Twilight of the Toffs: 'Brideshead Revisited'

Like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited can be considered a requiem for the days of Empire and the unyielding class structure that governed British life pre-World War II.

Brideshead Revisited

Director: Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, Jane Asher, Nickolas Grace, John Grillo, Simon Jones, Charles Keating, Phoebe Nicholls, Jeremy Sinden, Lawrence Olivier, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud
Length: 659 min.
Studio: ITV
Year: 1981
Distributor: Acorn
Release date: 2011-11-01

Brideshead Revisited has long been British television's jewel in the crown, a standard-bearer of the sort of drawing room dramas that Americans primarily know from the PBS confines of Masterpiece Theater or Merchant/Ivory's celebrated Oscar-bait films of the '80s and '90s. Produced at a time when UK audiences had never seen anything so elaborate on the tube and the series drew massive audiences.

Based on Evelyn Waugh's eponymous novel, published during the Second World War, Brideshead Revisted presents the adventures, romantic and otherwise, of one Charles Ryder, a middle-class – and class is always a point of division in what Stephen Frears once derided as “teacup” tales – lad newly minted at Oxford, pensive and uncertain in his demeanor, perhaps cowed by his social superiors at the hallowed institution. He's portrayed by the haughty Jeremy Irons, a distinguished cinematic icon nowadays, but just beginning his rise at the time.

It's undeniable that Irons' face looks more aged than a college boy of 19 should, but he captures Charles' shy, tentative manner, with a yearning for new experiences glimmering in the corners of his eyes. We get the sense that Charles has never before traveled from home. And he's surely glad to be away, a respite from his Scrooge-like father Edward (John Gielgud), whose arid wit, both abstract and passive-aggressive, is a guilty delight, akin to Gielgud's tart-tongued butler in Arthur, released the same year.

The ignition of our story is Charles' chance encounter with the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte, an eccentric, decadent toff forever the subject of scurrilous campus gossip. Before their embarrassing meeting, Charles has spotted Lord Flyte tooling about in an elegant carriage, clad in a crisp white suit that Tom Wolfe would kill for, and wondered who this otherworldly creature could be.

Their unlikely friendship soon blossoms, to the dismay of Charles' more intellectual classmates, and Sebastian, played with plummy-voiced joie de vivre by Upstairs, Downstairs alum Anthony Andrews, adopts Charles as a comrade, and, some might argue, courts him as a lover. This gets a bit murky.

In an environment devoid of the fairer sex, it's not uncommon for males to form romantic and/or sexual unions with each other, and single-gender British schools are historically notorious for such activity. Charles and his new companion settle into a gauzy, sentimental relationship that carries the whiff of a love affair, albeit one where physical consummation is absent. The pair take idyllic country drives in a borrowed roadster, picnic in a meadow, and enjoy serene lunches of plover's eggs.

I first saw portions of Brideshead Revisited years ago, and was thoroughly confused by the nature of Sebastian and Charles' 'friendship'. Were they gay? Sebastian certainly seemed so. And Charles' comment – in narration – about “finding love” only added to my uncertainty. So it is a gay story. Except it's not. Not exactly.

There's no question that Sebastian Flyte is homosexual, but his idiosyncratic mannerisms are the more intriguing item. The pouty, clench-jawed Sebastian, who carries around a teddy bear named “Aloysius”, isn't so much a man as a man-child, as if Mike White's titular character from Chuck & Buck was a member of England's landed gentry between the wars. By turns petulant, snotty, and playful, his Lordship is an impetuous playboy, whose primary goal in life is to elude boredom. For a time, Charles absorbs some of Sebastian's annoying affectations, and I'm reminded of the uncomfortable scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which Matt Damon's Tom Ripley eagerly dons Dickie Greenleaf's suit and glides about the apartment in a grotesque – yet serious – imitation of a fey upper-class trustafarian.

Their reverie is interrupted, however, as Charles is eventually drawn into the bosom of the aristocratic Marchmain family, who inhabit an immense stone castle on their estate Brideshead, the sort of property that the Depression and taxes would soon do away with. In most respects, the Flytes are quite similar to other obscenely wealthy upper-crust households of that rigidly-stratified era, but there's one crucial difference: they're Roman Catholic in a society populated almost exclusively by Protestants and Anglicans.

Presiding over this clan is the indomitable Lady Marchmain, played with steely, presumptive calm by Claire Bloom. She's very much a hands-on matriarch, not content to allow her children – most of whom are adults – to follow their own muses. Her Catholicism is a serious matter, and she insists upon fealty to the faith from the offspring. Aiding her in this plan is her oldest, Bridie (Simon Jones), the very personification of a particularly English certainty in one's own beliefs, those including the class structure, family traditions, and his eventual entitlement to Brideshead, his own namesake.

Lady Marchmain and her stuffy older son seem even more remote from society-at-large, and this point is driven home when the clueless marquis comments on the “privileges of the poor”, apparently believing that those who struggle to keep food on their tables revel in a sort of reverse snobbery that lets them sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that they shall inherit the earth. Of course, throughout human history, poverty and menial labor have often been romanticized by the ruling classes.

Meanwhile, Charles and Sebastian enjoy languid, pastoral days at Brideshead, and director Charles Sturridge's shots are frequently evocative of those sleekly decadent fragrance and designer attire ads which have proliferated on TV since that Rise-of-The-Yuppies period when Brideshead Revisted was filmed. It's all very seductive homosociality, and one imagines the thoughts of a working-class gay youth, trapped in a corroded steel town in England's grim northern shires, drinking in all this grandeur on his dusty little TV, the opulent royal wedding of Prince Charles and his flaxen-haired trophy Diana still fresh in his mind. How this boy must dream of escape, of living the luxe life himself. How does he rise from the gutter?

Maybe, when he comes of age, he flees to London, drapes himself in Saville Row couture, then forms a band, becoming part of the foppish New Romantic scene; ensembles like Ultravox, Duran Duran, Modern Romance, Spandau Ballet, ABC, who began to dominate the pop charts in Brideshead Revisted's wake. Along with the New Romantics, the so-called “Blitz Kids” aped Brideshead couture and also embraced the series' veiled homoeroticism.

In many respects, Charles is a twist in the Marchmains' staid sobriety. He's a non-Catholic, apparently not even a man of faith, suddenly immersed in a household steeped in Vatican strictures. Charles is also of middle-class upbringing, often a dirty word amongst Britain's snobbish nobility. His 'otherness' is probably what draws the cat-curious Sebastian to him, but Sebastian's appropriation of Charles is ultimately thwarted as he's forced to compete with the other Flytes for Charles' attentions. This conflict reveals Sebastian's darker side, as he devolves into the classic rum-sodden, disaffected aristocrat.

Particularly attentive is Sebastian's lovely sister Julia (Diana Quick), who takes a liking to her brother's odd new acquaintance, an attraction which foreshadows much drama for them, although Julia soon weds the slick, capable Rex Mottram(Charles Keating), a Canadian tycoon eager to be absorbed into Old World noblesse, if on his own terms.

Despite his Canuck origins, Rex is a thoroughly American social type of the period when Britain's esteemed families faced an erosion of their fortunes and influence under the weight of taxes, socialist rabble-rousing, and the inexorable shedding of the global empire. Rex craves the prestige afforded him by the Flytes' affections, and truth be told, they need the lucre he can deliver. Given this undeclared 'arrangement', Rex can be seen as both a grifter and modernist, a individual of humble origins who, utilizing the tools of brash New World capitalism has ascended into the socio-economic stratosphere, and a man of such privilege simply won't be denied.

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