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Why do we keep popping back to Brideshead?

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Publicity still from 1981 series
Andrews (left), Irons and Aloysius

A new film version of Brideshead Revisited is about to have its premiere, but why are we so taken with a story about a troubled aristocratic family?

Sunny afternoons in Oxford. The clink of martini glasses on a summer evening.

The gentle slosh of a punt through the water on the Isis.

Oh and something about Roman Catholic guilt. Class tension. Adultery. Homoerotic friendships. The changes wrought by war. The power of grace. And a teddy bear named Aloysius.

Brideshead Revisited is a novel that - aided by an epic television adaptation in 1981 - has been embedded in British popular culture since its post-war publication.

For those who have managed to evade the book, the television adaptation and now the film - which premieres on Monday night - this is the story of Charles Ryder, a middle-class undergraduate at Oxford who is thrust into friendship with Sebastian Flyte, a hedonistic aristocrat.

This friendship takes Charles into the bosom of Sebastian's Catholic family, who live mostly at the imposing Brideshead stately home.

The events of the novel are being remembered by Charles - now an officer - arriving at a Brideshead long vacated by the family and now requisitioned for the war effort.

INSPIRATION FOR BRIDESHEAD?
Madresfield
Brideshead said to be based on Madresfield, moated house in Malvern Hills
Home of the Lygon family and the Earls Beauchamp
Sebastian Flyte variously said to be based on Stephen Tennant, Alistair Graham or Hugh Lygon
Lord Marchmain loosely inspired by Earl Beauchamp, who left country in 1931 after being outed

For author Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic convert, the central theme of the book was religion. As he put it, "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters". In an era that celebrated the Catholicism-infused novels of Graham Greene and others, there was nothing strange about such a leitmotif.

In today's Britain, the Catholic aspect is no doubt lost on many, and yet the grip of the story remains.

"There is so much in it apart from that Catholic theme," says Alexander Waugh, grandson of the author, and writer of the Waugh family biography Fathers and Sons.

"It is a very rich book - nostalgia, of fading youth, beautiful language, a bit of sentiment. We all look back with a mixture of regret and pleasure. It is very beautiful and very warming.

"People who have been to university often look back to university as the happiest times in their lives. Even though we might have been drunk or broke. We look back on those days as idyllic happiness."

Of course, as important and popular a novel as Brideshead Revisited was, many people know it not from 300 or so pages of purple prose, but rather from the 1981 Granada television adaptation.

Labour of love

Starring Anthony Andrews as the doomed Sebastian and with Jeremy Irons as Charles, and with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud backing up, the lavish evocation of pre-war Oxford was lapped up by television audiences.

Producer Derek Granger spent nearly five years, from conception to broadcast, on the adaptation, including a year-and-a-half of filming.

Evelyn Waugh
The book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful
Evelyn Waugh

"It was a monumental labour of love," he says. "When we made it [the television series] we wanted to be absolutely true to the spirit of the novel. We realised it was a masterpiece and just wanted to keep faith with the meaning of the book.

"It was quite daring to make it so slowly - it is the essence of the detail, people can feel the richness."

In the era before multi-channel television and the video recorder, the series was one of a handful that pinned much of the nation to its sofas.

Granger became aware of the effect of his work when he was disturbed one night in his flat in Brighton by a commotion.

"There was a hullabaloo. I knocked on the door and there were kids in feather boas who said 'we're having a Brideshead party'."

Teddy bear pilgrimage

The series was much-loved by everyone from students to maiden aunts. And it found fans on the other side of the Atlantic.

Author of a biography of Waugh, Prof Douglas Patey of Smith College, Massachusetts, talks of students taking a "pilgrimage to Castle Howard [where the 1981 series and new film were shot] to see the original teddy bear".

THEMES
Divine grace
Nostalgia
Class relations
Decline of aristocracy
Architecture
Change caused by war
Homoerotic friendship

"I frequently teach the novel. What they like are the evocations of life at Oxford, the evocations of a glorious estate."

At its most basic level the Brideshead story has an opulence and decadence that many people relish - a dose of lush escapism for troubled times.

The novel was published in 1945, with the country still in the thick of the privations of war and rationing. When the series was aired in 1981, the country was sliding into a grim recession. Now the film version is taking its bow in 2008 as global markets crumble and the UK and the US are again facing recession.

But when Waugh revised the novel in 1960 he revealed that he thought some elements had been a little overcooked in the straitened circumstance of 1944.

Romantic novel

"It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster - the period of soya beans and Basic English - and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful," he wrote.

The eating and the drinking and the parties and the luxury provide an excellent counterpoint to the Catholicism at the heart of the book.

Felicity Jones, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson and Matthew Goode
Brideshead 2008, with Hayley Atwell and Emma Thompson

"The surface is very glamorous, it is a very romantic novel and it's about the high life and the young upper middle class man being inducted into the high aristocracy," says Granger. "Underneath it is this huge reverberating engine of this very, very powerful religious theme."

But Brideshead Revisited also taps into a common undergraduate fantasy - that somewhere out there, beyond the halls and cloisters, there is another group of students having a much better time and assailing each other with witty repartee. This is the fast set that Charles joins when he meets Sebastian.

Much of the appeal of the story lies in its nostalgia. Charles is looking back at his days as a young man from the vantage point of his middle years. And at the same time the reader gets to look back at a different England, one that by 1945 seemed to be on its last legs.

"For more sophisticated readers it's a story of how memory works," says Prof Patey. "The older you become, the more you have to reinterpret. You always have to ask which speaker is speaking."

And if there is one thing that the release of the new film tell us, it is that some stories are resonant enough to merit regular return.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Why bother to remake the Granada version with Jeremy Irons? Hard to top it, and no reason to. Think I'll watch it next weekend on DVD.
Valerie, Gulf Breeze, FL

I don't know the novel, but fell in love with the television series when it aired in 1981. I was pregnant with my second child, Julia, at the time, living in Madison, WI. Both my children would've been named Charles if they were male. To this day I can hear Charles' and Sebastian's voices - so evocative. I will see the film first chance I get.
Lori Wawrzonek, Milwaukee, WI, USA

A glimpse into the downfall of the unconventional lives of the wealthy in the near past, all from the point of view of an outsider, is the staple of much of the world's best-loved fiction. America's most famous novel is "The Great Gatsby", and the classic film "Citizen Kane" is also a much loved work on a similar theme. It's perhaps unsurprising that the Flytes are less brash and flamboyant than Gatsby or Kane, but the reasons for the work's continued popularity is largely the same.
Terence Edwards, Montreal, Canada

Nostalgia and loss; the pain of return - I'll never forget that once ornate fountain, eventually wrapped in barb wire and filled with cigarette butts. What a metaphor for 21st Century 'Great' Britain.
Kerry Hagan, Preston

I will be interested to see this film, but I don't think anything could better Granada's TV series. I went to Castle Howard 20 years ago and it was lovely to see where it was filmed. This was a truly golden age for ITV - between Brideshead and The Jewel In the Crown we were truly spoiled. I found the latter better than the books and have heard the same is often said about the former.
Linda, Kirkcaldy

Redolent in the romanticism and the langour of youth. Brideshead had a huge influence on me as an 18 year old watching it for the first time and luxuriating and delighting in its depth, colour and its reflection on the nature of beauty and faith. Falling in love with Sebastian, Charles, Anthony Blanche and of course Julia. The Granada 1981 version has pride of place in my dvd collection and my copy of the book is falling to pieces! Can't think of a better way to recommend a book. Don't think Brideshead can be abridged for a feature film but am willing to give it a try.
Andrew James Barker, Sheffield, England

Am I alone in dreading this new, sexed-up Hollywoodised remake? This isn't a serious film for connoisseurs, it is simply an advert for the British Tourist Board designed to appeal to the Americans. It's a pity that the established British actors taking part couldn't resist the money or the publicity because they must all be aware of the mighty Granada TV series, scripted by John Mortimer. Why not have a stab at one of the other vintage Waugh novels such as Decline & Fall?
Julian Karswell, Norwich, England

I recall my time as an undergraduate at the Other Place in the early 80s. When I started, there was still a kind of afterglow of 60s student rebellion (Thatcher's Britain, comrade). By the time I left, the place was full of fey people poncing around in black tie and clutching tatty old teddy bears.
Fat Tony, London

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