BY Brian Dillon in Film , Opinion | 11 MAY 21

Forty Years of ITV’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ – Charming, Sentimental and Tragic

Brian Dillon on the television programme’s museum of images and memories 

BY Brian Dillon in Film , Opinion | 11 MAY 21

A meditation on ‘divine grace’, a hymn to the ‘splendours of the recent past’ – this is how Evelyn Waugh described his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. The grace is more earthbound, the splendours more ravishing in Granada Television’s celebrated adaptation, which turns 40 this year. In the autumn of 1981, a gilt stratum of English life in the 1920s and ’30s sauntered across British screens, its principals aching with desire and nostalgia. There is the melancholic narrator, Charles Ryder, quickly seduced and slowly disillusioned by aristocratic luxury and ease. His friend and seeming lover, Sebastian Flyte, who is ruined (or is it exalted?) by nostalgia, booze and God. Their louche, stuttering Oxford contemporary, Anthony Blanche, an exotic intimate of Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev and Marcel Proust. Sebastian’s sister, Julia, for whom the mature Charles eventually leaves his wife. Julia’s separated parents, Lord and Lady Marchmain: haunted, unhappy personifications, respectively, of pleasure and piety.

Filmed in Oxford, Venice and Castle Howard, Yorkshire, the eleven episodes of Brideshead Revisited were received in 1981 as a high point of heritage television. Also, to some, as a hymn to privilege, snobbery, repression, even union-busting – Charles and pals volunteer to help put down the general strike of 1926 – that perfectly suited the early years of acquisitive, prole-scorning Thatcherism. This equivalence has never quite made sense: Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative ‘revolution’ of the 1980s was built on an ideology of petty-bourgeois advancement (and monetarist reality), not on worship of aristocratic lineage, let alone interwar aestheticism. Still, there was a certain rhyme, if only in their floppy hair and cravats, between the male stars of Brideshead Revisited and the Thatcherite young fogeys being celebrated or despised in the British press in 1981. Early the following year, the show aired in the US, and PBS hired the smoothly sinister conservative William F. Buckley to introduce each episode.

Brideshead Revisited 1981
Brideshead Revisited, 1981. Courtesy: ITV / Rex Features

I was a 12-year-old child in Dublin when Brideshead Revisited was first shown on British television, and I knew nothing about its provenance or its politics. In fact, I didn’t even watch the show in the autumn of 1981, though I knew it existed. Perhaps I had seen the spare, elegant advertisement that Granada placed in the Sunday newspapers on 11 October, without a single image of its cast but, instead, a sober illustration of Castle Howard and a quotation from Waugh: ‘My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.’ Or maybe, at a time when, in Dublin, we had just two Irish and two British television channels to choose from, Brideshead Revisited was the subject of next-morning drollery at my new high school: I’ve a distinct memory of a boy in my class announcing with a sneer: ‘Charles is gay with Sebastian!’ This did not seem like the sort of thing my pious parents would allow me to see, and maybe they chose not to watch it themselves because they were unsure how much of the novel’s obvious, if euphemized, gay romance had been kept in, or made more explicit.

Brideshead Revisited was broadcast again two years later on Channel 4 – then a new and adventurous addition to the sparsely populated but fertile landscape of British television. This time, I was eager to see the show; though I hadn’t read the novel, it was already connected in my early-teen mind with my growing canon of modern dandyism: from George Sanders’s interpretation of Lord Henry Wotton in the 1945 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to David Bowie and the New Romantic poseurs of 1980s British pop. In our one-television household, on Sunday evenings, I watched Brideshead Revisited with my parents and my two younger brothers. All I remembered of it – but vividly – for years was the poised, febrile world of the first episode, which is almost all Sebastian and Charles at Oxford and in love. Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, etiolated beauties, outlined against a backdrop of vast advantage and antique grandeur, attended by the lurid modernism of Blanche, who was played with a rouged, salacious Weimar-era gusto by Nickolas Grace.

There were occasional reminders of the series in the years following. Sometime in the mid- or late 1980s, my father bought Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), an autobiography by Harold Acton, an Oxford fop who lurks (among other originals) behind the exaggerated character of Blanche. I read bits of Acton’s book, which, like Brideshead Revisited, was a strange artefact for a lower-middle-class Irish teenager to have been distracted by, if not exactly obsessed. But I doubt I was alone in having Brideshead Revisited at the back of my mind, especially as the prospect of university approached – aristocracy as a protective fantasy against academic and social anxiety. The cultural politics of this fantasy are complex, and only partly expressed in the phrase ‘West Brit’, then a common Irish slur against those with anglophile tendencies. My efforts to act the West Brit were, in any case, crudely embarrassing. In October 1988, I turned up on the Brutalist suburban campus of University College Dublin, to study English Literature, dressed in tweed and corduroy, as if, so I feebly imagined, for a weekend at some country estate, c.1925. More likely, I resembled a virginal clerk at mid-century, or looked simply like my own father.

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh, 1931. Photograph: Getty Images and Hulton Archive 

I can’t pretend that Brideshead Revisited was culturally central for me or my friends in our late teens and early 20s. Intellectually, artistically, I was in thrall to French and American avant-gardes that Waugh, at least late in life, would have dismissed as ‘gibberish’ (a word he pronounced in the old style, with a hard ‘g’). But, at some point during my degree, I got around to reading the novel, and there was even a period when a friend and I would privately mock any dull scene or person by rolling our eyes and reciting a phrase from Blanche: Le fatigue du nord! Later, as a grad student at the more venerable Trinity College Dublin, I met actually posh people, bright young things at their own estimation, who viewed the likes of me with much the same contempt, but expressed without irony.

As I write, I’m halfway through what must be my seventh or eighth viewing of the series. When I first came back to it, about 15 years ago, I was dismayed by how little is really about the halcyon days of Charles and Sebastian at Oxford and how much is about the importunate demands of Catholicism: on Sebastian, on Julia, on Charles the atheist, and the apostate Marchmain. Then I recalled that this is what put me off the novel the first time round: its descent into scolding piety. So, I tried watching again a few years later, and started to notice both the comedy and the sadness. John Gielgud in a luscious comic turn as Charles’s delicately tormenting father, and Laurence Olivier as the Byronic runaway, Lord Marchmain. (Olivier, who spends much of his onscreen time dying, realized too late that Gielgud had the better role.) Endearing details drew me in – certain joyous bits of business by Gielgud, or just how bad Irons is sometimes at acting fey – but I also began to discern a long, slow disquisition on lost youth and lost time, on the heaviness and the lightness of middle age.

Some of this is inflated in the novel: Waugh himself dithered, in a later edition, over retaining a wracked monologue in which Julia torments herself about ‘living in sin’. (In the television series, the scene is a sort of test: can we believe that this woman in her 30s, brilliantly played by Diana Quick, is still ruled by nursery visions of sin and redemption?) Equally overstated, perhaps, is the strictured persona of Lady Marchmain, who kills with icy charm the idyll Charles and Sebastian have made. Even Waugh seems to have thought her a monster and, when I first read the novel, I could only agree. In the television series, her devout conceit is all intact, but Claire Bloom, who plays the part, also radiates intolerable grief: husband fled, brothers killed in the war, children turned against her and against the only consolation she knows, the Church. At 51 (the age Bloom was when she played Lady Marchmain), I’m more firmly an atheist than I was at the end of my teens, but now I think Bloom’s baffled composure might be the most moving performance in Brideshead Revisited.

Brideshead Revisited
Brideshead Revisited, 1981. Courtesy: ITV / Rex Features

The most outrageous is Grace’s rendition of Blanche, who is also the most self-evidently gay character – so obvious, in fact, that his task seems to be to cast Sebastian and Charles as somehow gay and not-gay at the same time. The novel is both blatant and coy about their relationship; Charles describes his enchantment by Sebastian’s ‘epicene beauty’, and mentions their ‘naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins’. At a nightclub, they are taken for a pair of ‘fairies’ but, beside Blanche, with his penchant for policemen and aptitude for enraging the sporty set at Oxford, Charles and Sebastian are distinctly, if elegantly, closeted. In the television series, their love consists largely in a kind of meaningful languor: Irons and Andrews stretched out, a little drunk, under dappling foliage, or filmed together in dreamy profile against a wall in Venice – like a couple of male models, in pale flannel and linen.

‘Languor’ is an essential word in the novel; it is, says Charles, the one quality of youth that does not last. It is common now to talk about the slowness of serious television in the 1970s or ’80s as coming to us from another age of attention spans and narrative expectations. But, even in 1981, some viewers found the rapt, lingering pace of Brideshead Revisited a touch too stately. It’s partly a matter of visual style: long static shots of delicious interiors, the camera lurking at leisure around hushed and painful dinners, waiting in closeup for a childish pout from Andrews or a scandalizing stare from Grace. These all have their pleasures, or longueurs: both of which are more pronounced, for sure, on the seventh or eighth viewing. But there is also a slightly numbing structural solemnity – the sense, over eleven episodes, that a short novel whose Proustian themes are quite compacted or crystallized has become, instead, an indolent universe of desire, memory and regret that you could drift around in forever.

As Clive James pointed out in the Observer on 1 November 1981, the texture of the show was also to do with language. Brideshead Revisited repurposed large tracts of Waugh’s dialogue and narration: the last added as a perfectly pitched voice-over by Irons, who, already in his early 30s, had the vocal nuance for the weariness and rue of Charles’s middle age. The screenplay was credited to the writer-lawyer John Mortimer – he even wrote a puff piece for The New York Times in 1982 about his approach to adapting Waugh – but, in fact, his script was never used by the directors, Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Instead, producer Derek Granger and associate producer Martin Thompson laboured nightly, during production, revising almost every scene in the novel. They toned down or excised a lot of snobbery, prejudice and outright racism. Charles’s wartime adjutant, Hooper, is no longer quite the portrait of grasping bourgeois vulgarity; Lady Marchmain no longer frets that Julia’s fiancé, Rex, may have ‘Black blood’. Most of the anti-Semitic aspersions are gone too, along with Charles’s horror of Americans.

Brideshead Revisited
Brideshead Revisited, 1981. Courtesy: ITV / Rex Features

What remains? The aspect of Brideshead Revisited that fascinates me now, once I’ve got past the adolescent utopia of the first episode, is how much time and attention is given to those long monologues: Julia by the fountain at night, hysterical over her sins; Lord Marchmain on his deathbed, mind speeding back in time to medieval forebears; Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, talking regretfully of Sebastian’s bouts of nostalgia and drinking. And Blanche, diagnosing in the whole set, including Charles, a cosseting addiction to ‘simple, creamy English charm’. Except perhaps for Blanche, each speaker, framed in closeup, is in his or her own fashion trapped by the past. But they see what Charles cannot: that there is no escaping the past, with its illusions, demands and repetitions.

‘My theme is memory …’ – Brideshead Revisited owes a lot to Proust. Waugh is clear about the debt, even if also a little contemptuous: it’s the odious Oxford don Mr. Samgrass, enlisted by Lady Marchmain to keep a watchful eye on Sebastian, who spends an afternoon with ‘the incomparable Charlus’. Brideshead Revisited is a short novel, however, stretched in the television series to become something else: a museum of images and memories – charming, sentimental and tragic. The series is frequently spoken of as a comforting, reactionary view of a class and country long gone. Maybe, but it’s also this: a beautifully lit prison in which the summer of youth is always drawing to a close, nobody can look directly at the present, everything is drenched with the horror of wars ended and to come, and charm (which is another word for fear) has ruined everything. ‘Bless you, Charles. There aren’t many evenings left to us.’

Hope, fear, resignation, regret – how very middle aged, how very mundane. What happened to grace, whether divine or bodily, inherent or bestowed? It is there, of course, in the hedonism of early episodes and the holiness of the last. But it’s shadowed by the life in between. So that I wonder now if Brideshead Revisited – the series first, and then the novel – was always a lesson for me, frustrating and revealing, in how riven and contradictory a work of art could be. I had to read against its grain, turn a story of aristocratic interwar English life into a model for escaping ordinary Irish expectations in the 1980s. Ignore the Catholicism to learn about aestheticism, bundle away Waugh’s bigotries – ‘Modern art is all bosh, isn’t it?’ – to focus on Blanche reciting T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land through a megaphone at a crowd of homophobic Oxford louts.

Brideshead Revisited
Brideshead Revisited, 1981. Courtesy: ITV / Rex Features

I live in London now, have spent half my life in England, was long ago disabused of any lingering notions about an aristocracy of wealth, heritage or taste. You will sometimes hear the more outlandishly retro members of the current Conservative government described as plausible, or merely aspirant, figures from Brideshead Revisited. Two Prime Ministers of the last three have been former members of the Bullingdon Club, the boisterous and scornful Oxford dining society that is the scourge of Blanche, and to which (in the television series) Sebastian seems to belong. But, instead of sorrowed aesthetes, it’s the minor scolds and boors of Brideshead Revisited who seem reborn among contemporary Tories: the toady Samgrass, Charles’s stuffy cousin Jasper, the eager dimwit Mulcaster. Turn back to the 1981 series, or discover it for the first time, and you find instead a world of blazing innocence and exhausted experience, wracked with violent nostalgia, touched by kitsch. And populated by characters whose grace, or lack of it, is beside the point – but whose longing, for the future, for the past, for the present, is everything.

Main image: Castle Howard, Yorkshire. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.