The idea of a perfect past has been around at least as long as Paradise, the Garden of Eden, or the Dreamtime. Nostalgia for what never was, but should have been, is a strong emotion that quickly turns complex history into easy images. When Evelyn Waugh penned Brideshead Revisited, the largely autobiographical novel explored corruption and guilt. But it was the glittering background of wealth and privilege that captured the public imagination when, in 1981, after four years of production, an eleven-episode TV miniseries hit the small screen. Always the snob, Waugh would have been appalled to see his work on ‘the box,’ but a British public stunned by years of social upheaval was more than ready to indulge in the lush dreams of a time between the wars when life was sweet – for some. The bitter aftertaste was easily ignored.
- 11 episodes aired in the fall and winter of 1981
- Starred Jeremy Irons, with Laurence Olivier in a supporting role
- Set in the world of Oxford and the English country home
- Won multiple BAFTAs and other awards
- Created an enduring interest in the tastes and style of the English upper-class
The British have always done nostalgia better than anyone else. This is undoubtedly the reason that, although it appeared in just 11 episodes in late 1981, Brideshead Revisited remains an enduring milestone in British television; the show also marked the arrival of Granada Television as a significant and mature rival for the BBC as a producer of adult television drama. It was a time when television productions were moving from the studio to the outdoor locations used for ‘real’ movie making.
Brideshead Revisited was based on the novel of the same name, written by the English writer Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was not a very nice man. Born into a literary but not wealthy family, he wrote to achieve the wealth that would give him entry into the upper class he aspired to. Bigoted and greedy, his family suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of his enormous, all-consuming ego – but he could write. Most of his novels were jaded and cynical, but ‘Brideshead Revisited’, published in 1945 as Britain emerged from the trauma of its second war in 30 years, was in part an exercise in pure romantic nostalgia. It was clear to Waugh that his despised ‘common man’ would control the 20th century, and the novel looks back with longing to the years of the easy privilege and self-assured superiority of the ruling class. That class would remain largely intact if somewhat diminished in its privilege, but its powerful sense of certainty and security had been destroyed. Waugh died in 1966, but he would certainly have despised the appearance of his book on something so vulgar and common as a television set.
The original producer, Sir Michael Edward Lindsay-Hogg, had begun his career directing pop music shows for television, and he was deeply involved with groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Most of his career was spent making films about the lives and music of pop stars, so Brideshead Revisited was a departure for him. Production began in 1979, with shooting in Morocco, but it was delayed by technical strikes at ITV, and by the time it was possible to begin again, Lindsay-Hogg had moved on to other things, and he was no longer available.
The direction was taken over by the actor and television show director Charles Sturridge. He was only 30 and had limited experience, but he brought a freshness and clear eye to the show. The delays were, in another way, fortunate. The main actor, Jeremy Irons, became involved at the same time in the film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and its release in September 1981, to glowing reviews, turned Irons into an instant heartthrob and ‘big name,’ boosting interest in Brideshead Revisited, which first aired in October of the same year.
Two full-length rear-nude shots of Irons in the show would have been greeted with rapture by at least some viewers of both genders, although his performance is oddly stilted, as if he, like the viewer, has difficulty grasping the motives and feelings of the cryptic Charles Ryder, the central figure in the story. In 1943 Ryder is posted to a base in England that turns out to be the home of a close friend from his time at Oxford University. The story takes place in flashback, beginning in 1922, when Charles, an aspiring artist, first met Lord Sebastian Flyte, played by Anthony Andrews. At Oxford, Charles is introduced to the self-indulgent and decadent life of Sebastian and his friends, particularly Anthony Blanche (played by Nickolas Grace), who was openly gay at a time when it was a criminal offense in the UK.
When the term ends at Oxford, Sebastian invites Charles to spend the summer with him at Brideshead Castle, his family home. There Charles is introduced to the more rigid society of the rich and famous, spending time with Sebastian’s mother (Claire Bloom) and his two sisters, Julia and Cordelia. As well as his older brother Brideshead (called ‘Bridey’). Sebastian’s father is Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), who lives in Venice with his mistress Clara, played by the French actress Stéphane Audran. Charles and Sebastian go there to spend time with him. Charles moves between Sebastian’s world and his own very different middle-class one, with his eccentric father, Edward, brilliantly played by Sir John Gielgud.
Unusually, the family is part of the old English Catholic aristocracy, a religion that intrigued Waugh and to which he converted in 1930. Much of the story of Brideshead Revisited is autobiographical, including Waugh’s drinking (Sebastian becomes an alcoholic) and the undertones of homosexuality, expressed in the languid manners of the young men and especially the overt self-parody of Anthony Blanche. Waugh had himself engaged in homosexual relationships as a student, and one of the important themes underlying the story is of Catholic ‘Grace’ – the immediate forgiveness of all sin through the act of unqualified belief in God. Is it possible to live a sinful life and then be forgiven at the point of death and so enter heaven? If it is, then what is the point and meaning of living a ‘good life’? Did Waugh hope that his conversion would save him from his ‘sin’ as a student?
For ten hours, the plot follows the twists and turns in the lives of Charles Ryder and the Marchmain family, as well as indulging in extended dialogues on faith, guilt, and Catholicism. Charles comes and goes to Brideshead, falling in and out of favor. Sebastian sinks further into alcoholism, eventually being taken in by a hospice in North Africa. His younger sister Cordelia enters a nun-like life of ‘good works’ and spinsterhood. Julia marries a divorced Protestant, despite the strong objections of her family. On the eve of WWII, Charles and Julia meet on a trans-Atlantic liner and begin an affair which they continue for two years, living together at Brideshead. They are displaced, and the family is scattered when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead so that he can die at home. A family struggle ensues over his receiving the last sacraments, and despite Charles’ objections, a priest is finally brought, and it does seem that Lord Marchain accepts Grace, making the Sign of the Cross in his dying moments. Julia breaks off her plans to marry Charles and for them to inherit Brideshead because of Charles’ stubborn agnosticism. Like her father (and Waugh), she wants to believe that God will forgive her ‘life of sin’ at the final moment, with His Grace, and she will escape eternal punishment. The story ends where it began, with Charles returning to Brideshead in 1944. We discover he, too has found some kind of faith as he prays in the now de-sanctified family chapel.
If all this sounds grim, it is, but the popularity of the TV show did not rest in its exploration of the limits of faith but in pure nostalgia. Brideshead itself is the star, played with dignity and gravity by Castle Howard in Yorkshire. It represents the lost grandeur of a world that began in Edwardian England, was deeply wounded by WWI, and then savaged by WWII and its aftermath. In truth, it was a time of privilege, leisure, and decadence only for a very few, but by the 1980s, it was a collective memory of the many, as if everyone in England in the 1920s lived this life, now tragically lost. The combination of brilliant acting by legendary actors, old and new, and beautiful filming at a languid pace matching the suspended lives of the characters combined to create the ultimate British experience. The soundtrack, by Geoffrey Burgon, in the lush ‘neo-classical’ style popular at the time, evokes the same nostalgia for a past that never really was but, for many, certainly could have been.
The 1970s was a grim time in the UK. The Swinging Sixties had been the first breath of fresh air since the privations and destruction of WWII, but by 1973 it was all falling apart again, with the oil crisis putting the country on a three-day working week for a time. The ascendance of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 began a period of industrial chaos, focused on the closing of the coal mines that were the backbone of the North, as Reaganomics replaced the socialism of the post-war years. By the time Brideshead Revisited arrived, so much had changed, and the show’s evocation of loss captured the collective imagination of a country slowly emerging from austerity and turmoil.
The series was an instant success, both in the UK and in the USA, where it was released on PBS three months later. It spawned a fanbase obsessed with tweed, tuxedos, and champagne flutes, as well as a fascination for the darker underbelly of smoking jackets, blue nail polish, and male pouts. Inevitably, not everyone was seduced. Ginia Bellafante, in The New York Times, later wrote that it all felt like “24 hours of the Fine Living Network”.
Brideshead Revisited garnered many awards. In 1982 it won Best Drama Serial from both the BAFTA and Broadcast Press Guild. It swept the BAFTA awards that year, also winning Best Actor for Anthony Andrews and topping Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound, Make-up, and Scenic Design. It won a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries and a Primetime Emmy, for Laurence Olivier, for Outstanding Support Actor. The soundtrack CD sold 100,000 copies, giving Geoffrey Burgon his second Ivor Novello Award.
Places to Visit
Castle Howard was the star of the show. Most of the garden scenes and many interiors were shot there. A stately home, rather than a true castle, Castle Howard was begun in 1699 and took 100 years to complete. It is the family home of the Howard family. Situated outside the city of York, in Yorkshire, the garden and parts of the house are open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.
The outside of Marshmain House, the Flyte’s London home that Charles is commissioned to capture on canvas before its demolition, was played by Bridgewater House, 14 Cleveland Row, St James’s. London. Built in 1854 in its present configuration, it is today privately owned by the family of Greek shipping magnate Yiannis Latsis. The interiors of Marshmain House were filmed at Tatton Hall, part of a complex of stately homes and historic buildings in Tatton Park, Knutsford, Cheshire. It is open daily, with precise hours varying with the seasons.
Julia’s wedding was filmed in the chapel of Lyme Park. This stately home and garden, now managed by the National Trust, is in Disley, Stockport, Cheshire, near Manchester. The house and gardens are open from 10 am or 11 am until 3 pm.
The sequences in Oxford were filmed at Hertford College, where Whaugh studied. The rooms used by Charles are the same as Waugh lived in for a time. Wadham College and Christ Church College were also used. Herford is closed to the public, but Christ Church houses an important art collection that can be viewed by visitors to Oxford.
Some of the ocean-liner sequences were filmed in the Park Lane Hotel, London or the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool. Other sequences were filmed on the ‘Queen Elizabeth 2’.
Where to Watch
- Available on Amazon Prime
- Also available on BritBox in a special 4K remaster (it’s also been color corrected from the bluray versions, which appear washed out)
- DVD Boxed sets available of the complete show, with extras and documentaries
- A film adaptation was made in 2008. A lush film, it is mostly a Cliff-noted version of the story and is not considered an adequate telling (at least according to this editor!).
- In 2020, the BBC and HBO announced they were making a new landmark drama based on the book, but in 2022, it looks like the project was canceled because it was going to be too expensive.
- Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
- Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, by Philip Eade
- The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography, by Douglas Patey
- The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939, by Adrian Tinniswood
- Aristocrats: Power, Grace, and Decadence: Britain’s Great Ruling Classes from 1066 to the Present, by Lawrence James
- The Old Upper Class — Britain’s Aristocracy, by Victoria Krummel, 2008