The Pursuit of Love is exactly what we need after the pandemic,” the actress Dolly Wells tells me, and her judgement is spot on. Emily Mortimer’s new BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, in which Wells plays Aunt Sadie, is, she says, “a breathing, moving thing”. The dialogue is warm and witty and it has a modern soundtrack (by Bad Seed George Vjestica) – in one particular scene, a Sleater Kinney song is used to powerful effect.
Lily James plays Linda, a romantic young upper-class woman who, above all else, desperately wants to fall in love. Her father (Dominic West) is cramping her style by keeping her at home until she marries the right man, so she and her cousin Fanny plot and daydream about how to escape, inspired by their neighbour, an eccentric bright young thing played by Andrew Scott in full flamboyant mode.
When Mortimer, who has been Wells’s best friend since childhood, said that she wanted to adapt The Pursuit of Love, Wells decided she had to finally read it. “I hadn’t, because of an inverse snobbery I’ve always had, which is childish,” she says. “My mother is quite posh so I always felt, ugh, I don’t really care. She used to say ‘orf’ and it took us years to tell her, ‘you have just got to stop saying that’.”
But when she started reading, she was engrossed. “Of course it is about people who were very lucky and had a grand house and horses and dogs and staff,” says Wells. “But the feelings and the honesty and what it says about being a woman at that time? I found it very unsentimental and moving and funny. It is about women who want to make their mark on the world – but feel a bit too big, too noisy, like they are taking up too much space and confused about who they want to be.”
Wells is talking to me from a bed in a hotel in Bristol, where she is filming The Offenders, a new Amazon and BBC drama by Stephen Merchant in which Christopher Walken plays her father (“a dream come true, he is really cool”). She is wearing full makeup from filming and a checked shirt and is excited about being in the UK. Wells grew up here, moved to New York in 2014 and has been going back and forth recently (she is double vaccinated and says that is one thing America has done well).
The Pursuit of Love was filmed in Gloucestershire over the summer, “when nothing was being made because of Covid”. It was Lily James who convinced Mortimer to direct it – originally she only planned to write the script. They had an idyllic time filming but just afterwards, James and Dominic West were photographed kissing, on a trip to Rome. It became the scandal of the summer. When West returned, he and his wife emerged with a handwritten note affirming the stability of their marriage that launched a thousand newspaper articles.
Watching the show, it is hard not to squirm at James playing West’s daughter and him telling her that “an adulterous woman is the most disgusting thing there is”. Wells is diplomatic when I mention it: “It was hard for all of them but it happened after filming so it was not really my business anymore. You didn’t want it to put a dampener on an exciting experience and brilliant performances.”
She has a point. Sadie, who Wells plays, shows her love for her family through deeds, not words. She is the epitome of a repressed English aristocrat. “I understand Aunt Sadie because I was a bit brought up like that,” says Wells. “My mum is devoted but when we were young she would never say the word love. You would say ‘I love you’ and she would say ‘I you too’. We didn’t get hugs or kisses. My dad was more like that. I know lots of people like Aunt Sadie. It is that thing of being loving but quite strict and stubborn; it’s very English; children should be seen and not heard, like dogs or horses. “
In Mitford’s world, women see marriage as their only way to escape their fathers and be free. “I came across this when I read Villette [by Charlotte Bronte] at university,” says Wells. “I felt Lucy Snowe had such an interesting point about how the best way to be was to be a woman who was married but not in the same country as your husband, because you had freedom of being able to move around in the world. You had the status of being a married woman so could be in the world. And you were like a turkey being fattened, having to learn to have a little bit of intelligence but not enough to be threatening or make any man jealous or embarrassed. Things have hopefully changed, although not enough. I hate the idea of young women feeling scared walking home at night. We have a long way to go, there is all sorts of oppression going on.” In the show, we also see braying, arrogant Oxford boys, “these established ways of behaving that are gross and these women trying to be brave, trying to fall in love with men.”
Watching the young women in the show languishing, desperate for their lives to begin made me think of young people in lockdown. Wells agrees. “Absolutely. My daughter is about to turn 19. As a parent this past year you have felt so lucky – you get more of your child than ever before but you also feel so guilty because their lives should be starting.”
Her daughter graduated on Zoom, “which was ludicrous, and my poor son homeschooling from his bedroom day after day. My daughter is taking a year off before going to University and I understand – she just wants to walk and laugh and dance and go to parties. I don’t think there is any huge rush to go to university.”
The other big romance in the story is the friendship between Linda and Fanny, which resonates with Wells. She has been friends with Mortimer for her whole life “and it made so many things easier. Moving to America was frightening but having her round the corner and there to talk through things made it possible”. They lived together at a house called Swangrove while filming, “and we joke that we will always have Swangrove”.
“I am so proud that we always have each other’s backs,” she continues. “Women have been taught for years to turn on each other to get the attention of men, but we have to have each others’ backs. Linda and Fanny are the biggest love story of The Pursuit of Love.”
Work is picking up for Wells after the pandemic filming freeze, she says. “There are more projects happening in the UK than the US interestingly, I don’t know why”. After The Offenders, she will film another BBC drama, Inside Man, with Lydia West and Stanley Tucci, and then, if she raises the money, she will be directing Mortimer in a project in September. “I like being busy,” she says. “It’s something you realise as you get older, and also after a year like this, people going through such hardship, you feel lucky to be doing what you are doing with people you are close to. I felt bad at the start of the pandemic, watching everyone get so good at baking and gardening while I wasn’t. But most of all I like playing nuanced layered people – Aunt Sadie is just a human.”
The Pursuit of Love starts on Sunday 9 May at 9pm on BBC One