Echoes of ‘Brideshead’: The ‘Pursuit of Love’s TV Inheritance

Source: BBC

*note: some spoilers ahead for The Pursuit of Love*

The Pursuit of Love is perfectly aligned with the current mood. The first episode aired on BBC1 on 9 May 2021, replacing the void left by Line of Duty, and will run over three episodes ending on 23 May 2012. This latest adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel of the same name, with its interwar setting, has all the glamour and decadence you might expect. In our rather socially limited world with finances generally struggling, the idea of a ‘20s extravagance is simultaneously exciting and fanciful.  

So, any chance to escape into such a world of excess and new romance is all too needed. It also preserves a pleasing amount of Mitford’s wit and critique of the eccentricities and absurdities of her class. With our current political leaders acting as if they still live in the world of inherited privilege that exempts them from normal laws and social mores, any form of media that questions such things is sorely needed and bound to be appealing.

Lily James as Linda in The Pursuit of Love

Similar Styles – the adaptations of The Pursuit of Love (2021) and Brideshead Revisited (1981)

The current BBC adaptation is of course not the first TV adaptation of Mitford’s work; however, the earlier adaptations all work with other books from the trilogy of which The Pursuit of Love is the first part.

This current adaptation does not feel overly beholden to any previous ones and instead seems to draw on some of the ideas and visuals of the 1981 ITV adaption of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The 1981 adaption still dominates the cultural understanding of Waugh’s work and echoes of it can be seen in more recent adaptions of his works such as Stephen Fry’s 2003 Film Bright Young Things, based on Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

Before going into the detail of these allusions, it is worth noting that some level of similarity is bound to occur as both Mitford and Waugh both had similar backgrounds, and were themselves writing about the same groups of people. What should be stressed is that the allusions this article covers are limited to this specific TV adaption. It would be a great disservice to think that Mitford’s novels are in any way derivative of Waugh’s.

The most apparent of these allusions can be found in the music. Most of the music choice is deliberately anachronistic, blending a range of time periods and styles to wonderful effect. One musical choice that stands out, however, is the use of Georges Delerue’s Le Grand Choral as the narrator Fanny first approaches and enters Alconleigh, the house of the decidedly eccentric Radlett family. As Fanny steps across the threshold, the melody includes a phrase that is uncannily similar to one of the main motifs of Geoffrey Burgon’s theme for the 1981 ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

It is almost inconceivable that anyone who has seen that version of Brideshead Revisited would not notice that similarity, and so it is clearly intentional. This then gives retrospective focus to the drawn-out scene approaching Alconleigh, in which the framing of each shot has echoes of the approach to Brideshead Castle in Episode 1 of The ITV adaption of Brideshead Revisited.

In a very similar way, the scene where Fanny and Linda drive to Oxford strongly brings to mind the sequence of shots from Brideshead Revisited in which Julia Flyte picks Charles Ryder up from the train station on the way to the house. In that, Charles lights a cigarette and then passes it to Julia. The scene in The Pursuit of Love, in which Linda, who is supposedly in control of the car, lights a cigarette and passes it to Fanny in a similar way, is very similar but not an exact mirroring. The scene is partly is cut so you do not see the cigarette being passed but certainly, both scenes share a similar aesthetic and feel.

Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love
Source: Theodora Films Limited & Moonage Pictures Limited/Robert Viglasky

There are many other small visual echoes, such as the way in which Andrew Scott’s approach to Lord Merlin’s character has a notable whiff of Nickolas Grace’s portrayal of Anthony Blanche, for example. Additionally, the rather camp depiction of Tony Kroesig seems like a slightly slicker, but aesthetically connected image of Anthony Andrews’s portrayal of Sebastian Flyte.

These allusions alone, however, are not altogether that interesting. What is interesting is that either I (and family and friends with who I discussed this) am so focused on the ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited that I cannot see any interwar work without detecting echoes, or the producers decided that such allusions would be beneficial. This might well be because they give a large segment of the audience a quick aesthetic reference. From this link, the particular interwar feel of The Pursuit of Love can be built without having to give detail to every aspect of the characters’ lives.

In many ways, what could be more natural? After all the much-lauded soundtrack, that leans heavily into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, acts in much the same way. By alluding to the rose-tinted pleasure of the ‘80s, The Pursuit of Love is able to instill the vibe of decadence and romantic allure on an almost subconscious level, avoiding any more considered critique of the subject matter or treatment of the original text.

Words by Ed Bedford

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