An Oddly Decorated Room

My old, battered copy of Brideshead.My college-age offspring, Mlle NiceWork, got a kick out of Jeremy Irons’ performance in the recent film, Appaloosa — also in the less recent Reversal of Fortune — and so I thought it would be fun for her if we dug up his breakout role in the BBC version of Brideshead Revisted.

And it was fun to see Mr. Irons as young Charles Ryder searching for love in Oxford, of all places, and in various nooks of the Stately Homes of England (more promising). Before playing the DVD, though, I sternly warned Mlle NiceWork, who had just read the 1945 Evelyn Waugh novel, that apart from serving as a sort of Classics Comics Illustrated visualization of the period (England between the Great War and the Even Greater War) the BBC TV series was all wrong.

My dim memory of the beloved mini-series — dim because of BBC-induced narcolepsy — was all too accurate: swell acting, instructive travel-documentary-style location shots, but the story, a pretty zippy one as Waugh tells it, ruined by having been BBC’d into an eleven hour Noh Theater performance.

In its printed form Brideshead Revisited contains not a wasted word. But the filmmakers managed to stretch it beyond Silly Putty tolerance with long lyrical scenes meant to evoke Languorous Youth, more gazing upon the Stones of Venice than even Ruskin could bear, and patience-testing shots lingering hungrily over Rococo sitting rooms — the ponderous whole weighed down still further with an oboe-intensive soundtrack that makes you wonder if it contains a subliminal layer urging you to quit smoking.

Worse, the filmmakers and scriptwriter John Mortimer reduced Brideshead to a boy/boy romance. Which is like reading The Dark Night of the Soul as a vampire novel.

The center of Brideshead Revisited, as revised by Granada Television, is missing.

Sure, they get the outline: Love-starved only child Charles Ryder looking for romance as an Oxford student in the twenties finds it in the person of a charming eccentric, Sebastian Flyte — but still more in Sebastian’s family of Catholic aristocrats — and even more in their vast hereditary country estate: Brideshead. Charles loves Sebastian in a schoolboy way, later loves Sebastian’s sister Julia in an adulterous way for a doomed while — but from first to last he loves the mansion, murals, gilt furniture, fountain, art nouveau chapel and all the environs of Brideshead .

Okay, so where is the center of Waugh’s great wartime lament? Sebastian’s youngest sister, fifteen year-old Cordelia, cajoles Charles into taking her out to dinner one evening. While eating happily and heartily, she describes how the economically reduced Flyte family is retrenching after the death of Lady Marchmain, under the aegis of the eldest son, Brideshead:

“They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; Mummy’s requiem was the last mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in — I was there alone. I don’t think he saw me — and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.”

But I don’t suppose that meant anything to the executives at BBC, poor modern Brits.

Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
(Back Bay Books, Paperback, 368pp.)

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