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In January 2020, on a drizzly morning so familiar to those of us who endure the gray winters of the West of England, I received an excited message from my friend Emily Mortimer. Her television adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford’s novel about an aristocratic British family in the 1920s and ’30s, had been greenlighted. Filming was scheduled to start in the spring. Emily would be directing and starring in the series, and she asked if we would consider our home, Badminton House, as a suitable location for some of the production.
Then, of course, the pandemic happened, and all plans melted away. March and April drifted into May without any of the usual events that animate the house and the estate. I began to wonder if the whole place would ever come alive again. Like Nancy Mitford’s bored young protagonist, Linda Radlett, we were “enveloped in the present,” a “detached and futureless life.”
But by early May, the production team had worked out a way of shooting under COVID-safe rules. Emily would be flying over from New York as soon as restrictions allowed. Within weeks, the estate was beginning to thrum with activity. Emily and her family needed somewhere to live (no hotels were open), so we moved them into Swangrove House, a beautiful, early-18th-century castellated folly built by the second Duke of Beaufort as a maison de plaisance for his mistress. Its magic was not lost on Emily’s Russian assistant, who, upon arrival, announced that she could sense the “sex energy.”
In between location-scouting sessions and preproduction Zoom meetings, Emily joined me on dog walks and trips to our walled garden, where we would pick sweet peas and discuss the script. (Though she cowrote, coproduced, and starred in the wonderful series Doll & Em, this would be her first time directing.) The Pursuit of Love is a (mostly) comic account of the romantic life of Linda Radlett (played by Lily James), seen through the eyes of her cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham). It was first published in 1945 and was an instant best seller; Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford’s biographer, described it as a “gloom-dispersing rocket” for a war-weary world.
But would our pandemic-ravaged world be able to relate to Mitford’s sparkling but unsentimental lightness of touch? Would the man-obsessed and willful Linda, the insouciant Bolter (Fanny’s mother, played by Emily)—who abandons her child and several husbands—and the xenophobic Uncle Matthew (Dominic West) seem antediluvian or even offensive? Not, we agreed, if the
script was suffused with Nancy herself, who is sometimes lazily labeled as a frivolous upper-class snob but was, in reality, wickedly witty, brave, irreverent, and not entirely free from darkness. Following several miscarriages, Mitford had a hysterectomy in her late 30s. Unhappily married to a serial adulterer, she sought solace and validation in her writing and in the time she spent with Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s army and later with Jewish refugees in London. As the oldest of the six colorful Mitford sisters, two of whom, Diana and Unity, were closely associated with Fascism and Hitler, Mitford was always keen to distance herself publicly from their politics. Ten years before the publication of The Pursuit of Love, she published Wigs on the Green, a satirical novel that ridiculed both sisters and Diana’s husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. The characters described in The Pursuit of Love may have been drawn from her own background, but they are depicted through the lens of a brilliant satirist who chose in her own life not to engage with many of the conventions of her class. In such a way, Linda Radlett’s determined restlessness in both life and love could be seen as a disavowal of the expectations of women of her background.
The production team, however, faced more pressing anxieties than how the finished product would be received. When the trucks began to roll into Badminton village in mid-July, they marked the initial steps in the filming of one of the first new television drama series to be made since the pandemic began. Everyone on set was to be tested every three days, and the cast and crew formed safety bubbles to limit any possible spread of the virus. Soon Badminton, released from its lockdown languor, was teeming with masked members of the crew. Marquees were erected in the park, and the Palladian north front of the house was crowded with buses, cranes, and hand-sanitizer stations.
And the house itself became a substitute for as many locations as possible. The little church attached to the house became the 12th-century St. Margaret’s, next to Westminster Abbey. The rose beds were covered in fake blooms to create Linda’s loathed first husband’s Surrey garden (“a riot of sterility”). In the North Hall, Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott) held court in his “cinema room,” complete with a (live) white horse, while the Orangery became his gallery. The Chinese Dressing Room was turned into a Parisian love nest for Linda and her French lover, Fabrice (Assaad Bouab). The pool area became the gardens of a palazzo where Emily, as the Bolter, lay, rather bored, being attended to by a European count. In the old kitchen, a parliamentary speech was given in the House of Commons, while gauzy pink curtains transformed the ballroom into both the Paris and the London Ritz.
The actor Dolly Wells (Aunt Sadie) moved into a cottage on the estate with Annabel Mullion (Aunt Emily), while other members of the cast stayed in the house with us. Now, on my morning dog walks, I would see Emily in costume directing a scene or Annabel, in a beautiful white dress and matching gloves, standing beside a ridiculous miniature pony and trap, or Andrew Scott and John Heffernan (Uncle Davey) heading for the ballroom looking impossibly elegant in beautifully cut 1930s suits.
Throughout August the weather remained almost continually hot and sunny. We had drinks in the setting sun on the steps of Swangrove, and at a dinner for the cast, Emily auditioned my husband to play both a French and an English waiter at the Ritz. Fortunately, even someone of her generous and inclusive nature could not quite accommodate his acting talent.
In September, the production moved on, and the following month Emily and her family left Swangrove and returned to New York. The filming process had remained COVID-free and had just managed to miss the second wave (and second lockdown). I felt a genuine pang as the last truck turned out of the drive and Badminton seemed to shrink back into itself, drained of color and life. I was comforted, however, by the thought that The Pursuit of Love will undoubtedly be infused with the joy and energy that went into the making of it, despite the extraordinary times in which it was made. It will also be steeped in the spirit of Nancy Mitford. As Harold Acton wrote of her: “Perhaps deep down below the surface her life was sad, but she had the courage to banish melancholy.”
Watch The Pursuit of Love on Amazon beginning July 30.
Originally Appeared on Vogue