The England we lost, thank God

We no longer want to indulge in the world of nostalgia that 'Brideshead Revisited' represents, argues Suzi Feay

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AS THE opening credits rolled, the nation settled in for an enjoyable, nostalgic wallow. Like Charles Ryder, we had been here before. The sight of Brideshead rising out of the fields brought the memories flooding back: of golden afternoons, of teddy bears and teas, of plovers' eggs and pristine white flannels. This, we knew, was the apotheosis of the TV serial. The director Charles Sturridge was hailed as a master: the settings, the script, the performances were pure televisual gold. They don't make them like that any more.

But after two hours the response could only be, thank God for that. Brideshead Revisited has not worn well. The pace is crucifyingly slow; the stellar cast of British sleepwalkers are like narcoleptics in a fatigue contest. Anthony Andrews in particular struggles like a fly in slowly setting amber under the weight of gloom and foreboding from the very first voice-over. Yet you'd think it would still have resonance, this tale of an earl's younger child, doe-eyed, floppy of fringe, charming but with no brains, living a life of privilege yet damaged inside, bent on self- harm.

In 1981, when Brideshead Revisited was first screened, we were innocent of hindsight; the New Romantics were still prancing, a dim Sloane had just married a man with big ears, and we all believed in fairy-tales. Strangest of all, we believed that Diana Quick and Anthony Andrews were destined for great things. (Let us just gasp for a moment at this early Eighties idea of a male sex symbol: Andrews with his heavy eyes, lower- lip wobble and duck-waddle walk, disguised not at all by his hunting pink and his Oxford bags.)

The Oxford episodes are by far the liveliest and the most celebrated, both of book and film: Brideshead Revisited is principally remembered for Lord Sebastian Flyte and his amusing bear, for The Waste Land sobbingly rendered through a loudhailer from the high windows of Sebastian's room. It's Brideshead Lite, before the spectres of middle-age and alcoholism loom. But in John Mortimer's leisurely adaptation, it was an aeon before Anthony Andrews' face swam up from the gloom of the quad to vomit through Ryder's window. Readers often criticise TV adaptations with the words "It's not like the book". Here we have one that is too like the book. Mortimer never managed to liberate himself, perhaps didn't even try, from Waugh's prose. Pages of conversation are reproduced entire; luncheons take place in real time; the purplest passages are used as mortar to stick scenes together.

Has our attention span dwindled so radically over the intervening 17 years? Our appetite for rich, challenging dramas and literary adaptations is unabated, but we now expect them to be "opened out", re-imagined. If our taste for verbal intricacy has diminished, we are at least more visually sophisticated.

The camerawork now seems arthritic, the visual imagination meagre: the short stretch of pavement under the Bridge of Sighs does duty for much of Oxford. And when Charles and Sebastian lounge before some imposing pediment we can never really believe anything other than that the film crew has gone to some National Trust property for the day. Sebastian likes things because they are pretty, not because they are important or historically significant. Fatally, so does Charles Sturridge.

The project's structure - the past as a hall of mirrors, Waugh writing in the Forties about the Twenties, filmed in the Eighties - has simply provided more ways for it to seem dated. The Marchmain family's Catholicism is as tiresome an affectation as their taste in soft toys. Waugh was recapturing a time when the stately piles he describes were becoming an intolerable burden on their owners. It was the era of mysterious country house fires: we access it today by English Heritage tape-tours through ruthless ruins. Waugh, of course, laid the emotional foundations for our present veneration of the English country house, with works such as Brideshead Revisited.

But Heritage as we worship it today is not about let-it-all-rot, and all-things-come-to-an-end, or the inevitability of change and decay. Sebastian is no genius, yet he speaks for us all when he says, "There aren't many more evenings left to us, Charles." Heritage, on the contrary, sees an unbroken stretch of golden evenings, when a touch on the bell brings tea, with a squadron of servants in white gloves to serve it.

The handling of Sebastian is another problem for today's viewers. Modern tastes are unsympathetic to ambiguous sexuality. "Go on, snog him and get it over with," snarled one TV critic of the Brideshead rerun. If the heaving bosoms and hoyden romps of Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility represent dumbing down, then so be it. How strange it is now to watch the entire cast of Brideshead Revisited dance in a fairy ring around the toadstool of Sebastian's Otherness. What's that about? Nowadays we know all too well what afflicts Sebastian: Paradise Syndrome, low self-esteem and the fact that Derek Jarman wasn't due to be born for another 20 years.

Waugh himself never precisely articulates the problem of Sebastian, and the male-male romance is represented by scenes of Sebastian crying hysterically while Charles smokes and looks on enigmatically. Charles feels the correct "bat-squeak" of desire for Sebastian's double, Julia, and is rewarded by worldly success as a painter. Sebastian, meanwhile, falls under the spell of a sado-masochistic German, presumably the worst fate that Waugh, from the perspective of the war, could devise. He may be the most glamorous homosexual of the 20th century, but he has the grace to loathe himself for it. And that perhaps dates the film and the book more than anything else. We no longer have the stomach for the martyrdom of St Sebastian.

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