Lily James opens up on The Pursuit of Love’s tale of hedonism and high society

Eyes shut, dancing with champagne glass in hand, Lily James is a picture of 1930s glamour in the new Sunday-night BBC drama, The Pursuit of Love, a tale of hedonism, romance and high society.

The series is pure escapism, adapted from The Pursuit of Love, a novel written by Nancy Mitford about her own colourful life with her sisters, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah.

Lily says: “It’s a wonderful celebration of the Mitford sisters. Nancy wrote this book about her life, her sisters and how they grew up.

“I think it’s fascinating and they were brilliant.”

Lily plays Linda Radlett and the series follows her wild life and romances.

Fabrice (ASSAAD BOUAB) and Linda (LILY JAMES) in The Pursuit of Love
Fabrice (Assaad Bouab) and Linda (Lily James) in The Pursuit of Love

Author and historian Lyndsy Spence says: “Nancy actually based Linda on several of her sisters. It wasn’t just her.

“She borrowed things from their life.”

The Mitford sisters were a force to be reckoned with, among them a novelist, a socialist, a fascist who was friends with Adolf Hitler, and a duchess.

Born between 1904 and 1920, the sisters lived through two world wars and witnessed some of the most significant events of the 20th century.

Behind the scenes with Lily James

Despite working with a stellar cast Lily revealed her favourite co-star was a dog.

“My favourite moment filming was probably filming with all the Radlett family, but also shooting the very opening of the show where you see Linda heavily pregnant sunbathing with her French bulldog, about to get bombed, in her fur coat and sunglasses.

“I had a body double who was seven weeks away from giving birth at the time of filming and it was such a celebration of being beautiful and pregnant. It was glorious.”

She adds: “Oh God, my little French bulldog Plon-plon. There’s a scene where Linda opens this hat box and a tiny puppy is inside. I’ve never had to act less in my entire life.

“I got so close to that dog.

“He was forever snogging me and licking my face. I didn’t mind one bit.”

The crew didn’t meet until the first day on set and they rehearsed on Zoom.

Lily says that she really hit it off with director and writer Emily Mortimer and her co-star Hail, Caesar! actress Emily Beecham.

“She is such a skilful actor and was absolutely fizzing on set. I was definitely improved by being around the two Emilys, as I like to call them. We formed a real gang.”

Lyndsy, author of The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life, says: “Nancy, Pamela and Diana mixed with the Bright Young Things and experienced London’s high society at the height of its glamour.

“They were young adults at a time when one could hop from foreign holiday to country manor on very little money.

“It did help if one was part of the inner circle of the British aristocracy.”

The Pursuit of Love follows Linda and her cousin, Fanny, played by Emily Beecham, as they hunt for an ideal husband.

The real-life Nancy Mitford
The real-life Nancy Mitford

Their friendship is put to the test when they choose different paths, Fanny settling for a steady life and Linda running wild.

There was no cousin Fanny in real life, but Nancy did have a troubled love life and a rebellious streak.

In 1933, she married Peter Rodd, a man dubbed “a terrible bore” by her family.

He inspired the character Tony Kroesig, played by Freddie Fox.

The clothes

As Linda, Lily James gets the most stylish outfits, just like Nancy after she found fame as a writer living in Paris.

Historian Lyndsy Spence says: “Nancy spent her days as a celebrated author wearing ankle-length Dior dresses.

“She was always very critical of English fashion and said English people couldn’t make a suit.”

Fanny (Emily Beecham) makes less of a fashion statement, but Andrew Scott’s character, Lord Merlin, based on Nancy’s friend Lord Berners, is flamboyant as the eccentric bachelor. Berners had a flock of doves with feathers dyed the colours of the rainbow so they would brighten up his lawn and he even had fake pearl necklaces for his beloved dogs.

Andrew, 44, who played the “hot priest” in Fleabag, says: “Merlin’s costumes! Playing a character like this, he’s so fluid, with his art deco bangles.

“The 1930s is one of the most stylish periods of all time I think.”

Rodd gambled away much of Nancy’s fortune at the start of their marriage and, even though they weren’t divorced until 1957, they led very separate lives.

The love of Nancy’s life was Gaston Palewski, a French diplomat and Charles de Gaulle’s right-hand man, who stole her heart when she was 37.

He was the inspiration for the character Fabrice de Sauveterre, played by Assaad Bouab in the series.

Palewski and Nancy met at a party in London in 1942.

Nancy Mitford (bottom left) with three of her sisters (l-r) Unity, Deborah and Diana
Nancy Mitford (bottom left) with three of her sisters (l-r) Unity, Deborah and Diana

They hit it off and Nancy followed him to Paris and settled there.

They had a long and complex relationship which caused Nancy a great deal of pain.

She once wrote: “To fall in love you have to be in the state of mind for it to take, like a disease.”

Dominic West as Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love
Dominic West as Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love

Womaniser Palewski left her heartbroken when he wed somebody else.

Uncle Matthew, played by Dominic West, is based on Nancy’s father Lord Redesdale.

Awkwardly, given that last year Dominic and Lily were pictured looking cosy in Rome, his character tells Linda: “an adulterous woman is the most disgusting thing there is”.

Lily James as Linda
Lily James as Linda

Dominic has since posed with wife Catherine FitzGerald, saying “Our marriage is strong”.

And Lily has a new boyfriend, rocker Michael Shuman.

Dominic says of his character: “Uncle Matthew is quite a frightening patriarchal figure. Pretty much every scene I’m in I’m shouting at someone, but because he fought in the first world war he particularly hates the Germans.

“There’s an entrenching tool hung on the wall which reminds him of how he killed 10 Germans in a row.”

Aunt Sadie, played by Dolly Wells, appears as a kinder version of Nancy’s mother Lady Redesdale.

The locations

The series was one of the first drama productions to resume shooting in the UK after the first lockdown.

Filming took place last year in the Bristol and Bath area, where Netflix hit Bridgerton was filmed, with some scenes shot in Paris.

Other locations used in the West Country region included National Trust properties Dyrham Park, Dinton Park and Philipps House, Stourhead House and Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, and Avon Valley Railway in Bitton.

Executive producer Frith Tiplady said: “When they first shut down we were two weeks from filming, we found all the locations.

“The thought of doing this show and Fanny and Linda not hugging or touching… it just couldn’t be the case.

“We were one of the first to resume filming. It had this real sense of we want to get the whole industry back and running, like a really bad festival with loads of marquees and no beer.”

The writer once said of her mother: “I liked her company; but I never loved her, for the evident reason that she never loved me.”

The novelist, who was unable to have children, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and died, aged 68, at home in Paris in 1973.

She will be remembered for her wicked sense of humour.

She once said: “I am sometimes bored by people, but never by life.”

*The Pursuit of Love starts tomorrow on BBC One, 9pm.

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