Ra, ha, ha

Television - Andrew Billen enjoys <em>Love in a Cold Climate</em>'s anthem for doomed glamour

On Omnibus (31 January, BBC1), Deborah Moggach pointed out that two things count against Nancy Mitford: first, she is posh and, second, she is funny, "and we have an equivocal attitude to humour". I think she is right - certainly about our resistance to what another contributor called the "poshocracy" - and it is a tribute to her adaptation of Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love that even the fiercest class warrior will be moved as well as amused by this story of overindulged lives lived in the vernacular of flippancy. To the chorus of three actresses identified simply as "the Twitterers", babies miscarry, marriages are ruined, sons go off to war and hearts shatter.

Mind you, Love in a Cold Climate (Sunday, BBC1) is still very funny. The head of the Alconleigh family, the xenophobic Uncle Matthew, has the best lines, simply because he does not know he is being funny. On Omnibus, John Julius Norwich almost wept with laughter as he read out Uncle M's denunciation of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet ("Bet she was Roman Catholic, dismal old bitch") and in the dramatisation, Alan Bates gave this speech welly. But his children themselves get superb throwaways of the "Nanny, where do you keep that powder you used to dust our bottoms with?" variety. As they grow into women, the humour becomes more sulphurous. Our central heroine, Linda, is not pleased by her infant daughter. "Isn't it horrid? Like a howling orange in a black wig," she tells her visitors.

One of Nancy Mitford's two surviving sisters, the Duchess of Devonshire, mourned on Omnibus that Nancy is now known more for her silly essay on U and non-U speech than for her fiction, which is taken to be an extension of the journalistic noblesse oblige. But the documentary made it clear that her novels were actually a form of jumbled autobiography, with Linda standing in for Nancy and Uncle Matthew for her father, Lord Redesdale. The dilemma of how unsophisticated, undereducated but intelligent young women could find purpose in Thirties England was, in fact, played out on an even more bizarre scale in real life. Nancy's sister Unity fell in love with Hitler; Diana married Oswald Mosley; and the baby of the family, Deborah, nabbed the Duke of Devonshire and inherited Chatsworth. Make it up, you could not.

Perhaps it was because the story was so underpinned in biography and because the production was shot at the Mitfords' home, Batsford Park in the Cotswolds, that Moggach and her producer, Kate Harwood, opted against telling the story through high camp. Although their adaptation begins with an exaggeration - Lord Redesdale actually pursued his daughters through his grounds with a single hound rather than a pack - they achieve a remarkable degree of credibility, helped by the unflashy camerawork of the director, Tom Hooper, who only begins to let his hair down visually in the concluding instalment.

The affecting young actresses who play the leads, Linda, Fanny and Polly (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, Rosamund Pike and Megan Dodds), look older than their years and, if beautiful, then only in the most unfashionable way. At one point, Polly's ghastly mother, Lady Montdore, complains about this new quality of "sex appeal" that girls are required to have. It is a problem. In comparison with, say, The Camomile Lawn or the recent Channel 4 adaptation of Sword of Honour, which also featured Dodds, this is almost dangerously unsexy television. But libido's loss is credibility's gain and, with similar good taste, the accents are U but not Drones Club U.

It is all frightfully well judged. I mean, compare Alan Bates's Uncle Matthew to Peter O'Toole's appallingly over-the-top Lord Emsworth for the BBC a few years ago. O'Toole was all affectation: Bates provides an almost interior rendering. He is a faulty boiler house of trapped emotion. Listening to an aria, his face twitches with a kind of spiritual indigestion. He is superb, but his co-stars are almost his equals: Celia Imrie as his wife, a portrait of agonised passivity; Sheila Gish, as Lady Montdore, showing all the vulnerability of a rusting battleaxe; John Wood, as Linda's worldly confidant Lord Merlin, proof that an overdeveloped intellect can lead you as far into eccentricity as anything else.

My only reservation, having watched both parts, is that they fool you into thinking you are watching something more substantial than it actually is. As far as a moral can be drawn, it is that love rarely presents itself appropriately, that it cannot be guaranteed, even between parent and child, and, as such, that there is no fool like a fool in love. As Diana Mosley said of Nancy: "The only thing that was wrong in her life were the men in it. They were hopeless."

Towards the end, Moggach's script emphasises that this is also a story of a doomed and forgotten class - a cliche that, unlike the "storm clouds gathering over Europe", she leaves unridiculed. But English writers have never forgotten the stately Hons of England, who, even today, enjoy a lingering and undeserved half-life in English literary productions. Off with their heads, I say. But this production was still utter, upper bliss.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose