“Living with your friends is a sacred, special time that can never be forgotten.” So says actor Bel Powley, who spent most of her 20s living with her best friend Lola, chalking up plenty of “verrrrry terrible stories”, before buying a house with her boyfriend and deciding: “I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Lola – so I just brought her with.”
It’s exactly the right attitude for one of the leads in Everything I Know About Love, BBC One’s much-anticipated adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s memoir of the same name. Alderton was already well known as a chronicler of the female millennial experience – as a Sunday Times columnist and co-host of the successful High Low podcast – when she published her coming-of-age story in 2018. Warm, funny and for many women the definition of #relatable, Everything I Know About Love was a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 300,000 copies in the UK, mostly through word of mouth. Appetite for Alderton’s big-hearted, sometimes hard-won wisdom was such that a later edition was published with an additional chapter of “everything I know at 30”.
The BBC show sees Powley joined by Emma Appleton (The Witcher), Marli Siu (Run) and newcomer Aliyah Odoffin. Only Powley and Siu had read Everything I Know About Love before auditioning for the show. It was the first book Siu read in the lockdown of early 2020, and Alderton’s celebration of friendship hit extra hard in isolation: “I absolutely loved it – I underlined loads of things,” she says.
Powley, meanwhile, was a “humongous fan” of Alderton’s writing and had already set her sights on playing Farly – Alderton’s lifelong friend and primary experience of love. “I felt a real connection with that character, just from reading the book,” she says. “I think Dolly has nailed the young female experience of finding your place in the world – working out who you are in terms of your career, your love life, your sexuality, your friends.”
For TV, Dolly and Farly become Maggie (Appleton) and Birdy (Powley): besties from childhood, giddy about their first ever house-share in Camden with Nell (Siu) and Amara (Odoffin) – even as a trilby-wearing hipster smirks about them “moving to Camden in 2012”: “Whatever you’re looking for has already left.”
Alderton adapted her own life story for the screen, sharpening its themes – of friendship, growing up, and the tensions that emerge between the two – into a seven-part narrative. Like her memoir, the show revels in nostalgia for the recent past, with the girls choreographing dance routines to 5ive, Jessie J and Kylie Minogue, raiding each others’ Topshop wardrobes and revelling in what we now call “indie sleaze” on nights out down the pub.
For Powley – Zooming along with her co-stars in a five-way call with the runaway energy of a girls’ night – the memories were painfully fresh. “All the cultural references cut very deep for me,” she says, sputtering. “Like – I found those outfits really triggering.”
“All the mentions of MSN,” chimes in Siu. “Did that not give you all flashbacks?” Every face seems to wince, including mine (dumped with a wilted-rose emoji at 14).
Beyond the peplum tops and waist belts, the series resonates for its portrayal of the rollercoaster of early adulthood. “The reality of living with friends is that the highs and lows mix into one,” says Odoffin, at 22 the youngest of the four actors. “It is really truthful in that sense.”
Each woman has her own growing pains to grapple with. Odoffin’s Amara – a social media super-sleuth, with a highly millennial passion for astrology – has abandoned her dream of becoming a professional dancer for a more stable career in property, but worries she gave up too soon.
“Feeling like you have to know exactly what your next step is, how you’re going to carry on the course of your life, that you have to have everything together – there’s loads of people I know who feel like that, so it was fun to get to explore,” says Odoffin.
The other girls, too, are striving to strike a balance between stability and opportunity. Fretful, self-doubting Birdy relies on Maggie to draw her out of her shell. Nell, meanwhile – in a relationship with a man more preoccupied with his burrito delivery than her pleasure – wonders what she’s missing out on. “Nell’s relationship doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun,” says Siu. “But, you know, it’s very realistic.”
The pressure each character feels to live their best lives is cleverly embodied in a later episode by a bus-stop alcohol ad exhorting them to “GO FIND THE GOOD TIMES”. But for Maggie, an aspiring writer and diehard romantic – and Alderton’s stand-in, at least in their shared penchant for shag jackets and joie de vivre – the stakes feel especially high.
“She definitely has main character syndrome,” says Appleton. “She lives in her own movie – which I can understand. She wants romance and excitement, and she’s always just dreaming bigger … She’s like a runaway train.”
Often that intensity is trained on her friendships. For Maggie, Birdy is her trusty partner in crime, and their life together one big boozy sleepover – until Birdy’s new boyfriend gets in the way. A dinner party where the two friends play at being grownups over a Jamie Oliver beef stroganoff captures the miserable fear of being left behind in life by the people you’ve been counting on to get you through it.
“That dinner party is where the cracks are starting to show,” says Powley. “They’re so scared of rocking the boat of this perfect friendship they’re meant to have they don’t communicate with each other when it starts to go wrong.”
But what sets Everything I Know About Love apart from other treatments of millennial angst is that it gives equal weight to the joys – not least drugs, booze and (most conspicuously in these abstemious times) cigarettes.
Even dating apps – by now a trope of a disaffected, isolated generation – are treated not as a harbinger of the end of romance but a shortcut to it. A montage showing Amara and Maggie gleefully swiping and shagging their way across London is striking for the absence of moral instruction.
Odoffin says it reflects the adventurousness of many modern women: “The reality is that it can be dark, too – but the truth for these girls was different.”
“It’s just so freeing, that montage,” says Appleton. When she first read it in the script, she says, “I thought it had the potential to be quite full on or gratuitous – but I trusted Dolly, and it turned out so light and funny … It’s just a joy to watch – and it was really fun to do as well!” (Odoffin adds, with wry emphasis: “Intimacy coordinators are GREAT.”) It is a stark contrast to the sex on Lena Dunham’s Girls, I say, where even the good sex was often grim.
Powley agrees. “Thinking back to Girls, all of the sexual scenes are really heavy and dark – and this montage is really joyful,” she says. “You’re kind of like, ‘Yeah, go girls!’ It’s told from their point of view, of them enjoying it.”
But while the search for self-knowledge and satisfaction are themes of Everything I Know About Love, at heart it’s a show about friendship. It is more generous – and perhaps more realistic – than other portrayals of the millennial experience. Both Girls and Industry depicted no relationship so treasured it couldn’t be thrown out for something better – while in Sally Rooney’s work, even best friends conduct themselves at a chilly remove.
Sex and the City is an obvious inspiration, with Appleton speaking in occasional voiceover and her heroine a broke, blogging Carrie Bradshaw aspirant. (“I want to be amazing at comments,” Maggie declares, “and witticisms.”)
But Everything I Know About Love shares more DNA with Derry Girls and Pen15: warm-hearted shows that celebrate friendship as the primary way younger generations are richer than the ones that came before. Birdy and Maggie are enmeshed to a degree that some psychologists might call codependent, but that more viewers might call friendship goals.
For example, the metaphorical “vault” – inside which they seal their most embarrassing confessions (and some of the show’s funniest lines: Beatles fans and Australians, prepare to be outraged) – is symbolic of their unconditional trust. “It’s like a free therapy session,” says Odoffin.
And the friendship is more than just screen-deep, says Powley. “The dream is working with people you actually like, that you love hanging out with – that’s what we got on this show.” She adds: “And that is rare.” Odoffin agrees, deadpan: “I definitely recommend having to dance in front of your coworkers on the first day you meet. It does something for morale.”
Appleton notes that the four of them swapped career advice as they made the show, supporting each other to grow just as their characters do. “Aliyah’s been to RADA and has had training I’ve never had, so I was picking her brain – whereas I’ve worked with cameras and on TV … It just felt really collaborative.”
She hopes Everything I Know About Love will help twentysomethings embrace the uncertainty of those years: “It’s a messy time, and that is good – figuring stuff out in the mess.”
Now 30, however, Appleton and Powley feel they are out of the woods. Powley says, starting a new decade, she had that cliche realisation: “Oh, THIS is who I am!” “When you are in your early 20s you’re searching a bit, or certainly I was – working out who I was through friendships, relationships, work, love, sex,” she says. “Dolly’s captured that perfectly.”
“Yeah, totally,” agrees Appleton. All the same, “you couldn’t pay me to go back to my early 20s”.