Whimsy is served up by the ladleful in the Pursuit of Love (BBC One, Sunday) Emily Mortimer's adaptation of Nancy Mitford's inter-war pastiche of the English upper classes. T-Rex and New Order stomp and mooch across the soundtrack. Characters are introduced via Wes Anderson-style flat compositions. Cousins Fanny (Emily Beecham) and Linda (Lily James) are pictures of turbocharged frivolity. It's a lot.
The excess does not necessarily do any favours for Andrew Scott, playing Fanny and Linda's proto-hipster neighbour, Lord Merlin. The Dublin actor became globally acclaimed as the "hot priest" in Fleabag. But before that he was best known for munching the scenery as an over-the-top Moriarty in Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock.
And it is that Maniacal Moriarty rather than Father Feisty to whom he harks back as Lord Merlin. He’s a dandy of the underworld and one-man Duran Duran tribute act. And he crashes into the story like a huge, glammed-up wrecking ball.
Merlin's entrance one third of the way into the first of three episodes is the moment The Pursuit Of Love reveals itself be marmite television of the first rank. The setting is a coming-out ball for Linda Radlett (James), wistful daughter of Baron Redesdale (Dominic West). In wafts Merlin, surrounded by a troupe of dancers and with sequins splashed down his face.
This is pure TV fantasia and viewer mileage may vary. The same is true of the friendship of Fanny (who also narrates) and Linda. They’re so close they take baths together and spend their days lolling around with long, shimmering hair entwined, like refugees from Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.
Amid the Wes Anderson-isms, the recycled Sofia Coppola flourishes and Andrew Scott prat-falling like Simon Le Bon in a clown-suit, plot takes a back seat. Yet a far bigger problem is that the performances are all pitched at wildly varying registers.
As Linda, James lounges about smiling mysteriously. However, West – the married actor was notoriously snapped kissing James during filming – appears to think he’s in a Blackadder spinoff. Scott, meanwhile, has been told he’s staging a one-person remake of the Hungry Like the Wolf video.
The Pursuit of Love is a riot but not much more besides. It’s peaches and cream without the peaches and with a doubling helping of cream, a three-course meal consisting entirely of marzipan, a box topped with an elaborate bow but with nothing inside. And without a strong stomach, the sweetness inevitably runs to sickly.