Aidan Smith's TV week: The Pursuit of Love, Motherland, Three Families

By rights I should hate it. A big house, daft hats, frivolous flibbertigibbets. Two of the stars having an off-set fling which the cynical - me - suspected might have been a stunt to whip up pre-publicity. And being urged to watch, as if under orders from Matt Hancock, because a dollop of escapism is Just What The Country Needs Right Now.

A nits outbreak in Motherland gets a Covid-style clampdown for Kevin and Liz

But I love The Pursuit of Love (BBC1), Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of the Nancy Mitford satire on the British ruling classes between the wars. Of course it’s packed with Hooray Henrys, chinless wonders and Bullingdon braggards. But at its heart is a diamond-encrusted friendship between two women.

In the opening scene - London, 1941 - fur-coat-and-no-knickers Linda Radlett (Lily James) is blown out of bed by a German doodlebug and collected from the rubble by cousin Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham). The action then flips back to the Roaring Twenties when these besties were bright young things at the Radlett ancestral pile.

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They hide in the linen cupboard - HQ of their secret society - and giggle about sex. Linda especially wants the earth to move for her, without the assistance of bombs, and to fall hopelessly and madly in love. This won’t be with a foreigner, according to her father Matthew (Dominic West), who roars out the nationalities he hates - all of them, basically - while hunting his children with hounds.

Lily James and Emily Beecham make a splash in The Pursuit of Love

With a Brexity whiff to it, the saga hurtles at a breakneck pace, as if Mortimer - who plays Fanny’s randy mother, nicknamed “The Bolter” - is detonating several controlled explosions under it. Almost every shot is sumptuous, as if composed by a painter. The soundtrack is contemporary and terrific: New Order, a lovely obscurity from The Who and best of all T.Rex’s “Dandy in the Underworld” when Andrew “Hot priest” Scott turns up as Lord Merlin, a louche aesthete who paints pigeons turquoise in the spirit of Dadaism and tries to show Linda that there’s more to life than love.

Here there are echoes of The Crown and the moment when young Elizabeth scolded her mother for being negligent about the future monarch’s education. Linda has been kept out of school by her father who believes she has all she needs at home: “Church, stables, a tennis court.” He asserts that Fanny, who has been schooled, has merely gained “thighs like gate-posts from playing hockey”. West gets to snort and bellow and spontaneously combust for England - it’s a wonderful part for him - but this is James’ show.

She puts everything into Linda who’s silly, soppy and self-dramatising but you cannot take your eyes off her. As someone says: “She’s an intensely romantic character which is fatal for women - but it’s also what makes her completely irresistible.” If there were too many Lindas, this fellow reasons, “then the world could hardly carry on”. Thankfully The Pursuit of Love carries on for two more episodes.

The schoolgates sitcom Motherland (BBC2) returns with a great opening gag. An outbreak of nits prompts the head teacher to ramp up a Covid-style defence. She delivers sombre sermons from behind a lectern affixed with the message “Comb - Shampoo - Comb Again” which are backed up by “the science”: a woman from a company called Lice Po-Lice peddling highly expensive shampoos who, even though “the curve has started to plateau”, urges the mums - and househusband Kevin - to be extra-vigilant.

Amy James Kelly as a mum campaigning against the abortion laws in Three Families

This is the third season and you might be wondering: can Kevin be a doormat for never-seen wife Jill for ever? Can Anne be a doormat for alpha-mummy Amanda for ever? The answer in both cases is no. Anne scolds Amanda for blurting her pregnancy to the flat-white coven while Kevin’s reaction to being asked for a divorce is to lock Jill in the attic.

Jill’s list of complaints is long: “My night breathing, my chewing, my laugh, the way I dry my legs after a bath,” wails Kevin. Julia had tried to sympathise: “I tell Paul I want a divorce every birthday and Christmas.” You might remember Paul’s pathetic attempts at choosing presents, but Anna has problems of her own. She’s the superspreader and, worse than that, her own supremely annoying mum won’t be moving out after all. Motherland makes you laugh but it also makes you think: should I be changing my leg-drying routine, too?

What happened in 1861? Well, the American Civil War broke out, the first steam-powered merry-go-round cranked into action and Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. Oh, and the Offences against the Person Act made abortion illegal.

That this was still the case in Northern Ireland until decriminalisation two years ago is the subject of Three Families (BBC1), a powerful drama based on true stories from last decade including that of Theresa who buys pills online to halt the pregnancy of underage daughter Orla and is then prosecuted - maximum penalty five years. As it happens, someone in court calls the law “Dickensian - it’s Bleak House.”

The other two women, Hannah and Rosie, learn their babies will have massive abnormalities which will threaten their lives immediately. When Hannah’s doctor warns against abortion and ask her to “show mercy”, she replies: “How’s giving birth and watching your baby die merciful?”

This is a tough watch but we are only watching, not suffering the cruelty of ancient legislation. That it doesn’t turn into a polemic is down to the performances of Sinead Keenan, Amy James-Kelly and Geneveive O’Reilly. No one speechifies..Their stories - tragedies - remain all too human.

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