It has been thirty years now since Brideshead Revisited originally aired on the British ITV network. The landmark Granada mini-series was big in every sense of the word. The production took a full two years to be realized, and featured an amazing cast, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Clair Bloom and Jane Asher, to mention a few. It also launched the career of Jeremy Irons, in his role as Charles Ryder. Brideshead originally aired in 11 parts, and had the country spellbound for the duration of its run. The response was similar when later shown in Canada and the United States. To this day, Brideshead Revisited is considered one of the greatest British series of all time.
The first thing one notices about Brideshead is the pace. This is a big story, told on an even bigger canvas, and nobody is rushing anything. The titular estate, Brideshead is enormous, and absolutely beautiful. Even today, it feels like such a privalige to be able to bask in the sumptuous landscapes and buildings of the property. You truly feel as if you have been transported to a different world.
The series is based on the book by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. The opening scene finds us with Army captain Charles Ryder in 1944, who is establishing a secret Brigade Headquarters at Brideshead. It is a place he had not been to in years, and holds great significance for him. While gazing at the rolling lawns and enormous buildings, Captain Ryder is transported back to 1922, when he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family owned the home.
Sebastian and Charles became great friends while students at Oxford all those years ago, and the series proceeds from 1922 all the way up to 1944, following their lives and those around them. It is a story of deep love and respect, for Charles became a surrogate brother to Sebastian, and virtual member of the Marchmain family.
Through Charles’ eyes, we see this family of great wealth living the aristocratic life, seemingly without a care in the world for many years. Of course, there are so many deceptions, and disappointments along the way that it takes a seventeen-hour mini-series to do the story justice. An underlying tenet of the book was the Catholicism of the Marchmains, which is shown to be a source of hope, pain, hypocrisy, and finally something in which Charles Ryder is unable to grasp. The simple leap of faith that happens at the end of the patriarch’s life, and an event nobody but his daughter believed would ever happen.
Brideshead Revisited was unlike any previous mini-series or “soap.” In fact, the care and expense that went into each episode is so deep, that they come across as individual films rather than chapters of a TV series. Although the subject matter is quite different, what it reminds me of in many ways is a show that came along 20 years later, The Sopranos. The quality really is that high.
Having never read Waugh’s Brideshead, I can only say that I was spellbound by the adaptation. Quite frankly, I did not realize that anyone was working this hard, and this well in British television 30 years ago. Brideshead really and truly is a magnificent accomplishment.
Included in this Acorn Media 30th Anniversary package of Brideshead Revisited are a wealth of extras, including a wonderful 2006 documentary on the making of the series, titled Revisiting Brideshead. There are also commentaries, photo galleries, and a viewer’s guide.
In the end, Brideshead Revisited won a total of 17 international awards, including an Emmy for Sir Laurence Olivier. It has also been voted the tenth greatest British program of all time. Frankly, it is about the best one I have ever seen. Do yourself a favor and take the journey to Brideshead, it is a world unlike any other, and a deeply satisfying series.