Even by upper-class British standards, Evelyn (pronounced evil in) Waugh had an unusually large colony of mice in his wig. As a vicious schoolboy, he frequently stuck pins in Cecil Beaton, a gilded youth who later became a fashionable photographer, “because he was reputed to enjoy his music lessons.” And as a singularly vapid underclassman at Oxford, he drank like a culvert and wore lemon-yellow gloves. In middle age Waugh transmogrified into an overinflated Blimp with flabby scarlet wattles, a buttonhole mouth and a glare that could blister a Socialist’s neck. He carried an ear trumpet two feet long, denounced the Tory Party as a Bolshevik conspiracy, and declined to vote because he believed in absolute monarchy. More Catholic than the Pope, he repeatedly expressed regret that the Spanish Armada had failed to conquer England.
Incredibly, this man was a great novelist—in the opinion of critic Edmund Wilson “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.” During the ’20s and ’30s, in five of the most savagely funny novels in the language (among them Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust), Waugh gleefully stuck pins in the gilded youth of the years between the wars.
But like most satirists, Waugh was a retaliatory romantic. The vile bodies he mocked were the terminal debris of a tradition he loved, and in Brideshead Revisited (1945), written during a war that seemed certain to bury that tradition, he laid a glowing rose on its grave.
For Waugh, the love of a lord and the love of God were intertwined emotions, and in Brideshead the connection is dramatized in a quasi-medieval allegory. The hero, Charles Ryder, a middle-class parvenu (much like Waugh), is in effect a pilgrim who makes a spiritual journey through successive love affairs with a pair of aristocratic siblings, Sebastian and Julia, and at journey’s end discovers the infinitely greater love of God.
Pious poppycock? Groveling adulation of the upper classes? Mayfair manikins for a hero and heroine? Many critics ripped a strip or two off the novel, but few denied the rich fascination of the secondary characters, the lyric glory of the language and the sensuous precision of Waugh’s nostalgia—when he describes a dusty palace the reader sneezes.
Brideshead was an upscale bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, but for decades the big movie and TV minds declared the tale too wan for a mass market. Then a gritty Englishman named Derek Granger sold the notion of a Brideshead miniseries to a British independent producer, Granada Television. Granger figured to shoot six one-hour shows in 10 weeks for about $4 million. But a production strike intervened, and the script by John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) grew like a snake in a nightmare. Granger wound up with a 13-hour movie that took 55 weeks to shoot and cost almost $10 million. He also wound up with the year’s most fascinating television drama, an epic in a teacup.
Fidelity is a cardinal virtue in this marriage of fiction and film. The script re-creates the book scene by scene—wherever possible, the actors employ Waugh’s dialogue, the narrator speaks Waugh’s prose. Backgrounds are ruthlessly authentic: Granger’s directors, Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, shot the family episodes in Yorkshire’s massive Castle Howard, Waugh’s model for the Brideshead of the book, and the Oxford sequences in Waugh’s own rooms in Hertford College. And the details of decor and costume are correct to the last spatter-dash and lambrequin.
Inevitably, such a deferential translation retains the faults as well as the virtues of the original, the sleepy longueurs and simpering snobbery along with the romantic ecstasy and luminous charm. But two immensely powerful elements have been added: an array of dazzling performances—by Jeremy Irons as Charles, John Gielgud as his father, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, Diana Quick as Julia and Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain—and a visual energy that even the tight little orifice of the TV screen cannot strangle. Ray Goode, the director of photography, has crammed the eye with radiant images of beautiful persons, beautiful places, beautiful things—a museum of luxurious daydreams.
Overnight, many of the daydreams came true. In both Britain and the U.S. (where each episode of the series was watched by an aggregate audience of 15 million viewers, and Brideshead fever momentarily replaced herpes as the scourge of the suburbs) Brideshead spinoffs quickly jammed the better boutiques. For men, there were Oxford bag trousers, double-breasted vests, Fair Isle sweaters and necktie belts; for women, dropped waistlines, sailor collars and crushable linens in pallid pastel colors. In gay discos, a number of beautiful young men were seen carrying teddy bears like Sebastian’s. And all last summer Castle Howard was crowded with middle-class tourists. Waugh had become a mass phenomenon.
If he were not dead, the thought would have killed him.