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Emily Mortimer on the importance of The Pursuit of Love today: "You have to live as if there’s no tomorrow"

Emily Mortimer speaks about her directorial debut in The Pursuit of Love.
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Emily Mortimer speaks about her directorial debut in The Pursuit of Love.

Emily Mortimer (GETTY)

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By Ginny Dougary

Published: Sunday, 9th May 2021 at 9:00 am

Emily Mortimer grew up with the Mitfords, in a manner of speaking. In the white 1930s house with its pale-green slate roof in Turville Heath on the edge of the Chiltern Hills – which her father, the late QC and Rumpole of the Bailey writer John Mortimer, had inherited from his blind barrister father Clifford – there would be frequent talk about that eccentric family, with its six famous daughters (and one son) of Lord and Lady Redesdale, known as Farve and Muv.

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“My dad was mad about the Mitfords,” says the actor, who makes her directorial debut with a three-part adaptation of the cherished Nancy Mitford novel The Pursuit of Love. Stepping into the BBC One Sunday slot vacated by Line of Duty, it offers an entirely different experience from the  adrenaline-rush of the past seven weeks. Mortimer also plays “the Bolter” in the series, a mother forever leaving her daughter behind for new lovers. 

Published in 1945, Mitford’s witty, thinly veiled account of her eccentric upbringing was an instant success, and an enduring one. Mortimer read the novel as a teenager and remembers her father planning to adapt Hons and Rebels, the 1960 memoir of Nancy’s sister Jessica, the political activist, former Communist, investigative journalist and unlikely late-blooming pop star. That book describes Jessica’s aristocratic childhood and her difficult relationship with her sisters Unity and Diana, who were enthusiastic supporters of Nazism. John had also written a radio play about Unity: “So I grew up hearing him talk about these incredible characters and exciting, wonderful, dangerous people,” says Emily. “They were part of my life.”

The Pursuit of Love
The Pursuit of Love (BBC)

Jessica – “Decca” to family and friends – emigrated to the US in 1939, settling in California, where she remained until her death in 1996. Emily Mortimer has now been living in Brooklyn for long enough for it to feel like home. She met and fell in love with her husband, the American actor Alessandro Nivola, when they were filming Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1999, and married in 2003. Their two children – Sam, 17, and May Rose, 11 – both appear in The Pursuit of Love.

We’re talking on Zoom, at 7.30am US time. The actors’ sprawling house is full of fascinating objects and a certain air of appealing chaos: “It’s a terrible mess right now,” Mortimer says. May pushes in to introduce me to their new puppy, a King Charles called Etta. In the background, when he’s not standing on a table to change light bulbs, Nivola is chivvying the children, with occasional loud bellows of “Come ON! You’re taking TOO LONG!” 

Emily is drinking a green smoothie and apologises for her appearance (naturally, she still looks beautiful despite unbrushed hair and no make-up). She’s wearing a Chicago logo T-shirt, with a huge hole in the sleeve, shoved on from the bottom of a pile of clothes: “I didn’t realise I was doing this,” she says. “I would have put some eyeliner on. I’m so sorry. I’m a wreck!”

When she laughs and smiles – which is often – there is something lovely about the way her entire face creases and her eyes slant upwards with mirth. Despite the tendency to retreat reflexively into self-deprecation (“I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious” is a refrain), she’s not afraid to stick to her guns, as you might expect from her background and education: the high-achieving St Paul’s school for girls, then reading Russian at Oxford.

Mortimer has often spoken about her shyness as a child. Her mother, Penelope Gollop – dubbed Penny Two by John on account of his ex-wife being Penny One, the writer Penelope Mortimer – was a model in her early 20s when she got together with John, then in his mid-40s. (In early photos, she looks the spitting image of Emily.)

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If the Mitfords had messy lives, so did the Mortimers. Penny One published a blistering novel about a philandering husband, The Pumpkin Eater, in 1962; two years later Harold Pinter adapted it into a film starring Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason. In 2004 it emerged that John Mortimer had had a brief affair with actor Wendy Craig that in 1961, unknown to him, resulted in a son, Ross, whom Craig and her husband Jack Bentley brought up as their own. Decades later Mortimer was delighted to welcome Ross into the family – attributing the affair, when asked by reporters, to the excitable 60s.

John and Penny One divorced in 1971, the same year that Emily was born. Her parents married the following year. Thirteen years later, her sister Rosie was born. It’s well known that the offspring of colourful parents can react by craving something more orderly for themselves, the Bolter’s daughter Fanny in The Pursuit of Love being a case in point.

Whatever the reason, Emily’s shyness extended to her never wanting to have other children at her home or to go to their homes: “I would dread friends coming to my house in case they thought it was weird, or I was weird, or my parents were weird,” she says.

That shyness remains, she says: “I know you wouldn’t notice it because I’m very good at managing it. I mean I’m fine now, but I think you’re either born that way or not.”

Just as John’s father was sharply present in his thoughts and writing (the inspiration for Rumpole of the Bailey as well as his memoir A Voyage Round My Father), Emily feels the same way about her own father, who died, aged 85, in 2009: “I feel very sad that he’s not here any more,” she says.

His spirit imbues her version of Mitford’s novel: “Every single part of this has been influenced by my dad and the way he saw life. That kind of resolute and determined lack of earnestness that Nancy had, my dad had. You know, that you can be anything as long as you’re not boring.

“If you’re a good writer, that can end up being incredibly moving because you’re tripping along the surface of things and then suddenly you get a sucker punch and it fells you.”

But there was also kindness. Mortimer once said, heartwarmingly, that her father looked at the world “with forgiving eyes”.

“Yes, and when you read The Pursuit of Love you also feel forgiven, and that Nancy gets it that a life well lived is a life full of mistakes, which was something that I was brought up to understand, too. Both as a criminal defence lawyer and a writer, my dad really understood that people are flawed and the flaws are to be celebrated. Often, of course, they can cause pain and distress, but that’s part of life and that feeling of understanding about the messiness of life and forgiving it and celebrating it – well, that’s something Nancy and my dad also had in common.”

Her father was a famously keen diner. Was there a particularly memorable meal with him? “Oh my God, there were so many over the years! I still find the most comforting place to be is a nice restaurant and I’m sure it’s because of my dad. He liked big, bustling places where you could see what you were eating – like operating theatres – and you always had to decide what you were going to eat in the car on the way there. He loved going, but didn’t want to sit there for hours. You weren’t really allowed pudding.

“And he would always say, ‘This is the absolute best meal of my life’ and ‘I’ve never been happier than I am at this moment’ and ‘You’ve never looked more beautiful.’ And it didn’t matter that he’d say it every single time. By the time he was in his last years he was completely blind anyway so there was no way he could tell if you were beautiful or not. It was a joke, really.

“He was the best company ever and I would go to meet him thinking, ‘I want to talk to Dad  about…’ I don’t know, a boyfriend being mean to me, or a job I didn’t get – and then forget to ask him about any of those things because I was just having too good a time.

“His only real advice to me was ‘Make sure you always line yourself up with the next one before you get rid of the one before’, and I say that in The Pursuit of Love.”

Another line she has knitted into the script is the one when she, as the Bolter, says to her daughter Fanny (played by Emily Beecham) that it is a mistake to have a girlfriend more beautiful than oneself. The girl in question is Fanny’s cousin, Linda Radlett (played by Lily James), who is indeed a shimmering beauty.

There is also a risqué line in this episode, Mortimer tells me, that was actually written by Nancy Mitford in a letter to fellow novelist Evelyn Waugh, in which Nancy describes how a small painting of Lady Jane Grey prompted her to masturbate. From this alone, it’s clear Mortimer didn’t intend to make a dusty period drama. She has stayed true to the spirit of the novel while injecting it with an exciting, contemporary edge and a glam rock, punk and new wave soundtrack. It is sexy, funny, stylish, racy and beautiful.

Emily Mortimer (GETTY)
Emily Mortimer (GETTY)

As for The Pursuit of Love’s cast, the project came to Mortimer with Lily James already signed up, but it was her idea to cast Dominic West as the barking (in both senses) Uncle Matthew. West is a comic revelation – guffawingly funny, brandishing his bullwhip at dawn on the rolling green lawn and singing opera, reaching appallingly badly for the highest notes. Matthew is, of course, also a ghastly racist who loathes all foreigners and a violent misogynist whose children can’t wait to escape.

When Mortimer first started thinking about her adaptation, she saw it as a Brexit story with mad Uncle Matthew as “this xenophobic nationalist who has gone bonkers from the First World War and has PTSD and hates all Germans, as well as the French, and insists that on no account must any of his children be let out of his sight, let alone meet anyone that doesn’t think or talk or look like them.”

His first shock is when his family falls collectively for their neighbour Lord Merlin, who appears at a fusty ball, taking over the floor as a stunning hybrid of David Bowie, Michael Clark and Marc Bolan – who soundtracks the scene – complete with a gender-fluid entourage of dancers and many provocative moves. Mortimer’s dream was for Fleabag’s Andrew Scott to play Lord Merlin and it came true. Does she have a crush on him?

“Doesn’t everybody?” she says.

Forget “hot” priest, it’s hot Merlin from now on.

“Oh my God,” Mortimer breathes. “Totally! And if you were to meet him, you’d fall much more in love with him.”

She has come a long way since demonstrating her acting skills to her parents as a little girl by pretending to be Delia Smith pouring sugar into bowls. She and her sister Rosie have been working on an even more emotional adaptation than the Mitford story: a new version of Rumpole, in which their father’s crumpled, claret-drinking QC is a woman.

Her ideas for The Pursuit of Love certainly changed, as filming set in Bath and Bristol was only six weeks away when COVID hit and it morphed into something else.

“It’s a time in people’s lives when life is fragile and there’s no knowing whether somebody you love is going to live or die the next day, and how does that affect the way you think about the world.

“We get into the Second World War and the Spanish Civil War, and the question is – both then and now – how you deal with that. And the answer is you have to live as if there’s no tomorrow, because there might not be.”

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The Pursuit of Love starts tonight on BBC One at 9pm. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
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