My father’s advice: You can be anything as long as you are not boring

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.

“My dad was mad about the Mitfords,” says the actor who is making her directorial debut with her adaptation of the cherished Nancy Mitford novel, The Pursuit of Love. Mortimer is also appearing in her three-part series as The Bolter, Fanny’s absent mother, who is forever leaving her child for new lovers to marry.

An eccentric upbringing: The Mitford sisters, in 1935, (from left) Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela.Credit:

Mitford’s thinly veiled account of her eccentric upbringing was an instant success, and an enduring one, on publication in 1945. Mortimer read it as a teenager and remembers her father planning to adapt Hons and Rebels, the 1960 autobiography of the late political activist, former Communist Party member, investigative journalist and unlikely late-blooming pop star Jessica Mitford (also known as Decca). The book described her aristocratic childhood and the difficult relationship between her and her sisters, Unity and Diana, who were enthusiastic supporters of Nazism. He had also written a radio play about Unity: “So I grew up hearing him talk about these incredible characters and exciting, wonderful, dangerous people. They were part of my life.”

Wedding guests: Unity, Diana and The Pursuit of Love author, Nancy Mitford, in 1932.Credit:Hulton Archive/Getty

Jessica Mitford emigrated to America in 1939, where she remained until her death in 1996, and Mortimer has been living in Brooklyn (moving from California) for long enough that it feels like home. The English actor met her Italian-American husband, Alessandro Nivola, when they were performing in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1999, fell in love, and married in 2003. (Mortimer had a small part in the film as a lady-in-waiting; the sweet story goes that Nivola had asked their mutual friend Adam Cohen, son of Leonard, for the English actress’ phone number before discovering they were on the same set.) They have two children – Sam, 17, and May Rose, who is 11 – both of whom appear in The Pursuit of Love.

We are talking on Zoom and it is 7.30 in the morning, US time, in their wide, sprawling house, 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. Nivola is chivvying children in the background, with occasional loud bellows – “Come ON! You’re taking TOO LONG” – when he’s not standing on a table to change lightbulbs.

The English actor is drinking a green smoothie for breakfast and apologises for her appearance (naturally, and rather irritatingly, she still looks completely beautiful despite unbrushed hair, torn T-shirt 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!

“I’ve got a whole system where you put, whatever it is – these round sort of lights which make you look much better than you do – and I just didn’t have time to do it.”

Emily Mortimer: “I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious.”Credit:Danielle Kosann/Kintzing/Raven and Snow

She has an appealing way about her, and 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 (she remains very English, as Decca Mitford did; “I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious” is a regular refrain), she’s not afraid to stick to her guns as befits her background and education: the high-achieving St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, followed by Oxford, where she read Russian.

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

If the Mitfords had messy lives, so did the Mortimers. Penny One (nee Fletcher) wrote a blistering autobiographical novel about a philandering husband, The Pumpkin Eater, which came out in 1962 and two years on was made into a film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch.

Emily, aged seven, at home in Buckinghamshire, with her parents John Mortimer, QC, and Penelope (known as Penny Two).Credit:Getty

It later emerged, in an unauthorised biography by Graham Lord in 2005, that John Mortimer had conducted a short affair with actor Wendy Craig, which had resulted in a son – unbeknownst to him – who was born in 1961. Craig and her husband, Jack Bentley, had brought the child up as their own. Mortimer was delighted to welcome his new son, Ross, into the family fold – attributing the affair, when questioned by reporters, to the excitable ’60s.

John and Penny One divorced in 1971, the same year that Emily was born, and her parents married the following year. Thirteen years later, her younger sister, Rosie, was born and, apart from Ross, other half-siblings include Jeremy Mortimer and Sally Silverman. (Penny One had two daughters, including the actress Caroline Mortimer, by her first husband, as well as two daughters from different extra-marital relationships, and was pregnant with one of those children when she married John on the day that her divorce came through.)

It is well known that the offspring of colourful parents can react to the emotional drama by craving something more orderly for themselves; The Bolter’s daughter, Fanny, 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 theirs: “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.

It is well known that the offspring of colourful parents can react to emotional drama by craving something more orderly for themselves.

The actress is still shy: “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, Clifford, 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 in 2009: “I feel very sad that he’s not here any more,” she says.

Shimmering beauty Linda Radlett (played by Lily James).Credit:

His spirit imbues her version of The Pursuit of Love, she says: “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, an absolute allergy to it, 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. You feel that Nancy gets that a life well lived is a life full of mistakes. And that 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 and all the rest of it, 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.”

‘You feel that Nancy gets that a life well lived is a life full of mistakes. That was something that I was brought up to understand too.’

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, with clanking instruments – and you always had to decide what you were going to eat in the car on the way there. He was quite impatient and loved going but didn’t want to sit there for hours. You weren’t really allowed pudding.

“Every single part of this has been influenced by my dad and the way he saw life,” Emily Mortimer says.Credit:

”In Italy [where the family went every summer], there were certain subjects you weren’t allowed to talk about – one was your mosquito bites and the other was global warming. He thought that was just tedious; he couldn’t bear those conversations.

“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 would say it every single time and by the time he was saying it in his last years, he was completely blind anyway so there was no way that he could tell if you were beautiful or not.

Emily and Sir John Mortimer in 2005.Credit:Dave M. Benett/Getty

“It was a joke, really. It was designed both to put you in a really good mood but also to make you feel, ‘Wait – you said that to me yesterday!’ He was just the best company ever and I would go thinking: ‘I want to talk to Dad about …’ I don’t know, a boyfriend who was being mean to me or a job I didn’t get and want him to give me some fatherly advice and then you’d get there and forget to ask him about any of those things because you were 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 The Bolter says to her daughter, Fanny Logan (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, who is indeed a shimmering beauty, played by Lily James. (The most risqué line in this episode – and the most modern – was actually written by Nancy Mitford in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, Mortimer tells me, describing how a small painting of Lady Jane Grey prompts her to masturbate.)

Capturing the agony of being young girls: Linda Radlett (Lily James) and Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham).Credit:

Mortimer knew that what she didn’t want to make was a dusty period drama, and she has certainly succeeded in that. On the evidence of the first program, she has stayed faithfully true to the spirit of the novel while injecting it with an exciting, contemporary edge. It is sexy, funny, sylish, racy and beautiful.

The sets and costumes are divine, by Cristina Casali, production designer on Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield, and Sinead Kidao, who worked on Little Women and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films for television. The result is so visually sumptuous it will likely inform interior and fashion design for seasons to come: “I wanted to enjoy the femininity of it, the colours and the feminine spaces and the sexiness of it,” Mortimer says.

Beecham and James are terrific at capturing the agony of being young girls – that very specific longing to grow up and live and love. Mortimer held firm, with some opposition, to her view that the 30-something actors could be convincing as teenagers without resorting to computer-generated imagery (CGI): “It was all done with amazing make-up, hair and acting.”

No CGI: “It was all done with amazing make-up, hair and acting.” Credit:

The project came to Mortimer with Lily James attached but it was her idea to cast Dominic West as the barking (in both senses) Uncle Matthew. He is a comic revelation – guffawingly funny, brandishing his bullwhip at dawn on the rolling green lawn and singing opera, including reaching appallingly badly for the highest notes. He is, of course, 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, Marc Bolan and Michael Clark, complete with gender fluid entourage of dancers and many provocative moves. Mortimer’s dream was for Andrew Scott to play Lord Merlin and it came true. Does she have a crush on him? “Doesn’t everybody?” Forget “sexy priest”, it’s sexy Merlin from now on. I wish he would educate me (as he does Linda); “Oh my God,” Mortimer breathes. “Totally! And if you were to meet him, you’d fall much more in love with him.”

Soon it will be time to finish as she still has edits to do. The music choices are as important as the look and feel of the drama; there are some bursts of the more expected Chariots of Fire/Brideshead Revisted-stirring pomp, but there is also glam rock and new wave and punk. There is even a band created for the film, the London Spanners, with the aid of Rosie’s husband, George Vjestica, who plays with Nick Cave’s the Bad Seeds, and a line-up that includes fellow Seed Jim Sclavunos on drums, Spider from the Pogues on the penny whistle and assorted others.

“Linda has a rock’n’roll soul in a way, and those ‘bright young things’ between the wars were really ‘out there’ people. Extremely experimental, living life like it was kind of an art installation – people like Lord Berners, whom Lord Merlin was based on, who literally had a horse for tea and doves painted different colours flying around his room and knew all the important musicians and artists of his time,” she says.

“Those ‘bright young things’ between the wars were really ‘out there’ people”: Fabrice De Sauveterre (Assaad Bouab) and Linda Radlett (Lily James) enjoy champagne.Credit:

Mortimer’s husband also comes from several generations of important artists; the couple’s walls and shelves are covered with entrancing paintings and sculptures. His paternal grandfather was Constantine Nivola, part of the abstract expressionist community in Springs, East Hampton whose members included Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko. There are works as well by Alessandro’s younger brother, Adrian. Both boys have pieces by Saul Steinberg, who was a regular visitor to their family home, growing up.

Mortimer has come a long way since she would demonstrate her acting skills to her parents, as a little girl, by pretending to be Delia Smith, pouring sugar into bowls. She and Rosie have an even more emotional adaptation than Emily’s Mitford project; they have been working together on their father’s Rumpole, but in their version the crumpled, claret-drinking QC is a woman.

She says The Pursuit of Love was six weeks away from filming when COVID-19 hit and the Brexit backdrop changed to something else: “A time in people’s lives where 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 do you deal with that, and the answer is you have to live as if there’s no tomorrow because there might not be.”

The Pursuit of Love starts on Amazon Prime Video on July 30.

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