An Act of Waugh

Sebastian, Charles and Aloysius on the river.

Tim Koch writes,

The recent HTBS item ‘Among Hard Drinking Hypocrites and “Eight Good Men”’ gives me the excuse to write about a favourite novel and to speculate why the 1981 Granada Television Production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one of the very rare examples of a film or TV series that does justice to a much loved book (unlike the 2008 film of the same name). Using an old HTBS trick, I will then justify my self-indulgent ramblings by pointing out the rowing references.

Waugh’s story is told in flashback and recounts the twenty year relationship of the ‘middle class’ (though to most of us, rather wealthy) Charles Ryder with the aristocratic Anglo Catholic Marchmain family. There are many reasons not to like this book. It concerns the ‘problems’ of a group of a highly privileged group at a time when most people struggled just to survive. Waugh himself said that they ‘had no troubles but those they made themselves’. Few, if any of the characters are likeable. Brideshead is profoundly anti-egalitarianism and seems to imply that life and the social order before the First World War was superior (which it certainly was for those who inhabit the novel). Though Waugh was a Roman Catholic convert, most of the book seems to read as criticising or mocking Catholicism and it is only with the highly unsatisfactory ending (the death of Lord Marchmain) does it ‘return to the faith’. It is difficult not to feel cheated.

What then is the attraction of Brideshead? Well, the prose is beautiful, the descriptions of lovely things and places are delightful and the personalities are richly drawn. It produces a form of ‘nostalgia’ for something that most of us never knew and that few of us would attempt to justify. The Granada TV production staring Jeremy Irons, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier fully complements the novel. I saw the television series before I read the book. You could do it the other way around. Either way is satisfactory, a rare achievement.

The story of how the television production was able to do what it did is an interesting one and it concerns a unique period in British TV history. Until 1982 Britain had only three television stations. Two of them were run by the BBC and carried no advertising. Independent Television (ITV) was the only commercial channel and so, lacking any competition, could charge advertisers what they wished – and did. They could also treat these advertisers with something approaching contempt – and did. Commercial television was making so much money that even the new right wing Thatcher Government decided to impose an extra levy on their profits, above the normal business tax. The only way to avoid this new levy was to put more money into television production. It was a simple incentive to make good television and the Brideshead production team took full advantage of it. They were on location all over the world for two years and spent lavishly, often on details that would not actually be noticed on screen (for example, the books on Ryder’s shelves are the ones mentioned by Waugh). Whatever the directors did, the ‘suits’ at Granada (one of ITV’s regional stations, based in Manchester) kept on signing the cheques. The programme was originally planned to be six hours long but it eventually ran for eleven. All this was to cover a relatively short book (my Penguin Modern Classics edition runs to 325 pages). Another unusual occurrence is that the book is almost a ‘shooting script’ for the film, following its chronology closely. Brideshead finally cost £4.5m / $6.8m, which was a lot of money thirty years ago. The result is acknowledged to be one of British television’s finest productions.

The ‘sweatered and muffled throng’ on its way to the river…

The few rowing references in Brideshead are, not surprisingly, in the Oxford scenes. The opening ‘flashback’ starts during the four days of ‘bump’ racing known as Eights Week, an event which drives the two young aesthetes (Sebastian and Charles plus teddy bear) to flee the town. Ryder’s college servant, Lunt, complains:

“….. What do they want with dancing? I don’t see the reason in it. There never was dancing before in Eights Week. (The Founder’s Ball) now is another matter being in the vacation, but not in Eights Week as if teas and the river wasn’t enough. If you ask me, sir, it’s all on account of the war. It couldn’t have happened but for that.” For this was 1923 and for Lunt, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they had been in 1914.

On his arrival at Oxford, Ryder is given fatherly advice by his cousin Jasper: …he was in his fourth year and, the term before, had come within appreciable distance of getting his rowing blue… a considerable person in college.

Cousin Jasper sports his Leander tie and a general air of disapproval.

Waugh writes that Jasper wears a Leander tie and the 1981 TV production has him in a Leander ‘city’ tie, dark blue with little pink hippopotamus motifs. This minor detail is perfect – in 1923 one would not ordinarily wear the famous cerise ‘regatta’ tie with a suit. Jasper’s advice (you either want a first or a fourth…. go to a London tailor; you get better cut and longer credit….. don’t treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home… beware the Anglo Catholics…) goes largely unheeded.

The most amusing rowing reference comes from the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, ….. the ‘aesthete’ par excellence, a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville….. who, after an alcohol fuelled luncheon in college:

….stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-á-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river….

And then, stepping lightly into the room, “How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me.”
Watch that scene below:

A pure delight.

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