Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

Commentary by David Stewart

You may have recently reacquainted yourself with this classic public TV mini-series. The American Program Service and 20 stations have brought it back for a third set of broadcasts this year, after a few runs on Bravo. Here, David Stewart reminds us of the quality, scope and impact of the production when it premiered in this country 14 years ago.
Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick and Anthony Andrews were major players in the series, along with Castle Howard, the estate cast as Brideshead Castle. The production, made by Granada for Britain's  ITV network, leased Castle Howard from George Howard, chair of the competing BBC.

Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick and Anthony Andrews were major players in the series, along with Castle Howard, the estate cast as Brideshead Castle. The production, made by Granada for Britain’s ITV network, leased Castle Howard from George Howard, chair of the competing BBC.

On Monday evening, Jan. 18, 1982, the 11-part, 13-hour television series Brideshead Revisited broke over the PBS audience with the suddenness of a storm. Even those who had been enjoying WGBH’s Masterpiece Theatre for more than a decade were unprepared for this astonishing tour de force, presented by the Boston station’s rival, WNET in New York.

In the week Brideshead premiered, it was estimated that 60 percent of all the TV households in America watched PBS for an average of three hours. The New York Times called it “virtually flawless, avoiding excesses while making every nuance blazingly clear.” In the Washington Post, Henry Mitchell said, “It is the best series ever seen on American television.” Time, in a moment of prescience, observed that, “Once hooked, it is doubtful that viewers will give up on the series.” Indeed. It caused millions to change their Monday-night habits for the next 11 weeks.

By Valentine’s Day, Evelyn Waugh’s novel, from which the series had been adapted, leaped to the top of national paperback bestseller lists. Bloomingdale’s in New York opened a “Brideshead Revisited Shop” where Bill Blass offered loose-fitting flannel trousers (“Oxford bags”) and tie belts for gentlemen and Anne Klein sold low-waisted, pastel linen dresses and long, low-buttoned knit cardigans. On Fifth Avenue, F.A.O. Schwartz did a brisk business selling $40 copies of the teddy bear (“Aloysius”) carried by one of the series’ leading characters. The Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers published menus of dinners at Oxford in Waugh’s time. Plovers’ eggs were much sought-after. WNET’s publicity files still bulge with over a thousand press clippings — feature stories, fashion notes, descriptions of the lives of everyone associated with the production, architectural reports on the film sites and . . . more.

Considering the story — a rich, aristocratic British family, obsessed by Catholicism, brought down by self-hatred — it seems surprising that the series should have become one of American public TV’s greatest hits. (Before its publication, Waugh predicted his novel “would be enjoyed by no more than eight Americans.”)

Equally curious was the TV series’ financing. For Granada Television, the meticulous production took two-and-a-half years and an estimated $15 million. For WNET, it turned out to be one of American public television’s all-time best buys.

Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited between February and June in 1944, while on leave from military service following a parachuting injury. The novel’s narrator is Charles Ryder, a man of middle age like Waugh himself when he wrote the book. “My theme,” wrote Waugh, “is memory, that winged host.”

The memories he describes are those of a young man who becomes enthralled, first by an Oxford classmate, Sebastian Flyte, then by Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and finally by their irresistibly charming and self-destructive family whose existence is bound to intense religious beliefs and their home, Brideshead Castle. Charles loses Sebastian to alcoholism, later marries, then begins an affair with Julia. His wife leaves him, as does Julia after her father, Lord Marchmain, returns home from self-imposed exile in Venice, to die — but not before confirming his religious faith — at Brideshead Castle.

Timing may have had an important hand in Waugh’s recreation of the vivid social environment between the early ’20s and the end of World War II. When writing the book in the mid-’40s, he was close to his own experiences and observations, yet sufficiently removed so that they might be transformed by maturity and artistic experience. In the early chapters’ description of Charles and Sebastian at Oxford, Waugh’s prose is drenched in a roseate glow, a romantic decadence that may have caused him to write later, “Our dreams of the days that are past throw less light on our past than on our present situation.”

When he wrote Brideshead,  Waugh was at the top of his form, having published six previous novels, including A Handful of Dust and Decline and Fall. He would write 14 more books before his death in 1966, nine of them novels, but none more memorable than Brideshead. It was unique among his fiction as his brother, Alec, himself a prolific author, explains in his book, My Brother, Evelyn and Other Portraits: “Brideshead Revisited is the only one of his novels in which his poetic side was given a loose rein. He wrote it [soon] after the death of his father, whom he was much like. Is it too fanciful to suggest that death gave him a sense of release?”

Although both Alec and Evelyn dismiss attempts of critics and scholars to match Evelyn’s friends with characters in Brideshead, there is little question that the extraordinary young men among whom he moved as an Oxford undergraduate — Harold Acton, Cyril Connelly, Robert Byron and Anthony Powell, to name a few — helped to make the Oxford passages so compelling for readers and viewers.

Like his protagonist, Charles Ryder, Waugh left Oxford six months before graduating. His low grades would no longer sustain his scholarship. Soon thereafter, again like Ryder, he enrolled in art school.

“There was no Sebastian in Evelyn’s life,” asserts Alec Waugh. Perhaps. But in his last publication, the autobiography A Little Learning, Evelyn Waugh describes his romantic attachment to an Oxford classmate he calls “Hamish,” remarkably like the fictional Sebastian Flyte: “I could not have fallen under an influence better designed to encourage my natural frivolity, dilettantism and dissipation … Hamish’s mother [like Lady Marchmain] made friends with me as a link with her wayward son, and constantly appealed to me to mediate between them; always without effect.”

The famous scene in which Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier) dies at Brideshead, having at last made the sign of a cross, appears to have been drawn from an actual experience. When John Duggan, stepson of Lord Curzon, had fallen into a coma, Waugh summoned a priest and saw Duggan, who had been out of the church for years, give signs of faith and contrition. Waugh, believing that his book might one day be adapted, left specific instructions about this scene. The priest, he directed, should be plain, doing his job in a hum-drum fashion.

MGM’s loss was viewers’ gain

Despite Waugh’s gloomy prediction concerning Americans’ reception of his novel, it sold 750,000 copies here, when it was published in 1945. It was welcomed by John Hutchens of the New York Times (“Mr. Waugh’s finest achievement”) but not universally admired. Edmund Wilson, then America’s preeminent literary critic, who had previously described Waugh as “the only first-rate comic genius who has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw,” was “bitterly disappointed.” Diana Trilling told her readers that “when the characters are not wicked, they are silly.”

In 1960, William F. Buckley Jr., who, 22 years later, would introduce each episode of Brideshead on PBS, asked Waugh to write an occasional column for his National Review for a guaranteed $5,000 a year. “Higher pay, by far, than we have paid to Max Eastman, John Dos Passos and Whittaker Chambers,” he wrote to Waugh.

“I appreciate that in the circumstances, your offer is a generous one,” Waugh responded. “But until you get much richer (which I hope you will soon) or I get much poorer (which I fear might be sooner), I am unable to accept it.” The exchange embarrassed Buckley and delighted readers when it was reported by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In October 1946, Waugh went to Hollywood at the invitation of MGM. He had been offered $125,000 for the film rights to Brideshead. There was no deal: MGM wanted a love story, Waugh wanted total control over the script. Instead, he spent most of his time writing The Loved One, a satire of the California mortuary business, and left for London in February 1947. In 1951, another Brideshead project was planned, this time with Graham Greene as screenwriter. But adequate financing was not forthcoming and the scheme fell through.

Just as well, perhaps. “To turn Brideshead into a [MGM] two-hour film would be an appalling task,” John Mortimer later wrote in the New York Times. “The work would have to be cut so the texture became thin and the ‘plot’ stood out like a sore thumb. The complex, leisurely flow, which is the great charm of the book, would be lost in a tight ‘dramatic’ construction. . . . However good or bad, it would not be Brideshead Revisited.

As it happens, it was Mortimer who adapted Brideshead, and his script eventually extended to 13 hours. (He first tried unsuccessfully to “dramatize” the book as if it were a play, without the narrative voice-over that he later gave to Jeremy Irons.)

Granada, one of Britain’s leading commercial broadcasters, bought the rights to adapt Brideshead and in 1977 assigned Derek Granger as executive producer. Granger, who had been planning to film the novel for 10 years, engaged Mortimer to write the adaptation.

Mortimer, probably best known to Americans as the author of Rumpole of the Bailey series and the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father, is one of Britain’s most gifted and versatile dramatists as well as a famous defense attorney and prolific essayist.

It had been 37 years since Mortimer read the novel as a student at Oxford. “The book was a part of my life,” he says. “I had grown up in much the same way as Waugh. Adapting Brideshead, I thought Waugh should have his say. You may find him snobbish … or you may bless him as a brilliant and witty writer, who faced difficult problems of faith and duty with commendable courage — but as an adapter you must remain true to him, and that is what I tried to do.”

Although the manner in which Waugh himself defined the Brideshead story seems relatively simple — “The operation of divine grace upon a group of closely connected characters,” adapting and producing it for television could not have been easy assignments.

“We hugged the book,” Derek Granger later remarked in an interview. “We were true to its faults as well as its virtues.” When the most intriguing character, Sebastian, departs for his dissolute life in North Africa, he removes the novel’s centrality and focus. Many of the book’s most dramatic scenes happen “off-stage,” and are reported to the narrator, Charles Ryder. Ryder, himself, is often diffident to the point of vanishing. Jeremy Irons, the actor who plays Ryder, has reported his thoughts when he first read the book: “Is this character going to bore the audience? He certainly bores the pants off me.”

A risk pays off

While Granada was securing the rights for Brideshead, Robert Kotlowitz was dealing with the company as WNET’s representative in cofinancing a Dickens adaptation. WNET had supplied the production money for Hard Times (most of it from the National Endowment for the Humanities). “They produced, and we learned,” Kotlowitz says. “It was a terrific experience for both institutions. I had the okay on scripts and went to Manchester [Granada’s headquarters] a lot while Hard Times was being made. We decided to produce again as soon as possible.”

Kotlowitz, a novelist and former managing editor of Harper’s Magazine, had first become interested in public television after seeing The Forsyte Saga, the adaptation of John Galsworthy novels that was PBS’s first great success in 1970. He joined WNET in 1971.

“I was given the Brideshead scripts,” Kotlowitz recalls. “They were first-rate. However, it’s very difficult to tell with a book like Brideshead . . . I mean, who could conceive that a story like that would be such a [TV] success? We were told that for an investment of $400,000 we could be coproducers. I knew that Exxon [underwriter of Great Performances] moved very slowly; it wasn’t going to act soon. I called Jay [Iselin, then president of WNET] from London and told him the price, saying there was no assurance that Exxon would put up that kind of money, that we would have to go out and find it. He said ‘Commit,’ and I committed.”

WNET bought the U.S. rights: four plays in each of three years. As Kotlowitz says, it was “a spectacular example of a risk that really paid off.” When WNET signed its contract with Granada, Brideshead was planned as a four-episode production. No one could have foreseen how the series would grow or what a huge success it would be.

Derek Granger explains Granada’s position: “We wanted to do it without network pressures. PBS was the only possible place for us. We knew that PBS would not question our casting. It was essentially a money-up-front presale, enabling us [to air] the series abroad almost immediately. This is important in creating a great deal of stir.”

The north German regional network, NDR, also contributed $300,000 to be “associated” with the production, a deal that soured when, after the series was completed, NDR wanted to cut the number of episodes it would air.

What became the longest production in the history of British filmmaking began in January 1979 on Malta. In May, before filming was scheduled to commence at Oxford and at the “Brideshead Castle” site near York, labor unions called a strike against all British commercial TV companies, throwing production logistics into disarray. The strike was settled in October but precious summer shooting time had been lost, and all contracts needed to be renegotiated.

Even if production had come off according to schedule, the plans were daunting. They included a full-scale hunting scene, an army encampment at Brideshead Castle, a ship caught in a storm on the Atlantic, and several key scenes to be filmed in Venice.

The first director, Michael Lindsay Hogg, left the production during the strike to direct “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” on Broadway. Charles Sturridge, 28, an Oxford graduate like many in the production group, was brought in to direct. Sturridge had been a student of Derek Granger in Granada’s apprentice program. When one of the actors first met him, he described Sturridge as looking like “an ink-stained little English schoolboy.” Later, asked by a reporter how someone so young managed to direct such experienced actors as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Claire Bloom, Sturridge quickly replied, “Good actors are very easy to direct.”

Anthony Andrews, first invited to play Charles Ryder, asked to be considered for the role of Sebastian Flyte because it was such a radical departure from his last TV part, a dashing young officer in Danger-UXB, seen on Masterpiece Theatre. Andrews’ first major role was in the London production of Alan Bennett’s “40 Years On” with John Gielgud. He later appeared in several Masterpiece Theatre series: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Duchess of Duke Street, and The Pallisers.

Jeremy Irons had initially been offered the Sebastian part but turned it down for that of Charles Ryder. In the end, both actors were happy. For a time during the Brideshead production, Irons was also acting in another film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, opposite Meryl Streep. Here he was an older, bearded “Charles.” At the end of each day’s shooting in Oxford he would dash to the French Lieutenant’s … production site in London for night filming, reappearing next morning in Oxford.

Irons had wanted to become a veterinarian but lacked the grades to enter a school for this profession, so became an actor. After The Old Vic Theatre School, singing and playing guitar for London theater-goers at Leicester Square and acting with the Theatre Royale in Bristol, he landed his first major role as John the Baptist in Godspell. Like Andrews, he also acted in Masterpiece Theatre series — Love for Lydia and The Pallisers.

The reclusive father of Charles Ryder was played by John Gielgud, who was then celebrating his 60th year in British theatre. He had played Hamlet 500 times and had been knighted in 1953. In a review of Brideshead, the London Standard said Gielgud’s performance would “make hard-working young actors writhe with envy.” (The same might have been said of his cameo appearance in the 1997 film, Shine, 16 years later, when Gielgud was approaching his mid-’90s.)

When he played the part of Lord Marchmain, Sebastian’s father, living in Venice with his mistress, Laurence Olivier was among many friends in the Brideshead production. He had not, however, appeared together with Gielgud since a 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet. He was well acquainted with John Mortimer, having appeared not long before with Alan Bates in Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. In 1956 Olivier had invited Claire Bloom (who plays his estranged wife, Lady Marchmain, in Brideshead) to act opposite him as Lady Anne in Richard III. Her many roles had included those in The Lady’s Not For Burning with Richard Burton, Ring Round the Moon with Paul Scofield and Chaplin’s Limelight.

Diana Quick, 34 at the time of the Brideshead production, spent 21 months playing the part of Julia, Sebastian’s older sister and Charles Ryder’s mistress. She too had graduated from Oxford, where she had been president of its prestigious Dramatic Society.

At the end of the production, Anthony Andrews observed, “If we had to do it over there would be no way we could ever bring a cast and crew like that together and work for two seemingly interminable years . . .”

Sturridge directed from October 1979 until May 1980, when the production was interrupted again so that Jeremy Irons could complete his assignment in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Filming resumed in August and, to everyone’s great relief, was completed in January 1981.

One of the series’ most memorable cast members is Castle Howard, an 18th-century house that stood in for Brideshead Castle. Somewhat ironically, the house was owned and leased to the company by George Howard, chairman of Granada’s broadcasting rival, the BBC. Sturridge says that at first the house was meant to seem awesome, then more like a home, and finally a dominating presence.

The castle had been designed by an army captain and amateur architect. Commissioned in 1699, it was first occupied 16 years later by Lord Howard’s ancestor, Charles Howard, the third Earl of Carlisle. Lease income from Granada helped George Howard restore many of the castle’s rooms (he reckoned there were between 130 and 140) destroyed by fire in 1940.

Christopher Sykes, Waugh’s biographer, acknowledging that there were several contenders for the model for Brideshead Castle, says that Castle Howard with its five-mile private drive, its fountain in front, its tower, dome and tall entry was the one Waugh probably had in mind. Some parts of the castle are open to the public and there is a small restaurant, but the private quarters still house the family. Waugh was a frequent visitor at grand country estates, and a snob, as many have observed, occasionally lowering his two-foot ear trumpet out of disrespect for those he considered bores or otherwise unworthy. A journalist visiting the castle after Brideshead became popular reported that “Castle Howard was crowded with middle-class summer visitors. If [Waugh] were not dead the thought would have killed him.” More to his liking would have been the memory of a woman visitor in 1807 who wrote, “It is better to be a pheasant at Castle Howard than most things elsewhere.”

When the series opened in Britain in 1981 virtually all professional critics remarked upon Brideshead‘s sheer beauty: “radiant images of beautiful people, beautiful places, beautiful things, a museum of luminous daydreams.” Robert Kotlowitz, remembering his first impression, says “It was gorgeous.” Much of the credit for such visual splendor belongs to the production’s director of photography, Ray Goode, who, along with Jane Robinson, a leading British designer and theatrical costumer, created sumptuous fantasies based upon authenticity. (The interior scenes on the ship were filmed in the art deco lobby of Mayfair’s Park Lane Hotel.) “You can’t just design old frocks,” declared Jane Robinson. “You have to think about the sort of women they are.”

Granada’s plea

Soon after the strike in 1979 Kotlowitz in his WNET office began receiving phoned reports from Manchester about the enlarged plans for the production — the consequence, he was informed, of “the writers now having time to think more expansively.” First he was told that it looked like five hours, then six. Six months later, it had grown to eight, and that was not the end.

“I said,” Kotlowitz remembers, I had no objection to [a greater length], but you have to know that we can’t invest any more money. Well, ultimately it was up to 13 hours and we stayed at $400,000. By then Granada itself didn’t know how much they had invested. To this day they can’t tell you how much the series cost. Once it was made (by then Exxon had committed the original $400,000), Granada came back and said ‘Can you help us?’

“Well, it’s very hard for public television to say we’ll put more money in. Where are you going to put it in from? So we managed to get some [more] money together from Exxon — they were very helpful in this situation. It was about $100,000, another 20 percent, not at all significant in terms of the total budget. Granada’s investment must have been $15 million ultimately. And there we were for a half million.”

Following its U.K. premiere in the fall of 1981, Anthony Burgess, perhaps Britain’s most respected novelist, wrote, “I think it is the best piece of fictional TV ever made. It is the book. In some ways, it is better than the book.”

The Sunday Times called the series “compulsive viewing” and the Financial Times told its readers that Brideshead was the nearest thing to perfect in the entire history of television series.

This effusiveness was repeated by U.S. critics, when the series opened six months later on PBS. As in Britain, Brideshead‘s appearance precipitated a rash of ’20s costume parties and a flood of new scholarly assessments of Waugh’s literary works. Newspaper and magazine journalists stood on each other’s shoulders to reach for words of praise — “irresistibly seductive,” “sumptuously beautiful” — during the series’ first run and when it was repeated beginning July 11, 1983.

A handful of writers staunchly bucked the tide of this acclamatory outpouring, their contrarian missives leveled not so much at Brideshead as at public broadcasting and the Brits. To wit, this widely reprinted excerpt from Jonathan Yardley’s column in the Washington Post: “Once again we gullible Yankees have been taken in by the crafty Limeys. We’ve been duped! It’s just a British bore, a soap opera for the educated and moderately affluent gentry that gets its politics from public radio and its economics from Louis Rukeyser. Give us a smidgen of Eton and a dollop of Harrod’s, toss in a thigh of Princess Di, and we writhe in our near uncontrollable ecstasy.”

One generally acknowledged negative aspect of WNET’s production was the addition of remarks by William F. Buckley Jr., following each episode. They were frequently dismissed or put down as mistakes. In a column titled, “Sloppy Shirt-tales on a Neat Show,” Newsday critic Marvin Kitman compared Buckley to the character Bridey, Sebastian’s older brother: “He has a certain lack of humor about his condition. His face is set in perpetual grimace, a pained expression which is contagious. He even sounds more British than Bridey.”

With Brideshead‘s overwhelming success in Britain came Granada’s full comprehension of what this achievement had cost. The series had been an unqualified hit in England and was almost certain to be an outstanding success in America. Granada again pressed the Americans to pick up a larger share of the huge costs.

It has been more than 15 years since Robert Kotlowitz faced Granada’s appeals and hostility, but even now this extremely reticent man lowers his voice when discussing the encounter.

“Beyond the fact that we had a contract, we were not newcomers to each other,” he says. “It was very unpleasant. I came home from that trip [to Manchester] so angry I couldn’t even talk about it.” Clearly, his meetings with the Granada executives left a deep impression.

In a 1982 radio interview, Jac Venza remarked, “It’s going to be hard to look at a 90-minute feature film again that encompasses a novel of this sweep.”

Indeed, it seems unlikely that another series like Brideshead will come our way soon. Its secret of success is no secret: take a first-rank novel, have it adapted by an experienced writer whose unique literary skill and sensibility matches his understanding of the theater’s dramatic requirements, assemble a cast of immensely gifted performers supervised by a seasoned producer who is able to communicate his intense dedication to the author’s story and a director who inspires confidence, employ the best technicians, don’t worry greatly about production cost overruns, and … voila, Brideshead Revisited.

The language of the drama is somewhat ornate, as it is in the novel, something that Waugh, himself, later acknowledged. Is it “too literary” as some think? John Mortimer says he hopes it is: “So is Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wilde. American television audiences, accustomed to the doctrine that two minutes is too long a pause between each visual shock, may, perhaps, find this a change and something of a relief.

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