12 February 2003 | Piafredux
Television's Finest Hours
Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' is, I think, the quintessential and the finest novel of the twentieth century - English literature at its highest form. And this 1981 miniseries does the novel great justice: its episodes give us television's finest hours.
The splendid cast makes the most of the rich script, which is as faithful to a novel as a script can be. My favorite is Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Cordelia: her performance is disarming, utterly charming. And Nickolas Grace plays to the hilt the sybaritic, viper-tongued Anthony Blanche.
Jeremy Irons does sterling service as the narrator, Charles Ryder, who is, after all, Waugh's observant eye and eloquent tongue; Irons depicts poignantly Ryder's "conversion to the Baroque" crashing to bits against the cold gracelessness of "The Age of Hooper". As the rapidly dissolving Lord Sebastian Flyte Anthony Andrews is memorable - should Waugh's book ever again be adapted for the screen the lot of the actor cast as Sebastian will not be enviable.
Claire Bloom's Lady Marchmain is a study in quiet dignity upheld vainly in the face of the twentieth century's ravaging of her character's world and sensibilities. Sir Laurence Olivier's Lord Marchmain is letter-perfect; and in the deathbed sequences Olivier's performance is tenderly, expertly nuanced.
Diana Quick was a bit too old to play convincingly the debutante Lady Julia of the early episodes, but in the later ones Quick hits perfectly every disillusioned, jaded, repentant note. Charles Keating as Rex, who inhabits a "harsh acquisitive world", is an exemplar of shallowness, of the venality Waugh detested - and satirized so hilariously in his earlier novels: he's nothing more than a Hooper with money and ambition.
Simon Jones gives us Bridey's stodginess and bewliderment with marvelous understatement. John Gielgud steals every scene as Charles's father Edward, brilliantly interpreting of one of Waugh's most delicious, yet indigestible characters.
There are rich offerings, too, from character actors: Stephane Audran glows warmly as Clara, Lord Marchmain's insightful, intuitive, down-to-earth mistress; John LeMesurier leaves us suitably agape as the Jesuit Father Mowbray baffled and dismayed by Rex's utilitarian approach to his conversion to Catholicism; Jeremy Sinden sails naively along as the indefatigable yet ever-dimwitted and clueless Boy Mulcaster; Ronald Fraser stirs just the right sloshing of queasiness as the peculiar, opportunistic shipboard cocktail party guest; Jonathan Coy, as the parlous, seedy Kurt, is perfectly repellent; Jane Asher tiptoes delicately through Celia Ryder's conventional, porcelain sensibilities; and Mona Washbourne knits a thoughtful, lovely portrait of Nanny Hawkins.
Throughout 'Brideshead Revisited' the photography is lush, meticulous, yet tasteful. The score is understated, never intrusive, always complementary. Costuming, set design and, above all, location, are unrivalled. Charles Sturridge's direction is evenhanded, assured - and his pacing of the narrative treads adroitly every beautifully-modulated beat.
I bought the DVD version of this series and, though occasional bits of the image transfer are a trifle fuzzy and the sound re-recording is sometimes uneven, the nicely boxed set of discs pleased - and goes on pleasing - me greatly.
In the early third millennium, a time of evermore immature programming and production executives - a dismal age of TV's Hoopers, I have to suspect sadly that television will never again attain the heights to which 'Brideshead Revisited' vaulted. But I shall remain ever grateful for this magnificent series.