The Brideshead Effect

In an article primarily devoted to the new Julian Fellowes dramatic series Belgravia that started a few weeks ago on ITV, The Herald (Scotland) also considers the effect successful costume dramas may have beyond the world of entertainment. As its case study, the article, written by Barry Didcock, considers two costume dramas from the early 1980s:

… Julian Fellowes isn’t quite right when he says that what the characters in a costume drama are wearing makes no difference at all. That is to underestimate the visual appeal of the form and the sartorial impact it can have. As proof, from time to time a costume drama comes along that not only “catches on”, as he puts it, but affect both fashions and manners. Two examples from the same year, and both set largely in the 1920s, are Brideshead Revisited, Granada TV’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel, and Chariots Of Fire, the Oscar-winning film about the 1924 Paris Olympics.

“Brideshead Revisited and Chariots Of Fire are having an undeniable impact on fashion, both here and abroad,” wrote The New York Times Magazine in April 1982. “The British fashion press reports that London’s new look is that of the ‘trad English gentleman – cool, dashing, aristocratic’, as exemplified by Nigel Havers, who plays Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots Of Fire, and Anthony Andrews, who portrays Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited … If these films have attracted appreciative audiences, none have been more attentive than the men and women who design American ready-to-wear – notably Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren”.

Two years later the so-called Brideshead Effect was still palpable in the US. The late Christopher Hitchens once recalled walking home through Washington DC in 1984 on the day his son was born, not long after Brideshead Revisited had screened Stateside. As he sauntered through the streets Hitchens, wearing a white linen suit and carrying a teddy bear, was regaled by more than one shout of “Hello, Sebastian”, so closely did he resemble Anthony Andrews’s portrayal of the doomed, teddy-toting aristocrat Sebastian Flyte.

And of course there’s the now infamous 1987 photograph of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club featuring David Cameron and Boris Johnson in black tie and tails. For a generation of middle and upper-middle class Britons, usually male, usually students at the UK’s more storied seats of learning, the aesthetic of Brideshead Revisited was a temple at which to pray (and bray).

Brideshead Revisited, both the novel and the TV serial, are receiving what may be more than their fair share of attention from the press and the blogosphere as diversionary entertainment during the coronavirus lockdown:

–In Vogue magazine, the Duchess of Cambridge has included the novel on her list of recommended reading:

If nothing else, Evelyn Waugh’s paean to the lost world of the British aristocracy before the Great War will make you feel decidedly better about your own family relationships.

–In the Oxford-based journal Cherwell (one of Waugh’s earliest writing venues),  Jess Curry includes the novel among his recommended books:

For me, the ultimate ‘dreaming spires’ fiction – although only really featured in the first third of the novel, Waugh constructs an intoxicating picture of Oxford that sometimes I still find more real than my experiences at university today. Chock-a-block with homo-eroticism, fine art and catholic guilt, the narrative, while framed by the Second World War, deals with the decline of the English aristocracy with a perhaps too uncritical nostalgia. The reader, like wallflower narrator Charles Ryder, is swept up in the charm of it all, until they are rudely spat out again as the perfect image starts to dissolve.

–Another publisher of Waugh’s early writing, Harper’s Bazaar, recommends the 1981 TV series as among the 10 best all-time period dramas in a column written by Ella Alexander:

The 13-hour serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel may have first aired in 1981, but it is still rightly remembered as one of history’s finest period dramas. Starring a young Jeremy Irons as lead protagonist Charles Ryder, the story follows Ryder’s relationship with a wealthy, eccentric family called the Flytes who live in a mansion called Brideshead Castle. Sophisticated, nostalgic and hedonistic, Brideshead Revisited offers escapism into a bygone world of the English good life.

–To the same effect, on the website, Gillian Anderson writes:

Brideshead Revisited. The granddaddy of them all. Based off Evelyn Waugh’s classic, the 1981 miniseries was all the rage in the U.K. and also in the U.S.: The New York Times called it “one of the most memorable television productions of the decade,” and if there is or was a golden age of British literary adaptations, I’d say this kicked it off. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime, and the 11 episodes clock in at about an hour each, so you can knock out nearly two weeks right here. Do them at night to wind down; you’ll finish in just short of two weeks…

–The website of the private banking company recommends Waugh’s novel at No. 48 on Stephen Dalton’s list of the best 80 novels:

Illicit passion and religious devotion collide in Waugh’s epic novel charting protagonist Charles Ryder’s complicated relationship with the wealthy, dysfunctional Flyte family.

–The magazine Gentleman’s Journal has an article entitled “Shelf Isolation” in which Phoebe Hunt lists the classic works of fiction that one now has no excuse not to read. Here’s the entry for Brideshead:

Re-popularised by various TV and film adaptations, Brideshead transports you to an elitist 1920s dreamworld of champagne, punting in Oxford and weekend jaunts to the magnificent stately home of Brideshead Castle. Set against the fading glory of the English aristocracy in the early 20th century, Waugh’s protagonist Charles is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by this world of finery his friend Sebastian introduces him to.

Beneath a deeply nostalgic depiction of a bygone era of white linen suits and masquerade balls, Evelyn Waugh weaves in one of the most beautiful portrayals of love and heartbreak in fiction. The homo-erotic undertones of the novel have been hotly debated since it was first published, with critics falling on both sides of the fence when it comes to deciphering if Charles and Sebastian’s friendship is purely platonic.

–The non-denominational religious website Adamah.Media has posted a short essay by former TV newswriter Martin Ketterer about Waugh’s novel. This is not written from the usual Roman Catholic point of view but is more reflective of Christian religious beliefs generally.

–Finally, in the Winnipeg Free Press, Jill Wilson compiles a list of TV shows available to Canadian audiences for streaming. She includes this one:

The 1981 BBC series of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has been called the best-ever television adaptation of a book. Spanning the 1920s to the 1940s, it comprises 11 episodes (of varying lengths) and stars Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, a young man who befriends the debaucherous Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and becomes entangled with the affairs of his Roman-Catholic family, who live in a mansion called Brideshead Castle.

It won the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries, and Andrews won Best Actor; Laurence Olivier took home a supporting-actor Emmy for his role as Lord Marchmain.

A later post will consider other Waugh works recommended for reading or watching in the current lockdown.


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