Brideshead Revisited: The Great 1981 TV Series

Evelyn Waugh’s best novel is brought to life in this 11 part, 660 min. Granada/Acorn classic on DVD once called “the best series ever” by  TheWashington Post.

The initial/main focus in this melodrama is on the relationship of Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons in the role that made him a star) with his 1922 gay Oxford chum Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews in his best-ever role) and members of the latter’s family into the 1940s of WWII in England. Brideshead, Sebastian’s home, (played by the magnificent Castle Howard) is the locale for much of the action as Charles interacts with family members up to and past Lord Marchmain’s (Sebastian’s rogue-father living in sin and exile played by the great scene-stealing Laurence Olivier) death. In fact, the plot begins and ends with Charles, an officer, returning to the changed estate with his troop, and the main storyline is told in flashback in voice-over as Charles remembers his old friend and his own and family past.

Each minor character has his or her own story and relationship to Ryder and the family; each character being well-acted by British actors of the day. Diana Quick plays Sebastian’s sister Julia, who marries an ambitious politician-businessman Rex (Charles Keating) against her family’s wishes and later falls in love with Charles. Phoebe Nicholls plays Sebastian’s equally devout younger sister Cordelia. Claire Bloom makes an excellent Lady Marchmain, a pious mother who drove her husband and Sebastian away. Jane Asher (once Paul McCartney’s girlfriend) does a strong turn as Charles’ determined wife. And the veteran Mona Wasbourne plays Nanny, Sebastian’s favorite at Brideshead–the nanny popular with the rest of the Flyte family. She turns out to be an unexpected survivor after the family abandons Brideshead in wartime.

The male supporting cast is equally strong with Nickolas Grace as the funny, showy, effete gay friend of Charles and Sebastian, who understands the Flytes best of all right from the beginning. John Grillo makes a suitable Uriah Heep-figure who worms his way into the plot as Sebastian’s companion and ‘jailer’ when Sebastian’s mother assigns him that role to watch over her alcoholic son. Simon Jones makes a wonderful Bridey–an older ass, stiff- upper-lip brother to Sebastian throwing various wrenches into the works. And John Gielgud is as scene-stealing as Olivier, playing Charles’ humorous, indifferent, cynical father. Overall, this series has perhaps the best British cast ever assembled for a dramatic tv series.

Though much of the early focus is on Charles’ relationship with Sebastian, the focus changes as Sebastian becomes increasingly dissolute and living separate from his family. The focus then moves onto Charles’ dealings with the family, mostly at Brideshead. Evelyn Waugh, the author, was himself a Catholic and interested in the various issues revolving around devout Catholics and their lives and lifestyles. This subfocus is also what most of what the rest of the series is about. And so these Catholic conflicts of the Flyte characters are observed by and reacted to by Charles, especially when Lord Marchmain, a lapsed Catholic comes home to die.

The last two episodes resolve whatever confusions and bring the series to a more exalted, thoughtful and serious ending after all the earlier frivolities,  conflicts and issues.. The viewer is left, impressed by the scope of the plot, feeling that real life and lives have been realistically presented, much as in a good novel or in actual life.

My only quibble about the series is that it could have been one episode shorter by combining two needlessly longer episodes at sea when Charles’ marriage dissolves and he meets Julia again. (There are two brief scenes of distracting, gratuitous male nudity that might also have been omitted.) There is nothing else that a viewer might have wished for in terms of economical and effective editing to make this strong series stronger.

There will, no doubt, viewers who wish that the Charles and Sebastian plot had run longer or that the two of them might have had happier endings, but, as stated above, this is a realistic plot and book, inspired by the author’s own glory days as a ‘Bright Young Thing’. Anyone interested in upper class British life from the 1920s to ’40s will find this a valuable background of a lifestyle. Likewise, anyone interested in issues that were once significant for Catholics in relationships of the past.

There are many reasons to check out the series, but the best one may be for serious or veteran viewers who enjoy seeing the sweep and conflicts of life played out on a larger scale than a movie can do. The feel of which is something very close to reading a book such as Waugh’s own novel. In any case, the quality of this production is quite high and consistently commendable. An enthusiastic 9/10 for a thoroughly entertaining, leisurely series which charms and delights repeatedly.

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