the punk-inspired soundtrack reminiscent of a ’00s teen movie. From cousin Fanny’s narration to the musical montages of old photos and film clips, the first episode verges on Clueless vibes. Though Linda’s wardrobe is nowhere near as fabulous as Cher Horowitz’s, her demeanour sits firmly in the ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’ rom-com category we’ve come to know, with Fanny’s sensible and bookish sidekick allowing her to shine.
Discussions of classic period drama topics like marriage and children are present and correct but The Pursuit Of Love centres the sweetness of female friendship – a welcome change in a genre that often revolves around men. We’ll have to wait to see how the story progresses but at first glance the series is here to spread the message that romantic love isn’t the only kind that can last forever. And that’s a sentiment we can certainly get behind.
The Pursuit Of Love airs on Sunday 9th May at 9pm on BBC One and will be available on BBC iPlayer soon after.
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