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Television

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.

Our Ongoing, Delusional Fascination with Class Divide

On a more personal level, Keating's Rex has the sleek, casual hauteur of a studio-era Hollywood idol and, had Brideshead Revisited been a lavish '40s theatrical production, it's easy to imagine Errol Flynn in the role. Of course, at the time that Waugh's novel appeared, American film stars had become a new breed of international royalty – as they remain in today's pressure cooker media environment – and it wasn't unusual for them to hobnob with the bluebloods, many of whom secretly desired that patina of glamour Hollywood provided.

If Rex attempts to insinuate himself into the Marchmain clan through audaciuous finagling – there's a scene where he bails Charles and his mates from jail after a DUI-caused accident – Charles infiltrates in a more subtle manner, and Irons affects a far more confident bearing as the story unfolds, reflective of his increasing importance to the Flytes. His detachment and humanist rationality cause the family – particularly Lady Marchmain – to depend on him for a number of tasks. It's a stretch to suggest that he's become their consigliere?

In a sneaky way, however, Charles may also be evolving into lord of the household, as the actual one – Lord Marchmain (Lawrence Olivier) – has abdicated the position, content to live abroad with a mistress, in a grand townhouse along Venice's Grand Canal. He and Lady Marchmain haven't divorced; presumably her ardent Catholicism forbids such an affront, but he's abandoned her just the same.

Initially, we see little of Olivier; Charles and Sebastian's brief jaunt to Venice finds Lord Marchmain and his Cora cohabiting, but his Lordship eventually returns to Brideshead, and we're reminded – if that's necessary – of his towering achievements as an actor. Olivier's wistful nobleman is warm, avuncular, and sharply witty, while remaining secure in his status as master and the respect automatically granted him by his children and the staff.

As one might expect, a cornucopia of extras awaits Brideshead Revisted fans in this double-disc package. Simon Callow narrates the documentary featurette "Revisiting Brideshead", which delves into Evelyn Waugh's life as much as Brideshead Revisted's production. Unquestionably, Charles Ryder is a fictional representation of Waugh, and his ascent into the Marchmains' hallowed world reflects Waugh's own insatiable yearning to climb the social ladder, as he was a known toff hunter, constantly chasing the privileged classes during his Oxbridge days.

Brideshead Revisited was a significant financial gamble for Granada Television at the time, as nothing so elaborate had ever been mounted for British TV. One artistic departure was the use of film, as video was standard-issue for television projects in those days. The bet paid off handsomely, however; its rating were not unlike those of the landmark Roots, hugely popular in America just four years before.

It also appeared during the early Thatcher years, a time of considerable political tumult in the UK, and Brideshead Revisted was hardly immune to the strife, as production was temporarily shuttered by striking ITV technicians. Curiously, though, it encouraged Britons to look back fondly on a past most families had never experienced, just as American audiences flocked to glossy MGM musicals and love stories during the Depression and World War II. Is it any surprise, then, that many Brits chose the program's main theme for their weddings?

Personal politics would rear its ugly head during the casting process, according to a second featurette, "Brideshead Remembered", because many left-leaning actors were wary of appearing in the miniseries, as they felt viewers were being asked to identify, and thus sympathize with a family so firmly ensconced in the '1%' firmament that writer Paul Fussell would have included them in his “out of sight” social strata.

This doc is essentially a series of photos, accompanied by second director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's narration, who mentions that Britain's film biz was negligible at the time, so, to Brideshead Revisted's benefit, most of the best scenarists were employed in television. We're also told that Malcolm McDowell was briefly contemplated for “Charles”, and I just can't wrap my head around that.

Two separate photo galleries are also included, as well as Kraig McNeil's production notes, full of wonky trivia sure to excite hardcore Brideshead Revisted devotees. Much of the urban-set filming was done in Manchester, not exactly a haven of aristocratic splendor. The shipboard sequences were shot on Cunard's now-retired QE2 – enhanced by stock footage of the legendary Queen Mary battling rough North Atlantic weather – which I myself sailed out of New York during my late teen years.

Finally, in a much-needed jolt of humor, Charles Sturridge delivers a tongue-in-cheek deadpan bio of Sebastian's beloved Aloysius, the world's favorite teddy bear.

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. When America's western frontier was declared closed in the 1890s, Americans suddenly became fascinated with tales, often exaggerated, of those heady times, as a dazzling new art form presented vivid stories of the Old West, a genre still in evidence today. I suppose that Brits feel a curious nostalgia for the times when their little island loomed large on the world stage, setting a cultural pace that continues its influence, if partly through its superpower offspring, the United States.

If anything, stories of class-bound England are more popular than ever; TV's current Downton Abbey has collected a slew of award nominations, an update of the revered Upstairs, Downstairs has aired, and Oscar voters fondly recall Merchant-Ivory's sublime output of decades ago.

Although, many have argued that the primary audience for these productions is the US, a country that has never known official aristocrats and thus is often in denial of its own more byzantine class hierarchy. Perhaps Americans yearn for a storied nobility which never existed, and the relentless elevation of media celebrities into such roles is somehow inadequate. After all, Americans no longer have the glossy prime-time soaps about the travails of the super-rich which dominated television during the grab-it-all money culture of the '80s. If one can't see Dynasty's Alexis Carrington flouncing across a ballroom, maybe a fox hunt across sylvan fields is an acceptable substitute.

Of course, no sane person would equate the dense, emotionally complex melancholy of Brideshead Revisited with the trashy decadence of the Aaron Spelling show, but arguably, both programs push certain buttons in the human psyche. I mean, can you imagine the fireworks if Dynasty's prodigal son, Steven Carrington, brought home Sebastian?

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