Man-man love. Staunch Catholicism. Alcoholism. Upper-class British twits. Who knew the American public would make "Brideshead Revisited" a phenomenal hit? But when the 11-part miniseries premiered on PBS in January 1982, arriving three months after its debut in the U.K., the nation lapped it up. Suddenly, long-dead novelist Evelyn Waugh was all the rage (people even learned how to pronounce his first name), and men's store windows were displaying brown tweed jackets, linen pants, black tuxes and cigarette cases.
The adulation was entirely understandable. While there had been been epic American miniseries before, from "Rich Man, Poor Man" to "Roots" and "Shogun," nothing was in "Brideshead's" league. For a change, American TV viewers became listeners, drinking in the characters' witty and eloquent dialogue, and even more so the riveting narration of Jeremy Irons. His portrayal of Charles Ryder -- an embittered Army captain whose wistful flashback to his college days and beyond forms the body of the series -- made him (and his voice) a star.
In England, too, the series was a smash. As several of the actors and filmmakers interviewed on this new 25th-anniversary DVD set point out, nothing of this size had ever been shot on film for British TV. With the exception of the six-hour John le Carre spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" of 1980, the great British miniseries -- "The Pallisers," "The Forsyte Saga," "Upstairs, Downstairs," "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," "Elizabeth R" -- had been shot all or mostly on videotape. They were great drama but they often looked like recordings of stage performances rather than real cinema.
A spoiler-filled synopsis
You know you're in a grander realm right from "Brideshead's" opening moments. As the camera pans among soldiers sleeping in barracks, it stops on Charles Ryder, unable to sleep, staring from his pillow with dark dead eyes as his voiceover begins: "Here ... at the age of 39 ... I began to be old."
It's late 1943 and Ryder is an officer who cares little for military life. For months, he has led his company through pointless exercises in England as they wait to be shipped to the real action in the Middle East. So when he is ordered to move out during the night to yet another new plot of land to bivouac, he's hardly excited. But the next morning, when he emerges from his tent, he learns that camp has been set up on a vast private estate known as Brideshead, and suddenly the cobwebs clear away. Ryder has been to this Versailles-like castle before: it is the ancient home of the young man he loved 20 years earlier.
Thus begins his and our journey back to his days as a student at Oxford, where Charles, a respectable, upper-middle-class 19-year-old, meets Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), the striking son of a lord. Sebastian exposes Charles to a life of profound splendor and eventually to his family of devout Catholics: his imperious mother (Claire Bloom), stuffy older brother Lord Brideshead, known as Bridey (Simon Jones), and sisters Julia (Diana Quick) and Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls). On the boys' trip to Venice, Charles meets Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), who has been in self-imposed exile from his wife and country for years. Lady Marchmain's religious fervor has driven her husband away, and religion is to contribute to the undoing of Sebastian, who finds it harder and harder to reconcile his high living with the more ascetic aspects of Roman Catholicism. The frequent drinking of his college days turns to outright alcoholism.
Charles and Sebastian shift from closest soul mates to caretaker and invalid, while other family members who have seemed to be merely ornamentation begin to play larger roles. It's a thrilling moment when halfway through the series, at the start of Episode 6, narrator Charles announces with stunning understatement, "It is time to speak of Julia." The lively young woman, who has been married to an odious Canadian capitalist, Rex Mottram (Charles Keating), becomes the most important person in Charles' life, and their relationship carries the second half of the series. At the end, when characters and love affairs have died, and great fortunes and homes have been demolished, Charles is back in the "present" contemplating the wreck of his life.
"Brideshead Revisited" was on DVD before. Acorn Media issued a three-disc set in 2002 whose only substantial extra was a companion booklet. A redesigned version of that booklet is included in this new edition, along with some exciting bonus material.
"Brideshead" was shot on film over a two-year period (a major strike against Britain's Independent Television network shut down production for four months), but that film was 16 mm, not the richer big-screen norm of 35 mm. The picture, in standard 4:3 full frame aspect ratio, looks good, but not great. I haven't seen the earlier edition, but I suspect we've got the same slightly grainy transfer here. Shockingly, some dust clumps and vertical "threads" pop up at a few points, but they'll hardly distract the casual viewer.
The audio is two-channel Dolby Digital, which does the job well enough. This is a dialogue-and-music soundtrack; there are no clanging battle or other action scenes to be amplified and separated into five channels of surround sound.
The main menu on each of the four discs has still photos that change to full motion if you wait long enough. Pick one of the two or three episodes or go directly to a scene; each episode has five chapters, though the longer first and 11th episodes have 10.
There are none. But there is closed captioning in English for TVs and monitors that support it.
There is commentary on two of the 11 episodes. The first episode features a joint chat with Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick and Nickolas Grace, who plays the unforgettable Oxford fop Anthony Blanche. Irons immediately praises the theme music by Geoffrey Burgon. "That's half my part," he says he told director Charles Sturridge. "It does half the work I've been trying to do for me." The star adds that he originally was proposed for the role of Sebastian, but he demurred because he had already played a self-destructive drunk in the H.E. Bates miniseries "Love for Lydia" (also available on Acorn DVD). Quick notes that "Brideshead" is actually a short novel, and since the filmmakers were given the space and time, they were able to film virtually every word. Anthony Andrews and producer Derek Granger discuss Episode 4, which covers the crucial alcohol-fueled decline of Sebastian. It's clear Andrews has watched the series over the years because he's able to tip us off to the significance of various shots before they arrive.
The 48-minute featurette "Revisiting Brideshead" gathers thoughts from most of the surviving cast and crew, including original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who after doing the early work, had to leave the production during the long ITV strike; we also hear from replacement director Charles Sturridge, who was not yet 30 and had little experience when he agreed to take on the massive project. The show, adapted by "Rumpole of the Bailey" creator John Mortimer, originally was to be six hours, but at some point everyone agreed to double the length, and use the novel itself as a shooting script. Critics, writers and broadcasters fill in the background of Evelyn Waugh's work and how it was successively adapted to the screen, and discuss the importance of Roman Catholicism to the story. We also see bits of TV interviews with Waugh from the 1960s. (Chapter cues in this lengthy documentary would have been appreciated.)
An outtakes reel shows, among the usual funny line screw-ups, a playful side of Irons we probably never suspected existed.
A 20-page booklet has a 2002 reminiscence from director Sturridge, a short bio of Evelyn Waugh, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and a thorough description of all the places where filming took place in the series (virtually all shooting was done on location).
To say "Brideshead Revisited" "holds up" after 25 years would be as understated as Jeremy Irons' performance. Few subsequent British dramas, save the likes of "The Jewel in the Crown," have its size and scope; when you've reached the end you'll feel you've really accomplished something. The writing and performances are as good as it gets (though it's a stretch to believe Irons and Anthony Andrews, both in their 30s during filming, are in their teens in the early episodes). And it's of no little value to have two of the final performances by Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, who is devastatingly funny as Charles' father. The new making-of featurette and the two commentary tracks add greatly to the set. One could wish that the picture looked a little better, but nevertheless this series is a thing to behold. Like the venerable mansion at its center, it stands.