The 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited is regularly used as an example by those convinced that we live in dumbed-down times. It is impossible to disagree, when you consider that this 11-part series of Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel went out on ITV at the prime time slot of 9pm. It would be inconceivable now; indeed one can’t imagine the main commercial channel even taking the chance of showing a two-hour movie version.
But this is not the only reason why we could no longer witness such a blockbuster on the small screen. The series, with its portrayal of a young man’s infatuation with the members of an aristocratic family all doomed in their own ways, came at an interesting cultural moment. It glistened in the schedules at a time when, elsewhere, that ripping yarn about pre-war champion Brits, Chariots of Fire, was winning Oscars, Charles was marrying Diana, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was selling in its thousands and Jeremy Hackett was discovering a surprising market for tweed among young people. Even the Season was enjoying a revival, as yet unsubsidised by Russian oligarchs. Nostalgia of the crinoline and country house variety was big business.
It was perhaps a final counterblast by the old establishment, a last fling. The British Empire strikes back, if you like. But those days of the early 1980s are long gone – even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. And it might explain why the new cinema version of Brideshead Revisited has such a marooned quality. American critics, many of whom now have little memory of or cultural affection for the British product which once dominated Masterpiece Theatre, have already mostly treated it as simply de trop. Other than the Merchant Ivory crowd and gay men in thrall to aristocratic taste – both diminishing demographics – it will surely struggle to find an audience here too.
Does it deserve one? Well, despite the director Julian Jarrold’s sweeping use of Castle Howard as – once again – a stand-in for Brideshead, and the opening up of the book’s Venice sequence to include some roistering Carnival scenes, it is in all senses a much reduced retelling. In following Charles Ryder’s journey through the Marchmain family, the TV production took its time – 600 minutes of it – and in the process managed to convey a real sense of the grandeur not only of the milieu but of the themes running through the novel. Given the restrictions of television, this was an astonishing achievement.
Jarrold’s film, on the other hand, gallops back and forth over a 20-year period within the space of an unnecessarily short couple of hours. It feels cramped, too full of incident and yet sketchy, and the overall effect is of nothing very much. You need much more time if you are adequately to convey feelings of loss, longing and regret. It could have done with the guiding hand of a David Lean or an Anthony Minghella, and maybe an extra 60 minutes or so.
Notwithstanding this, one of the pleasures of films like Brideshead is usually the guarantee of the presence of at least one or two of our finest actors, and the chance to revel in the familiar tics and nuances of their performances. This is where the film comes most unstuck. The central role of Charles requires an actor to be more or less a cold, blank canvas, and Matthew Goode carries it off perfectly adequately. As Julia, Hayley Atwell seems also to understand the material. But the most important of Waugh’s other characters are simply badly cast.
Rather than grand and tragic, the Marchmain family here looks like a bunch of eccentrics with a thing about religion. (Contrary to press reports, the screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies has kept much of the Catholicism intact.) As the matriarchal Lady Marchmain, Emma Thompson manages for much of the time to rein in her tendency towards a kind of Alan Bennett low camp. But it just can’t help slipping out. There is something about the facial expressions she uses – the neurotic, worried look, the lip-biting – which work perfectly in a role such as the housekeeper in The Remains of the Day, but which are irritatingly misplaced here.
Michael Gambon plays Lord Marchmain as a dilapidated, rather comical old roué, with none of the authority and elegance captured so well by Laurence Olivier in the TV series. As a result, there is no particular significance or sense of moment in what should be the climax to the story, which is when the old man comes home to Brideshead to die.
Worst of all, though, is the portrayal of Charles’s first love, Sebastian, who despite disappearing quite early on in the story remains its most potent character, and has become virtually an icon of the broader culture. Having recently re-read the novel, I can recall no description of him as looking, sounding and moving like a particularly camp chorus boy from a West End show, but this is how he is presented to us by Ben Whishaw, a new young actor who has had praise heaped on him for his theatrical work but who is not known in the cinema. He seems to have based his performance on Tom Courtenay in The Dresser, and it jars badly from the start. Anyone who saw Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas in Wilde a decade ago would know that Sebastian Flyte was a part he was born to play. That moment might have passed, but there are surely still enough young actors around to choose from.
Or maybe there aren’t? People have lost interest in in the subject-matter of Brideshead. Popular culture has changed more radically in the years since 1981 than it did in the four decades after Waugh wrote his novel. He later wrote that perhaps it had been too pessimistic. I wonder what he would have thought of Big Brother.