Dolly Alderton Gives Female Friendship the Rom-Com Treatment

LONDON — Dolly Alderton peered through the window of her old house in Camden Town, squinting to see inside the kitchen. She had last visited the tree-lined street in London the year before, “with my mates when we were drunk,” she said. When she asked the current tenants if she could look inside, “they said, ‘Did you write a book about living here?’” she recalled. It was, apparently, the first thing the landlord mentioned when advertising the property.

On that visit, the 33-year-old writer had been in the midst of turning that memoir, “Everything I Know About Love,” into a TV show, which premieres in the United States on Peacock on Aug. 25. Both iterations are set in this area of North London — known for its rich rock ’n’ roll history and graffitied canal — where Alderton lived for almost 10 years, and which she jokingly described as “the second-most visited tourist destination in London after Buckingham Palace.”

During that decade, Alderton worked as a story producer on the British reality TV show “Made in Chelsea,” wrote a dating column and created a hit podcast, “The High Low,” with the journalist Pandora Sykes. But what defined the period for Alderton was being single, in her 20s and living with friends.

When it came to adapting her memoir for the screen, Alderton realized that readers connected with how she had framed her relationship with Farly Kleiner, her childhood best friend, as “epic and grand and romantic” — a love story. In the series, the two are fictionalized as Maggie (Emma Appleton) and Birdy (Bel Powley). With the show’s “ups and downs, tensions and silliness, surprise and excitement,” Alderton said, the seven episodes plot the narrative arc of their relationship like a romantic comedy.

Alderton said that she saw Maggie, played by Emma Appleton in the show, “as someone who is 10 tracing paper copies away from me.”Credit…Matt Squire/Peacock
Maggie’s more sensible best friend, Birdy (Bel Powley) is based on Farly Kleiner, Alderton’s own childhood best friend.Credit…Matt Squire/Peacock

Working Title Films, which made rom-coms like “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Love Actually” — acquired the film and TV rights for the memoir in 2017, when the book was still at the proposal stage.

Eric Fellner, the production company’s co-chairman, also optioned “Bridget Jones” from Helen Fielding’s book. When he read “Everything I Know About Love,” he “thought, this writer has got a similar connection to an audience that Helen Fielding had all those years ago,” he said in a recent phone interview, “and maybe this is the millennial version.” Both writers, he added, “can look at their generation in a brilliantly humorous way.”

At a cafe in Primrose Hill, Alderton said that for her generation, “sincerity has become unfashionable” and that coming of age in the 2010s meant growing up in “a very cynical time.” It is against this backdrop that “Everything I Know About Love” is set, in 2012 — “literally the year Camden stopped being cool,” Alderton added. ‌

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, better known as the pop star Self Esteem, was in an indie band at that time. She contributed three songs to the show’s soundtrack, and said the episodes were “so evocative of the ever-competitive alt scene, where everyone is trying to seem like they’re not trying.”

Birdy, Maggie and their two housemates, Amara (Aliyah Odoffin) and Nell (Marli Siu), are all “provincial or suburban” and “on the fringes of everything — in not a good way,” Alderton said. When they arrive in Camden, all four are ravenous for some big city experience.

This lack of urban initiation is what distinguishes Alderton’s characters from their more aspirational forebears in shows like “Sex and the City” and even “Girls.” Alderton once pined for the glamour of the big city, too, she said. She grew up in Stanmore, a “comfortable” and “beige-carpeted” suburb of North London, she said, where “the buses are slow and infrequent.” As children, she and Kleiner would circle a single cul-de-sac on their scooters, and wander around the shopping mall without ever buying anything. “All we did was talk and dream,” Alderton said, adding that the lack of stimuli gave her brain “an Olympic workout for imagination.”

Alderton spent nearly a decade living in the Camden area of London, a period she turned into a best-selling memoir.Credit…Ellie Smith for The New York Times

Now, Alderton is one of Britain’s best-known millennial writers. Between her memoir, podcast, a recent novel and her gig as an agony aunt for a British newspaper, many young British women see her as the trusted voice of a close friend.

“There’s always women running up to her wanting to talk to her,” said Cherish Shirley, a writer and story consultant on “Everything I Know About Love.” Most days, Alderton said, she meets “amazing, generous, lovely girls” in bars, bookstores or bathrooms who want to talk. “Because I opened up a channel of communication,” she said, “they speak very intimately back to me.”

But after the paperback edition of “Everything I Know About Love” came out in 2019, the amount of attention began to feel “unmanageable,” she said. Alderton moved back to her parents’ house for six weeks to spend some time being “really small and really quiet and really hidden away,” she said.

For the first time in her career, she also began putting more distance between herself and her work. In adapting her memoir for television, she said she chiseled the show’s protagonist into a character who was less self-aware, and less precocious, than herself.

“I see Maggie as someone who is 10 tracing paper copies away from me,” Alderton said. Another divergence from the book is the addition of characters of color, including Amara, a Black British dancer. “Criticism of the book — that I fully accept — is that it was very white,” she said. This was another reason she made the show “semi-fictional,” she said, and Shirley added that Alderton was intentional in bringing together “a mixed group of women from all sorts of backgrounds” to form the show’s writers room, and fill out its world with authentic, diverse characters.

Clockwise from left, Birdy (Powley), Amara (Aliyah Odoffin), Nell (Marli Siu) and Maggie (Appleton) in their shared kitchen during a scene from the show. Credit…Matt Squire/Peacock

In March, three months before the show premiered on the BBC in Britain, Alderton had “a big wobble” about being thrust into the spotlight again, she said. Surian Fletcher-Jones, an executive producer on the show, instructed her to get “match fit.” Alderton said she stopped drinking for a while, and also started a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, billing the sessions to the production.

Simon Maloney, a producer who also worked on Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” emphasized the importance of providing support for female showrunners who draw heavily from theirpersonal experiences, Alderton said. “You can’t drag the story out of a woman like that, and then leave her alone,” she remembered him saying.

Alderton described herself as “an oversharer,” but these days, she thinks carefully about how that sharing should take place, and posts less on social media. “What I now realize,” she said, “is people don’t need to go into forensic detail of their emotional lives to get people to like, and then relate, to them.”

Fellner revealed Alderton had a studio deal with Universal Pictures for a film adaptation of her fiction debut, “Ghosts.” She is also researching a novel about heartbreak and loss. “The work I do in fiction is still very exposing,” Alderton said, because it continues to reference her life, even if she is no longer the main character.

“That’s enough of my heart, and soul, and brain and life spilled out everywhere,” she said.

“What I now realize,” Alderton said, “is people don’t need to go into forensic detail of their emotional lives to get people to like, and then relate, to them.”Credit…Ellie Smith for The New York Times
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