Brideshead Revisited (1981)

“But I was in search of love in those days” or Brideshead Regurgitated

bridesheadI had never watched the original television miniseries Brideshead Revisited and then recently watched the 2008 remake. I wasn’t crazy about the remake. The sets were gorgeous, the acting was splendid, but at times the plot veered dangerously close to soap opera territory. So much was covered and so many years crushed into the film format. But that said, I decided to take a look at the original Brideshead Revisited made back in 1981. After all a viewing was long past due, and since I love British television–especially the meaty miniseries, well, why not I thought, as I committed to watch all 659 minutes.

At first I was pleasantly surprised by the original Brideshead Revisited. The miniseries format had the time to flesh out and explain all the details that the film version squashed together. If you don’t know anything about the story, it’s narrated, via flashback by Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), who meets fellow undergraduate Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) at Oxford. Flyte is the younger son of the deeply troubled, Catholic family, and there’s more than a bit of scandal attached to the Flyte family name. Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), the family patriarch, is a Catholic convert who now lives in Venice with his sagacious mistress Cara (Stephane Audran). Meanwhile the very Catholic, very pious Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) holds sway over the family palace, Brideshead. Sebastian has three siblings, the stuffy Brideshead (Simon Jones), Julia (Diana Quick) and the charming Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls). Although Sebastian and Charles come from entirely different backgrounds, the two form what seems to be a solid relationship, but as time goes on, Sebastian and Charles drift apart and go their separate ways.

Brideshead Revisited started to go down hill after Sebastian left the stage and departed for the despotic pleasures of the east. This left us with Charles who morphed into an artist along the way–along with the obligatory beard. The portrayal of his artist career was unbelievable and seemed based on him traveling off to distant places and then idling around a London exhibition. The character of Charles is too hollow to carry the story, and when the story relies on Charles, there’s a vacuum created by his nothingness. On the other hand, when there’s a strong character sharing the screen–Sebastian, Charles’s father, Mr. Ryder, or Anthony Blanche, let’s say–the screen comes to life. Left with Charles (sans Sebastian) the story goes downhill, and all the charm of the early parts of the miniseries morph into the stinking rich, and the artsy fartsy idle, beating their collective breasts in hours of self-focused navel gazing.

Brideshead Revisited is a testament to the passing of an age, and part of that is seen through Sebastian’s decadence and the Flyte ‘family line’–all of the Flyte children are damaged in some way. But that’s the Flyte side of things; there’s also the maintenance side of things–the logistical problems of maintaining a palace such as Brideshead (the real-life Castle Howard) in the 20th century. Gone are the days of roping in serfs, but Brideshead has servants a-plenty–mainly treated like robots in human form, they are scattered throughout the house ensuring that the Flytes have just to tinkle a bell and have all their wants and needs supplied. When Sebastian starts demanding booze from the servants who’ve been given strict orders not to deliver, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were saying ‘below stairs.’

I suppose the absolute most sickening moment of the film depicts the snotty upper classes fighting against the working classes during the 1926 Strike. The miners somehow got the insane idea into their heads that they deserved a living wage! The cheek! And there we see the upper classes who’ve never worked a day in their lives enforcing the hierarchy. There’s no reflective moment–no pause to note the utter irony of this–just action taken by the rich against the poor in what is posited as a necessary social decree.

So I move on … Brideshead Revisited (the miniseries) makes more sense in some ways than the film version. The film version cast Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) as a sneaky villainess, while in the miniseries, although Sebastian hates his mother, she’s depicted as more meddling and misguided, and out-of-her depth–quite believable with her derelict son. The relationship between Charles and Julia is portrayed in a far more interesting (and tortured) light in the miniseries, and that’s precisely what makes the pretentious conclusion–which is little more than a veiled advert for Catholicism–that much more absurd.

Anyway, pretentious, and ponderous, Brideshead Revisited takes itself far too seriously. Towards the end, it became so smug and self-satisfied that I was actually rolling on the floor laughing at some of the portrayals. There’s one scene when Charles and Lydia walk through the grounds at a snail’s pace as they enjoy a navel-gazing moment together. But for me, the most ludicrous scenes involve Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne). This character is periodically revealed throughout the miniseries, at various points over an almost 30 year period, and it doesn’t matter what the hell is going on in the rest of the house or in the world for that matter, but there’s Nanny Hawkins PLANTED upstairs in the now defunct nursery in what passes for some sort of decaying continuity.

Anyway, a terrific disappointment considering all the wonderful reviews and glowing praise. The first half was excellent, and the scenes between Charles and his dotty father (John Gielgud) were priceless. But the series landed in the toilet with Sebastian’s departure and the focus shifted on Charles and the relationships the women in his life–the nasty wife, Celia (Jane Asher) and the bored Julia. To me, the very best part of the miniseries was the character of Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace), Sebastian’s stylish and most peculiar friend. He stole the show, and in contrast his character had some zest to it. The second half of the story was just hours cataloging the woes of a bunch of boring, wealthy, smug characters who lead stuffy, claustrophobic lives and wonder why they aren’t happy.

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