Mark McGinness

Granada’s Brideshead Revisited remains the sine qua non of mini-series

Anthony Burgess said it was 'the best piece of fictional TV ever made. It is the book. In some ways, it is better than the book.'

In some ways it is better than the book: Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte in Granada’s 1981 Brideshead Revisited. Credit: ITV/Shutterstock

It is 40 years ago today since Granada’s masterly adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited first beamed into British homes. This 11-part serialisation of a book originally entitled A Household of the Faith soon gathered millions of faithful householders. The autumn of 1981 was an especially cold and wet one and it was still too soon in the Thatcher premiership for her patron saint, Francis of Assisi, to have worked his magic. So while ITV was not able to deliver harmony, truth, faith or hope, it certainly provided 659 minutes of romantic escapism.

It began very soberly with the credits — a simple black screen announcing the first episode’s actors in stark white script — propelled only by Geoffrey Burgon’s majestic score. The opening scene — an army encampment somewhere in the north of England in spring 1943 — was even grimmer as the languorous voice of Captain Charles Ryder intoned: ‘Here, at the age of 39, I began to grow old.’ Their new camp happened to be beside Brideshead Castle, ‘a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight’.

The voice of Ryder (Jeremy Irons) would, with Burgon’s oboe and horn, become emblematic of this production and both soon carried the audience back 21 years to intoxicating Oxford and his encounter with his first Flyte fancy, Lord Sebastian, second son of the Marquess of Marchmain.

But this classic had endured a very difficult gestation. Many times it seemed as doomed as the Flytes.

Late in the summer of 1978, Derek Granger (still with us, at 100), just commissioned by Granada to produce Brideshead, met Michael Lindsay-Hogg to ask if he would direct. As Lindsay-Hogg, who had first read the novel at 17, wrote in Vanity Fair: ‘I felt, as if from the balmy summer sky, flowers — colourful, sweet smelling — were floating toward my head.’ Eight

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