Oli Higginson was gutted to miss out on a Jason Donervan kebab when he visited Bristol for his part in The Pursuit of Love.
The legendary Queens Road fast food van was among Oli’s favoured haunts when he was a theology student at the University of Bristol from 2012-15. Back then, he would often see film trailers parked around the city and dream of making it as an actor one day.
Fast forward to 2021, and Oli stars alongside the likes of Dominic West and Lily James in The Pursuit of Love, a BBC One comedy-drama filmed last year around Bristol and Bath. Big things are expected of the series, which takes over from Line of Duty’s 9pm slot on Sunday (May 9).
The 1920s-set production gave Londoner Oli – who has also appeared in Bridgerton – the chance to visit Bristol for one of the first times since graduating, though the pandemic robbed him of a trip to his favourite takeaway.
The 27-year-old spoke to Bristol Live about his favourite places in the city, the beauty of The Pursuit of Love’s West Country filming locations, and having his bottom pinched by Emily Mortimer’s character.
“My part is quite small,” he said. “I’m in a couple of scenes in the first episode, playing Colin, a young Oxford graduate who is one of the many beaus of Emily Mortimer’s character, the Bolter.
“The Bolter dates whoever she likes, and loves to party. One of my scenes is at a big ball in London where the characters of Emily Mortimer, Freddie Fox and Lily James are hanging out and drinking. There’s a band in the corner and they’re all having a great time.
“At the end of the night, there’s a lovely moment where the Bolter goes off with a young lad, and that’s me. I had the privilege of having my bum squeezed by Emily Mortimer – how it was scripted, I was meant to be doing the squeezing, but on the day, we all decided it would be more fun the other way round.”
He added that Mortimer – who adapted the script from the novel and directed, on top of starring – created a “very kind and joyous” environment on set, which “made everyone feel relaxed”.
The scene was filmed at the National Trust’s Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire. The country house dates back to the 17th century and is surrounded by 274 acres of gardens and parkland.
Oli said: “My scene was in this huge and perfectly preserved ballroom. The grounds were really immaculately well-kept. There are a lot of strict rules around how you conduct yourself in National Trust surroundings, and there was a rule that cars could only travel at about 5mph.
“When you’re on a film set and desperately trying to get everything done as quickly as possible, it’s quite funny to be rushing out of a trailer into a car, then snailing through the woods to this manor. But it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to.”
In Oli’s other scene, he aims a jibe at the haircut of Lily James’ character Linda.
“She goes off to Oxford uni where all the young things are graduating. Freddie Fox’s character is having a party in his room and I’m there. We’re all smoking and drinking together.
“Linda is so desperate to fit in, and she’s got a horrendous haircut, done by herself to try and fit in with what she thinks is the Oxford way of doing things. She looks quite peculiar, and my character calls her out on that. He’s a bit of an obnoxious Oxford brat.
“The way Emily Mortimer has written it, even though it’s a period drama, the characters have a modernness about them. They’re just young people wanting to have fun and party, like people today. There was some escapism for me and everyone else doing it, because it was a sense of fun after a long summer of lockdown.”
The scene was shot in Lacock Abbey, near Bath, a Grade-I listed estate dating back to the 13th century.
“They filmed a bit of Harry Potter there,” said Oli. “It’s used a lot, and you can see why. It’s perfectly intact and there are these gorgeous grounds.”
Oli’s part was filmed in two stages last September, coronavirus regulations making the shoot unlike any other he had experienced.
“I’d isolate for five days in my home, come down to Bristol, get a Covid test, spend two days in a hotel in Bath and then film my scene. I did that process twice.
“All of us were staying at this hotel in the middle of Bath. We were pretty confined – sadly we couldn’t go down and have a good drink together.”
Oli didn’t have any filming in Bristol itself, though his Covid tests and hair and makeup tests were done at the Bottle Yard Studios in Whitchurch.
Having appeared in student productions like Arcadia and Spring Awakening during his time living in Bristol, it felt “quite surreal” to return to the city to film a prime-time BBC One series.
He said: “Regretfully I wasn’t able to drop in at Jason Donervan. I’m not sure if he was cooking up a storm when I was driving by. It’s all about the speed and quality at that place. You get the chicken nuggets and the cheesy chips in one roll-up, delivered at breakneck speed, probably under 30 seconds.”
Another place in Bristol which holds fond memories for Oli is the Highbury Vaults pub on St Michael’s Hill.
“It’s a warm local pub. The staff would come round with the little sausage rolls at 10pm, there’s a good selection of ales, and there’s that little train that goes round on a track. It’s cosy in the winter and the beer garden’s lovely for the summer.
“So many of my favourite pubs in Bristol were family-owned and the staff were always so welcoming. I had so many beautiful evenings at the Apple on the Harbourside, a barge that served home-brewed cider – £1 I think for a half-pint if you were a student.”
Oli was also a fan of the 20th Century Flicks video and DVD shop in Richmond Hill Terrace, Clifton, which has since moved to the Christmas Steps.
“I could go and rent, for a couple of quid, a whole stack of DVDs, all 20th century classics – Hitchcock, Tarantino, Kubrick, Scorsese. They had all the best. And the folk working there knew them all and could give you quirky little recommendations. It was a unique little gem, a treasure trove.”
After graduating in Bristol, Oli trained at Guildhall drama school in London, where his now-castmates Dominic West, Lily James and Freddie Fox had gone before.
“They’d always been legends I looked up to, so I felt pretty fortunate to be involved in The Pursuit of Love,” he added.
“I felt like being in the presence of those actors was a great opportunity for me to have to raise my game and try to match their level of energy.
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“Emily Mortimer’s script is brilliant. It’s breathing life into the period drama genre. There is this absurd quality to them, but you relate to the characters, love them, and jump on board with their journey.
“There was nothing boring or strait-laced about the 1920s. People were full of this radiant, effervescent lust for life. After months of a bleak lockdown, filming with all these talented creatives felt like heaven. It was a very cathartic project to be a part of.”
Oli will make his West End debut as Jamie in The Last Five Years musical at the Vaudeville Theatre in September. He is filming for a small role in the upcoming second series of Netflix romance Bridgerton.