The Spectator has published an article marking the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. This is by literary critic Mark McGinness. It opens with a description of the state of mind of potential UK viewers in a cold and wet Autumn of Thatcherite Britain, who were being offered “659 minutes of romantic escapism.” After reciting the introductory trappings, McGinness embarks on a history of the “very difficult gestation” of the series over the previous two years. This included the scrapping of the original script by John Mortimer and, in the middle of production, a strike by TV crews. This in turn required a change in director, loss of a major actor (Jeremy Irons) for an extended period due to other commitments and loss of the original actor chosen as Cousin Jasper (Charles Dance) in similar circumstances. There were also some benefits, as the new shooting schedule meant that Lawrence Olivier was now available to play the role of Lord Marchmain. The delay also made it possible for the producer Derek Granger (who recently celebrated his own anniversary–in his case his 100th) to negotiate an increase in the originally planned 6 episodes to effectively twice as many (11 episodes, 13 hours).
On 12 October 1981 it was ready, and, as described by McGinness, it went down a treat. He cites ecstatic reviews by novelist Anthony Burgess, who thought it better than the original novel, as well as TV critics in the Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times and Guardian. Clive James (probably in the Observer) wrote: “If Brideshead is not a great book, it’s so like a great book that many of us, at least while reading it, find it hard to tell the difference.”
There were dissenting voices too. Kingsley Amis (who as a young writer had suffered from Waugh’s disdain) summed up his criticism in the title of his TLS article: “How I lived in a very big house and found God.” The Spectator assigned its reviewing to two of its contributors. According to McGinness, Richard Ingrams “thought it far too long, the characters not nearly strong enough to last the distance. He considered the narrative doleful and the music disastrous, ‘too many oboes and horns'”, and he thought the “gay element gratuitous”, citing a “quite unnecessary shot of naked bums on the Castle Howard roof.”
The other Spectator reviewer was Auberon Waugh, who also weighed in on “what he dubbed ‘the great Bottoms Debate'” and noted that his “family cheered at every bared bottom,” topping out at a “final bum count” of eight. Auberon concluded that the homosexual element was written “so artfully that it could be read in the drawing room as well as the smoking room.” The one thing he found disturbing, according to McGinness, was the love scene on board the ship. It was “‘not only distasteful but highly distressing’ to have to watch Charles Ryder mauling Diana Quick’s ‘perfectly formed’ nipple as the lovers were being tossed on board the RMS Constantia.” He thought that if there was a rerun, that scene should be cut (as it indeed was in the USA when PBS reran it).
The article concludes with a description of the program’s even greater success in the United States, where it was broadcast three months later, achieving “something approaching cult status”:
One wonders what the author himself would have thought of this great success. There is the story of the wife of an American theatre producer who told him that Brideshead Revisited was one of the best books she had ever read, to which he had some pleasure in recounting his reply: ‘I thought it was good myself, but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure.’ He affected a similar distaste for television so perhaps, as the Critic’s Alexander Larman suggests, Waugh would have loathed it on principle.
For the rest of us, it remains the sine qua non of mini-series.
At the bottom of the story, following McGinness’s conclusion, this notice appears:
Luca Guadagnino’s new BBC/HBO adaptation of Brideshead Revisited will air next year.