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When we think of period drama, particularly in the 1980s, it is natural to anticipate a kind of faithful conservatism aligned to a mainstream propagation of national pride and mythology. The all-conquering Chariots of Fire, numerous Merchant Ivory productions, and lavish serials such as Jewel in the Crown can be actively juxtaposed against the more oppositional and socially involved film and TV that emerged in the Thatcher years, creating a polarity of address which seemed to render the divided national mood. ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited can certainly be read in this manner, yet such reductive engagements would fail to comprehend the genuinely challenging nature of the series’ stylistic and formal elements. While on its broadcast Brideshead was hugely popular, and is still talked of as the very paradigm of costume-drama, it is also a work of great complexity that encourages a multitude of understandings.

A recent film adaptation of the novel butchered its source material into a meagre 133 minutes, in contrast the television version extended across 11 episodes spanning 659 minutes. As such, the nuances and subtleties of Waugh’s prose are visible and alive in ITV’s take on the classic. The multiple themes of the source text are allowed to evolve at a gentle and elegant pace; they are rarely at the mercy of the demands of narrative. One episode in which this is particularly significant is the second: “Home and Abroad”. In terms of plot, Charles (Jeremy Irons) goes to stay with Sebastian (Anthony Andrews) at Brideshead during the summer vacation, once there Sebastian decides that the pair should travel to Venice to stay with his estranged father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier). That is it. Of course, these nuggets of narrative information have relevance for the wider progression of the drama; the episode serves to underline the increasing depth of Charles and Sebastian’s affection for one another and introduces us to Marchmain, a character who holds great relevance to the development of his family as a single entity and as individual characters, and one who serves to encompass many of the novel’s symbolic allusions to both a decaying society and an ever loosening system of beliefs. Despite these aspects, on paper, the episode seems minimal. Yet great substance is summoned by a weighty supplementation of the narrative elements with a persistently conspicuous emphasis on aesthetics.

Visually, the episode is dominated by repeated long-takes of the elegant exteriors and interiors of Brideshead, and later by Marchmain’s home and the many intoxicating aesthetic delights of Venice. I’ve spoken before on the blog about the way in which sustained environmental shots can be seen to signal authorial presence, but here in the realm of adaptation, I think it is possible to ascribe a different meaning for them. Rather than serving to highlight the spaces between the viewer, the author and the image, Brideshead’s painterly aesthetic can be seen to function as a reflection of its narrator, in this case the painter, Charles Ryder. His distanced gaze and a subsequent failure to breach the house’s apparently sublime and transcendental internal life define Charles’ engagement with Brideshead and its inhabitants. As Waugh’s central narrative presence, Charles finds an aural vocabulary to express this fixed position of observation; which equally renders the reader complicit in his unabashed fetishism, yet this key tenet finds new life in the television adaptation. The lingering expositions of intoxicating landscapes and architecture mirror the sensuality of Charles’ surface wonderment at the new world he so passionately embraces, thus, the spectacular image replicates the aesthetic obsessions of the narrator. The image; the surface; the outside, are all that he has – a point made with powerful resonance by this hugely accomplished work.

By David Forrest

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