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Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Granada for ITV, tx. 12/10-22/12/1981
11 x 60 min episodes (except 115 and 105 min opening and closing), colour
DirectorsCharles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Production CompanyGranada Television
ProducerDerek Granger
AdaptationJohn Mortimer
Original AuthorEvelyn Waugh
Lighting CameramanRay Goode
MusicGeoffrey Burgon

Cast: Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder), Diana Quick (Julia Flyte), Roger Milner (Wilcox), Phoebe Nicholls (Cordelia Flyte), Simon Jones (Brideshead), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian Flyte), Charles Keating (Rex Mottram), John Gielgud (Edward Ryder)

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Charles Ryder looks back at his twenty-year association with Brideshead Castle, the family home of his dearest companions Sebastian Flyte and his sister Julia, and the impact that their Catholic beliefs have had on him.

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In 1959 Evelyn Waugh revised Brideshead Revisited, perhaps his greatest novel and certainly his longest, removing what he termed "a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language". Granada Television's 1981 adaptation, however, can hardly be accused of following the same line, positively glorying as it does in every luxurious aspect of the book in fastidious detail. Spread out over nearly 13 hours, it represents not only a celebration of a world gone by, but also a summation of a particular style of British television literary drama now also a thing of the past.

While the adaptation sticks mostly to the letter of the novel, the script does put greater emphasis on the homosexual aspects of the story, which are tastefully handled throughout, although the representation of the Wildean dandy Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace) lacks subtlety. The script's overall fidelity, however, also leads to some structural difficulties, such as the cumbersome flashbacks within flashbacks, as well as the Proustian problem of having a seemingly omniscient narrator describe events at which they are not present, seen at its most extended in 'Julia' (tx. 16/11/1981), an episode in which Ryder hardly appears.

Jeremy Irons, as Waugh's self-confessed alter ego Charles Ryder, reads out much of the book verbatim in his ever-present narration, his sonorous melancholy tones matched by Geoffrey Burgon's memorable music score. As he traverses 20 years, from callow 1920s Oxford undergraduate to burned-out Captain in the latter stages of World War Two, Irons is ideally cast as the often chilly and remote protagonist, although Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia is remarkable in her gradual transformation from a young teenager to a woman in her thirties.

Made on a gigantic budget, the filming was spread out over nine months and included location work in Venice, Malta (substituting for Mexico and North Africa), Portmerion and the QEII liner, while Castle Howard in Yorkshire stood in for the titular home of the Marchmain family.

With its sterling literary and acting credentials, glossy surface sheen and rose-tinted view of the past, Brideshead Revisited's success led to a string of similarly nostalgic film and television productions that went hand-in-hand with the backward-looking worldview propounded by the Thatcher and Major governments (1979-1997). The iconic image of Sebastian (Anthony Andrews) clutching his oversized teddy-bear Aloysius was embraced by students up and down the country.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Brideshead castle (3:02)
2. Religious beliefs (2:57)
3. Venice (3:06)
4. Motherly advice (3:47)
Complete episode (53:11)
Sword of Honour (1967)
Andrews, Anthony (1948-)
Asher, Jane (1946-)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Irons, Jeremy (1948-)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Washbourne, Mona (1904-1988)
Granada Television
TV Literary Adaptation