Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

Compared to his peers, Evelyn Waugh has not had the range or quality of adaptations that he deserves

Artillery Row

It has been 75 years since the publication of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which continues to produce both warm and chillier reactions in its readers, it has been announced that it will once again be filmed, this time by the BBC. The new adaptation will be written and directed by Luca Guadagnino, the filmmaker behind the acclaimed Call Me by Your Name, and is (somewhat optimistically) slated to begin production in the spring of next year, presumably for broadcast in late 2021 or early 2022.

The projected cast is a star-studded one: Andrew Garfield as Charles Ryder, Rooney Mara as Julia Flyte, Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain and Ralph Fiennes as Lord Marchmain. The lesser-known Joe Alwyn, hitherto most famous for being Taylor Swift’s boyfriend, has reportedly been cast in the pivotal role of Sebastian.

On a basic entertainment level, this could be highly diverting Sunday night prestige television. Fiennes and Blanchett, though rather young for their roles, bring a level of sophistication and class to virtually anything that they appear in, and Guadagnino is an arrestingly offbeat choice as a filmmaker. Given his existing reputation, he will bring a visually striking and distinctive aspect to the series’ depictions of Oxford, Venice and whichever stately home stands in for Brideshead: perhaps it is time that Castle Howard was given a rest.

It is also likely that the homoerotic aspects of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, which were hinted at in the novel without ever being made explicit, will come more fully to the fore. Given that Call Me by Your Name became briefly notorious for its use of a peach in a sex scene, one can only hope that Sebastian’s beloved teddy bear Aloysius is not pressed into similar service.

Time will tell whether this particular revisitation will succeed admirably or fail dismally

However, is such a project now more or less redundant? It will be the third time that Brideshead Revisited has been filmed, and the 1981 television series is widely regarded not just as the definitive adaptation, but as one of the greatest pieces of TV drama ever filmed. Not only did it introduce Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews to audiences, but over its extraordinary 11-hour length, it managed to bring an entire bygone world to life. The millions who watched it felt that they, too, “drowned in honey” along with Charles, and a time of looming mass unemployment and incipient Thatcherism, it proved much-needed escapism, as well as, of course, enrapturing America in a way that little else did until Downton Abbey. And, for my money, John Gielgud’s performance as Charles’s eccentric father Mr Ryder – beautifully observed and deeply, howlingly, hilarious – steals the show entirely. Not for nothing has Gielgud’s inimitable intonation of the line “He ended up in a very queer street” been a family favourite for many years.

English actor Jeremy Irons with actress Diana Quick, 1979. Irons and Quick appeared together in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

There was a lacklustre attempt to bring Brideshead to a new audience in 2008, when Julian Jarrold directed an adaptation by everyone’s favourite go-to literary screenwriter Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock. In an interview with Alistair Owen for his excellent book The Art of Screen Adaptation, Brock discussed some of the difficulties that he had faced, saying “you approach a masterpiece, whatever the hell that means, with fear and trepidation”. He noted that:

I also felt the shadow of the television version, which stands in memory as one of the great pieces of event TV … I think we were hobbled by the ‘compare and contrast’ that the audience did, and I wish in retrospect that I’d been more cavalier with the material and dealt with the book as if I was a virgin to it.

Although Matthew Goode is well cast as Charles, and Hayley Atwell makes an excellent Julia, the decision to interpret Sebastian as a rather pathetic and petulant figure means that even an actor of the intelligence and versatility of Ben Whishaw is stranded, and many of the book’s most enjoyable characters and moments are pared down to the bone. The odious don Samgrass – one of Waugh’s most enjoyable satirical sketches – is represented by a flustered-looking man running down a corridor. And Patrick Malahide, fine actor though he is, could no more compare to Gielgud’s Mr Ryder than Danny Dyer might take on the mantle of Daniel Day-Lewis.

The film was not a commercial success, but clearly the time has come to revisit Brideshead once again, over a decade later. While I have my own doubts about some of the mooted casting (Garfield, although a boyish-looking actor, will be nearly 40 at the start of filming), it remains a perennially popular story. The novel still sells tremendously well every year, and so a new audience will be treated to Guadagnino’s vision. Admirers of Waugh can only pray that it doesn’t end up as Brideshead Regurgitated, to steal Tom Stoppard’s excellent joke from Arcadia.

If it is a success, then it might usher in an overdue stream of further adaptations of Waugh’s novels. During his lifetime, he was resistant, at best, to the idea of his books being filmed. As a young man, he had taken part in creating his own entertainingly amateurish film, The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama, in which he played the role of the dean of Balliol while clad in a hideous wig and many of his early novels, especially Vile Bodies, owed much to the cinema in their use of editing techniques. But, as he advanced in age and became ever-more curmudgeonly, he came to regard filmmakers as little less than agents of Satan and so peremptorily refused them permission to adapt his work.

Although he was not above the blandishments of Hollywood, spending an eventful and at times farcical month in California in the wake of Brideshead’s publication as various studios tried to seduce him into selling them the rights to his book, he held steadfast to his work. It was not until near the end of his life, facing ever-increasing tax bills, that he finally relented and sold the film rights while loudly announcing that any adaptation would be a travesty. The only version of his books to be released in his lifetime, Tony Richardson’s 1965 The Loved One, is a splendidly entertaining dark comedy with an eclectic cast that includes John Gielgud, James Coburn and Liberace, with a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. Waugh was piqued that it was not directed by Luis Buñuel and wanted it to star Alec Guinness in the lead role of the frustrated poet Dennis Barlow, despite Guinness, at 50, being far too old for the part.

Waugh has not had the range or quality of adaptations that he might deserve

Subsequent adaptations of Waugh’s work, the behemoth of Brideshead aside, have been variable. His first and arguably funniest novel Decline and Fall was poorly adapted as 1968’s Decline and Fall…of a Birdwatcher, and Brideshead director Charles Sturridge’s 1988 film of Waugh’s masterpiece A Handful of Dust was far too polite and prosaic to capture the almost surreal horror that ensues in its tale of upper-class adultery and its consequences. Thankfully, the books have been served better in the past decades. William Boyd’s adaptation of his Sword of Honour trilogy captured much of its hilarity and savagery, Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things introduced a fine range of bright young actors to the cinema (including James McAvoy, David Tennant and Fenella Woolgar) and a far superior TV version of Decline and Fall was made in 2017, thanks to Rev creator James Wood’s excellent adaptation. The comedian Jack Whitehall made a suitably bewildered Paul Pennyfeather, the modern-day Candide sent down from university after an accidental moment of gross indecency and compelled to take a job teaching at the worst school in Wales.

Yet, compared to his peers, Waugh has not had the range or quality of adaptations that he might deserve. When I interviewed Boyd about this a few years ago, he suggested that “Film – and this is not meant to be derogatory – is a very simple way of telling a story. A novel is infinitely complex, by comparison.  When you come to adapt something as subtle and nuanced as a Waugh novel you are up against it.”

And, of course, there is the public reputation; the novelist was anything but “woke” or politically correct, which may have terrified commissioners away.

As Boyd said, ‘The trouble with Waugh is that he’s too well known and everybody has an opinion (snob, fascist, comic genius, Catholic stalwart etc).  So, the criticism is ephemeral and people can make up their own minds once the brouhaha of a release has died down.  He’s no harder to adapt than any novelist of serious talent. You just have to judge the adaptations as films – and not as versions of the novels. If you enjoyed the films then the adaptation has succeeded.”

Boyd, who has expressed a desire to adapt Waugh’s weird and perennially underrated autobiographical “crack-up” novella The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, also believes that Brideshead could be adapted in a more exciting way than either the 1981 or 2008 versions managed to. “I think it would be far more interesting to look at the undercurrents of the novel rather than its ‘English Heritage’ virtues; Brideshead deserves to be outed.”

Certainly, the choice of Guadagino as writer and director of the new TV version means that these undercurrents will almost certainly be exploited and explored. Time will tell whether this particular revisitation will succeed admirably or fail dismally, but its makers can be assured of one thing. Waugh would probably have loathed it, on principle.

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