TV: Brideshead Regurgitated

23 March 2011

Is the cult of Brideshead among Cantabridgians harmless fun, or does it conceal a regressive social agenda? Daniel Janes investigates…

It’s cold, somewhat clinical and nowhere near as compelling as other eighties serials such as Jewel in the Crown and Edge of Darkness. However, it is the 1981 Granada adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited that has most embedded itself into the public mind. Nowhere is this more evident than at Cambridge. Though set in the City of Dreaming Spires rather than the City of Perspiring Dreams, Brideshead’s serene lawns and stately courts have come to represent Oxbridge as a whole, or at least a quaint, elitist image of it.

This identification is so strong that the show is considered mandatory viewing for Oxbridge students. Brideshead DVD sessions – accompanied by liberal amounts of port, to turn the affectation of social exclusiveness up to eleven – are a fixture of JCRs. This mania is particularly common among wide-eyed first-years, still riveted by the novelty value of Oxbridge traditions, before Captain Tripos flogs them into anxious submission.

“The cult of Brideshead is so ridiculously deeply inculcated that even people who haven’t seen or read it can see themselves living it,” said third-year historian James Frecknall. “Myself, for instance.”

Despite the pervasiveness of the trend, an appraisal of student opinion suggests that, for many Cantabridgians, the TV serial can be something of an endurance test due to its excessively languid pacing.

Third-year historian Doug Johnson confesses that he has “never managed to make it even through the first episode without falling asleep”. To second-year lawyer Emma Brookes, the show is “paint-dryingly tedious at times”.

‘The pacing is incredibly slow,’ commented third-year, Engling Angus Ledingham. “I can’t imagine it being terribly successful if it was made now. In terms of period dramas and classic novel adaptations, Andrew Davies beat it hands down with both Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House. I sometimes wonder if the nostalgia is as much for that style of television as for the period it represents.”

Certainly, few would fault certain technical aspects of the serial. Among female students, Jeremy Irons’ droning narration is a particular draw, though to others it is agonising or unintentionally funny. Praise abounded for Geoffrey Burgon’s elegiac theme tune, Peter Phillips’ meticulous art direction and several of the performances, chiefly Nickolas Grace’s viciously camp Anthony Blanche and John Gielgud’s scene-stealing turn as Charles Ryder’s father, Edward.

For most, the cult of Brideshead is simply an innocuous way of recreating the fustier, amusingly outmoded aspects of the Oxbridge experience. However, for a section of conservatively-minded students, Brideshead Revisited is not just an escapist fantasy; it is an endorsement of the values of the Carlton Club. The Oxford of Brideshead is a socially exclusive world, untouched by the unwashed masses, access schemes and mixed-sex colleges. It is a world where tradition reigns supreme, where Stanley Baldwin is Prime Minister in perpetuity, where social problems evaporate amid pedantic discussions of the odes of Pindar. A world which, to many rightists, is sadly lost (though it is never as lost as they seem to think).

This conservative fetishisation of Brideshead was highlighted by Christopher Hitchens in his book Blood, Class and Empire. When the show first premiered on PBS, it was introduced by William F. Buckley, a giant of the modern conservative movement. Benjamin Hart, former director of the Heritage Foundation, even pilfered whole sections of the book for speeches endorsing traditional educational values. Reaganites admitted that it was primarily the TV show, not the book that had engaged them. The conservatives’ thraldom to the series reflects what Hitchens described as a “revival of a right-wing politics based on the defensive class-consciousness of the well-off”, reflected in the writings of Tom Wolfe. What is striking is about the popular image of Brideshead is that it is as if only the first four episodes of the TV series exist. Sebastian is celebrated as carefree and vital, ignoring the inconvenient fact that he becomes a depressed alcoholic hanger-on in a Moroccan monastery. The huge role played in the plot by Catholicism is also overlooked. As third-year historian Laura Marshall points out, “it is all about Catholic guilt”, and Evelyn Waugh “just can’t do Catholic guilt as well as Graham Greene”.

True, some of the story’s themes may have wider resonance. For Emma Brookes, “Brideshead is in part a story about loneliness and just wanting to belong, a second stab at childhood, themes that young people at a volatile time in their lives might relate to”. However, as Angus Ledingham suggests, there may be a more straightforward explanation for the series’ popularity: “Or maybe it’s just the unbearable toffs making prats of themselves.’

Daniel Janes

Photo: Flickr/teadrinker