BRIDESHEAD REVISITED

British Miniseries

Brideshead Revisited was made by Granada television, scripted by John Mortimer and originally shown on ITV in October 1981. The 11 episode adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel of the same name helped set the tone of a number of subsequent screen presentations of heritage England such as Chariots of Fire (1981), A Jewel in the Crown (1982), A Passage to India (1984), A Room with a View (1986)). These "white flannel" dramas, both on television and on the big screen, represented a yearning for an England that was no more, or never was. Brideshead Revisited opens in England on the eve of the World War II. Charles Ryder (played by Jeremy Irons), the main character and narrator, is presented as a rather incompetent officer in the British Army. He stumbles upon an English country house, which he has visited more than twenty years before. Upon seeing the house, Charles begins to tell the story of his years at Oxford, his meeting Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and his love for Julia (Diana Quick). This retrospective narrative is nostalgic in two senses. It is concerned with Charles' nostalgia for his affairs in the interwar period. But it is also concerned with a nostalgia for a time before World War I--a longing for a lost way of life, for an Edwardian England.

The first five episodes focus on Charles' relationship with Sebastian, dealing candidly with homosexual passion. Parts six to eight portray Charles' "dead years," his ties to the Flyte family apparently severed. His growing love for Julia returns him to Brideshead. The final three parts follow the development and decline of this relationship and the death of Lord Marchmain.

The locations are centrally important in the drama. In the early episodes of the serial Charles recounts his years at university in Oxford. Establishing shots of "dreaming spires" and college courtyards paint a picture of opulent, languid, summer days. Likewise Brideshead Castle, the home of Sebastian and Julia, presents in stark symbolic form the once commanding heights of a now declining aristocracy. The stately home was actually Castle Howard in Yorkshire, the home of the, then, BBC Chairman George Howard. These were deliberate signs of "quality". Brideshead Revisited visually displayed all the hallmarks of "quality television". The serial, which lasted over twelve hours in total, was officially costed by Granada at 4.5 million, but other estimates put the figure closer to 11 million. Granada was committed to capturing the atmosphere of Waugh's original novel and the high production values signaled a desire for authenticity. For example, filming on board the ocean liner the Queen Elizabeth II cost 50,000 per eight minutes of film. Other rich backdrops were provided by location filming in Venice, Malta, and the island of Gozo. The large budget was justified by artful creation: "every frame a Rembrandt," as Mike Scott put it. Viewers, taken with the obvious prestigious connotations of the production, frequently mistook the serial as originating from the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The visual lushness of the serial was matched by the excessive decadence of Sebastian and his various friends. Waugh's misogyny is revealed and we are delivered a gathering of aristocratic men accustomed to each others' company rather than to women. The myth of Edwardian England is fashioned through their clothes and manners. Sebastian is styled in cricket whites, Charles in tweed. The foppishness of their character is matched by the flow of their loose fitting wardrobe. Altogether, we are presented with a 1920s version of the Edwardian dandy--"tastefully" homoerotic. Sebastian's Teddy Bear, Aloysius, which is closely clutched in the early episodes, became a popular icon in the early 1980s of a new breed of white flannelled men. As the drama unfolds Charles is caught within a more engulfing family romance. As Charles comes to know the family and as his love for Julia grows, Sebastian grows more melancholy and the idyllic images of Oxford and Brideshead Castle give way to a more disturbing ambiance of loss and mourning.

 


Brideshead Revisited

The elegance and nostalgia, the longing for a bygone "Englishness" of empire and perceived stability led to Brideshead being widely attacked in cultural criticism. It was seen as a "Thatcherite text", part of a resurgence of regressive nationalism. It was criticised for its slow, reverential pace, for wallowing in inherited wealth, for being a glorified "soap". Nevertheless, the production is seen internationally as an example of what the British do best, a large-scale "quality" production of television drama.

-David Oswell

CAST

Charles Ryder..........................................Jeremy Irons
Lady Julia Flyte ........................................Diana Quick
Sebastian Flyte ................................Anthony Andrews
Edward Ryder ..........................................John Gielgud Anthony Blanche...................................Nikolas Grace
Nancy Hawkins .............................. Mona Washbourne Boy Mulcaster ........................................Jeremy Sinen
Jasper.................................................Stephen Moore
Sergeant Block .................................Kenneth Graham
Barber .....................................................John Welsh
Commanding Officer .............................John Nettleton
Lord Marchmain ..................................Laurence Olivier
Cara.................................................Stephanie Audran Lady Marchmain ......................................Claire Bloom
Brideshead..............................................Simon Jones
Cordella..............................................Phoebe Nicholls
Samgrass...................................................John Grillo
Wilcox.....................................................Roger Milner
Hayter...................................................Michael Bilton
Rex Mottram........................................Charles Keating
Nanny.............................................Mona Washbourne
Nurse.....................................................Mary McLeod
Hooper...................................................Richard Hope
Dr. Grant..............................................Michael Gough

PRODUCERS

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Derek Granger

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 11 Episodes

GRANADA TELEVISION
12 October-22 December, 1981

FURTHER READING

Brunsdon, Charlotte. "Problems with Quality." Screen (London), Spring 1990.

Wollen, Tana. "Over our Shoulders: Nostalgic Screen Fictions for the 1980s. " In, Corner, John, and Sylvia Harvey, editors. Enterprise and Heritage: Crosscurrents of National Culture. London: Routledge, 1991.

 

See also Adaptations: British Programming; Jewel in the Crown; Miniseries