1 9 8 1 (UK)
11 x episodes
The perfect production values and world-class acting talent of the superb cast made the 11-part Granada Television serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1945 novel an instant favourite.
But the fur stoles and picturesque scenery (Venice, Paris, Yorkshire’s Castle Howard) were mere icing on the cake and the perfect foil for the central slow decay of a psycho-sexual tryst and a titled catholic family.
The elegant restraint did not find universal favour – The US broadcaster PBS was not amused by the gay undercurrent and a glimpse of Diana Quick’s nipple (Director Charles Sturridge claimed that the breast should have cancelled out the homosexual innuendo).
The story begins when devastatingly stylish painter Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) returns to Brideshead after the war and becomes our narrator. The love between bisexual Charles and homosexual Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) blossoms and they become inseparable, finally discarding all their other friends for each other. Alcoholic Sebastian is ultimately thrown out of University and runs away to Morocco, while Charles moves to France to paint.
When Sebastian’s mother becomes ill, Charles goes to Morocco in search of Sebastian and finds him very ill in hospital.
He has also met a young German called Kurt. Sebastian’s mother dies at home and after a few years, Charles (now married to Celia) meets Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins a passionate affair with her.
Their scenes together were perhaps the most passionate on television that year (even though Jeremy Irons apparently pinned his underpants to the sheets for the filming), and they helped to make the homosexuality something viewers could accept.
Meanwhile, Kurt commits suicide in a German concentration camp and Cordelia brings the news of Sebastian’s decline.
Sebastian’s absent father Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier) returns to England after 25 years to die at home at Brideshead.
Before it was screened, Brideshead looked set to become the costliest mistake in ITV’s history. The ITV strike in 1979 held production up, and the sixty-man crew was disbanded.
When the strike ended the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had to leave, and young Charles Sturridge, a junior director at Granada, found himself in the job, giving orders to Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom and many other glittering stars.
In 1980, Jeremy Irons – part of almost every scene – had to leave for work on the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman for three months. Filming finished late and editing took forever.
But producer Derek Granger, who had beavered since 1972 to televise the novel he so admired, was never disheartened.
When his and Sturridge’s creation began to be seen in October 1981, around 9 million viewers adjusted to the pace (the actors were all directed to speak slowly) and were hooked.
For the care they took, the producers deserved the accolades; To make the Atlantic sequences, for example, deck scenes were shot aboard the QE2 in the Atlantic; Scenes supposed to be inside the liner were shot in the panelled dining room of the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, and in the Rainbow Room above a Kensington store, in the corridors of a Manchester office building and in the thirties-style ballroom foyer of the Park Lane Hotel. The cabins were built in Granada studios.