The Pursuit of Adaptations

The verdicts on the recent BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love are decidedly mixed. This is not surprising, since the advance announcements indicated this version would take a fresh approach, given that there had been two earlier traditional adaptations in the 1980s (ITV) and 2000s (BBC).

–The Daily Telegraph’s Anita Singh is one of those who mostly liked the new version. Here are some excerpts from her review:

The Pursuit of Love (BBC One) is good fun. This is mostly because it is adapted very faithfully from the Nancy Mitford source novel about eccentric English aristocrats, which is a sublimely funny piece of work, and you’d have to be a frightful Counter-Hon to stuff it up completely.

It is enjoyable, and the first episode is quite the best.[…]  But its leading lady is all wrong, despite looking the part.[…] Emily Mortimer [who wrote the adaptation and directed] is clearly besotted with her leading lady [Lily James], and the camera lingers on her throughout. […]

Linda Radlett should be exasperating, but in this adaptation she is simply annoying. Mitford’s novel is a hilarious depiction of the upper classes, […] But it often seems as if James and Emily Beecham [who plays Fanny, the narrator] believe themselves to be appearing in a po-faced, joke-free period drama, which makes for an uneven tone…

–Lucy Mangan writing in the Guardian had not read the book (or anything else by Mitford). She also liked the adaptation. Here’s an excerpt from her review of Episode One:

…The hour moves at pace. […] The fun – and funniness – here is thanks again to such a deft, intelligent and loving script from Mortimer. It is edged with melancholy, and beneath it all lies a throb of pain. This is what may convert even the fans most hostile to the idea of messing with their heroine’s work. …

–In the New Statesman, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett admitted she was not a Mitford fan but found the adaptation had things she liked:

Is it that I’m allergic to posh people? Sometimes I have wondered. But it can’t be that. Given half a chance I’d abolish the aristocracy, but I’m not such an ardent lefty that I can’t recognise how hilariously funny they can be. I love Evelyn Waugh; I grew up on a diet of PG Wodehouse. During lockdown last year, I almost considered reading all 12 volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which as far as I can tell from the TV series mainly consists of people from Eton bumping into one another. […] Then again, not buying into Mitford madness does have its benefits: my loyalty to the novel was zero, so I quite enjoyed Emily Mortimer’s adaptation. Perhaps I’ll read the book (again) alongside it, and will develop strong views on the matter, though what usually happens is I get bored and decide to read Vile Bodies or The Loved One again instead, while everyone tells me what I’m missing.

–Flora Watkins in The Spectator, on the other hand, found six other series that she recommended watching for those who share her negative feelings about Mortimer’s adaptation of Pursuit:

The actress Winona Ryder once declared that if anyone attempted to film The Catcher in the Rye, she’d have to burn the studio down, such was her love for the book.

There’s many a Mitfordian wishing they could enact this retrospective action on the new BBC production of The Pursuit of Love. RAGE-messaging amongst my friends began even before Emily Mortimer’s directorial debut dropped on the iPlayer. ‘There’s not a single line from the book in the trailer!’ ‘Has she actually read the book?’ ‘Let’s go and crack stock whips under her window’.

There’s so much not to like about it (Andrew Scott’s viciously fabulous Lord Merlin notwithstanding): the jarring soundtrack lifted from Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the loss of much of the humour. But what has most upset the book’s many, many fans is that Mortimer (who also wrote the script) often substitutes her own leaden dialogue for Nancy’s effervescent wit.

Among the alternatives suggested are the BBC’s 2o01 adaptation of Mitford’s novel and ITV’s 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited.

— The Daily Mail’s TV reviewer Jan Moir joins with those of the Telegraph and the Guardian:

This rather frantic Pursuit does have delightful moments, particularly because it looks gorgeous; glowing with colour and texture, from the pink walls of the wedding room, to the bobbled wool on Linda’s Fair Isle sweater, to the crepe paper party hats at Christmas, decorated with period perfect silver rickrack. There are moments when an atmosphere of clotted camp almost overwhelms, but what do we expect from a family who live in a world of superlatives?

But the Mail’s final word is written by columnist  Craig Brown who contributes a guide to Mitfordian word pronunciation for those who find the dialogue difficult to follow. Here is a random excerpt from Brown’s guide:

Bed: Opposite of good.

Bessa Clare: At heart; fundamentally. ‘Bessa clare, Sir Oswald was a thoroughly decent man.’

Bellay: Art form that employs dance and music to convey a narrative.

Chetswarth: Debo Mitford’s home in Derbyshire.

Chomming: Delightful, attractive. ‘Say what you like about Edolf, but we always found him uttleh chomming.’

Crawspetch: Bad-tempered person. ‘Winston could be an awful old crawspetch.’

Creme: Offence punishable by law. ‘Make the punishment fit the creme.’

Dernchew: Question expecting agreement. ‘It’s simply pelting outside. I think we might stay indoors, dernchew?’

Ears: Opposite of nair. ‘Did you or did you not commit the crime?’ ‘Well, ears and nair.’

All episodes are available for streaming on BBC iPlayer. Previous press reports indicated the series would be available to American viewers on Amazon Prime, but there doesn’t yet seem to be an announcement of the dates.

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