Postwar, the English were in sore need of a touch of glamour. Sunday viewers might feel the same, after weeks of the grim interiors, clenched jaws and hollow stares of Line of Duty. Whether Emily Mortimer’s three-part adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s spry comedy about the upper classes, published in 1945, will hit the mark is another matter. The setting, Alconleigh, “a large, ugly, north-facing house high on a hill in Oxfordshire”, turns out to be a grand stately home; while Linda Radlett, the focal character, seen through the eyes of her admiring cousin Fanny, is “a wild and nervous creature, full of passion and longing”, a formula we might well contract to “privileged”.
The story is full of class rage: that of aristocratic Uncle Matthew (Dominic West), not so loosely based on Mitford’s father, Baron Redesdale, for virtually everyone below him in the pecking order. He refuses to educate his daughters and annually hunts them down with his bloodhounds as a special Christmas treat, for him if not for them. Mitford’s gift was to expose the awfulness of an upper-class upbringing, at least for women, in sparkling, mocking prose without a hint of self-pity. As with many literary adaptations, voiceover is used liberally.
The only escape for Fanny (Emily Beecham) and Linda (Lily James) is a suitable marriage, but Uncle Matthew scarcely lets them off the estate. After all, with “church, stables, tennis court”, what more could a woman want? There is a dreadful warning in the shape of Fanny’s wayward mother, “The Bolter”, a small role Emily Mortimer bags for herself. The cousins take refuge from Matthew’s rages in a linen cupboard the size of a bedsit, convening the “Hons Society” — I always thought the “H” was silent, but never mind.
Things look up for the pining cousins with the arrival of lively Freddie Fox as Tony Kroesig, a wealthy banker’s son up at Oxford, or “HUN!” as the appalled Uncle Matthew prefers to think of him. Even more appealing is Andrew Scott as the aesthete Lord Merlin, prancing in pyjamas to the strains of Marc Bolan. Merlin takes over the task of refining Linda’s sensibilities but setting his montage of influences — Stein, Wilde, Proust, Cézanne, Baker — to that grave and shimmering sepulchre of sound, New Order’s “Ceremony”, is an artistic crime for which I can tender no forgiveness.
On BBC1 from May 9 at 9pm
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