The 1981 British television miniseries Brideshead Revisited, adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, first aired in the United Kingdom on ITV and then in the United States in 1982 as part of PBS’ performing arts anthology series Great Performances, which many in 2007 weren’t aware of as it was erroneously voted the seventh best program to air on Masterpiece Theatre during that series’ 35th Anniversary celebration. It won a number of television awards from both countries and in 2006 a 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition was released on DVD.
Brideshead Revisited presents over twenty years in the life of Waugh’s alter ego Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) as he reflects upon his life and in particular his involvement with the Flyte/Marchmain family. The series opens in 1944 at the end of the story with Charles serving as a British Army captain. When his company heads to a secret location to set up camp, it turns out to be Brideshead Castle where he spent a lot of time. This brings back a flood of memories as the vast majority of the story is presented in a flashback.
Chronologically, the story begins as Charles is attending his first year at Oxford in 1922. One night while studying with friends, a drunken young man, Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), passes by the window and vomits into Charles’ room. By way of apology the next day, Sebastian floods Charles with floral arrangements. They formally meet and quickly develop a relationship that goes past friendship and becomes a bond of love. Whether or not the relationship is consummated is never made clear, although it is hinted at, nor is Charles’ sexuality. Unlike Sebastian, we will later see Charles married with children, but there’s no denying their deep feelings for each other, which Charles admits to.
When Sebastian takes Charles home for the first time, this starts the viewer’s amazing glimpse back at early 20th century English aristocratic life. Every room is ornately furnished, every person very well dressed, servants are on call, and the world is their playground. In “Snob’s Progress,” a 1986 article for The New York Times, Tom Wolfe coined the word “plutography” to describe the phenomenon of the public’s enjoyment of the graphic depiction of the lives of the rich and cited Brideshead as an example.
Over the two decades, we witness the characters' lives unfold before us. Along the way, characters leave and revisit Brideshead, relationships change, and with all the choices made the only certain outcome is Charles' arrival at an empty Brideshead Castle during the Second World War. Religion also has a great impact on the story as Charles’ atheistic views progressively come into conflict with the family’s, and some of them struggle with being first-generation Roman Catholics.
The video has unfortunately not been cleaned up, which is too bad considering how much work went into the production design. It could have been a real feast for the eyes, but the soft focus may have been intentional to create a sense of the past. The first encounter we see between Charles and his father (Sir John Gielgud) is particularly bad as a few black lines appear throughout the frame.
Special features include commentaries on Episode 1: “Et in Arcadia Ego” (actors Jeremy Irons, Dianna Quick, and Nickolas Grace) and Episode 4: “Sebastian Against The World” (Anthony Andrews and producer Derek Granger), and a great, 50-minute retrospective about the show and author Waugh.
Fans of classic television miniseries who have not seen Brideshead Revisited owe it to themselves to invest the 13 hours. It is quite a spectacle, filled with very good performances and a compelling story. Some, especially modern viewers, may find the series’ pacing too slow because there’s not a great deal of action. Almost all the scenes are comprised of conversations to provide exposition, but the scenes are engaging because of the acting and the plot revelations.