Thursday, March 20, 2014

Re-visiting Brideshead

I am currently watching the Granada Television series "Brideshead Revisited" which is currently being re-run on Sky Arts. I remember seeing it when it was originally shown in the early 1980's.  Couldn't help then being captivated by it then and the same can be said about it now. It seems to have stood the test of time remarkably well. It's amazing to think that Granada, in those days a single company within a 'federated' ITV would produce something as lavish as this series. It runs to 11 episodes and if I remember rightly the first and last episodes run for 90 minutes. So that's around 12 hours of running time! Seems amazing that you would even think of making a drama series that ran that long in the 1980's, but nothing would be made with such detail and with such a superb cast in the early part of the 21st century. I do have some sort of link to it, having worked as an A.S.M. at Greenwich Theatre in the early 1970's and was involved in a play written by John Mortimer called "A Voyage Round My Father"  (see earlier post where I give much more detail on this.) John Mortimer was credited with writing the screenplay, but, having just looked on I.M.D.B. I discover that his screenplay wasn't used although his name remained on the credits. I wonder why. Anthony Andrews portrayal of Sebastian is quite mesmerising. It's the sort of acting which has you hooked. It would have been easy to have gone 'over the top' and played him as just camp, but he seems to avoid this quite admirably. There's no acting that comes up to this sort of standard on television that I can think of at the moment, intact, there's nothing that equals this series on anywhere on television at the moment. I can't think of anything which keeps you so hooked, where you have to find out 'what happens next' and look forward to the next episode.

I can't say that I'm actually over-enthusiastic about it as a piece of television drama. I know I watched it way back when it was first broadcast in 1981 and I read the book, but I have to say the characters are so arrogant and hateful I can't say they exactly draw you in. They are all self-centred, don't exactly show any redeeming features and are not particularly likeable. The central character, Charles Ryder, the narrator and played by Jeremy Irons, is so totally boring that you can't latch on to him at all. He goes about being to ally miserable all the time. He's supposed to be a painter but he's not very convincing. Who would bother hiring him? Sebastian, the character played by Anthony Andrews, is an interesting character, but he doesn't have to work as he's got money, presumably from being a aristocrat. He drinks himself stupid. Who would employ him anyway? None of the characters have to work, which is one reason I can't possibly engage with any of them. I have to say that the filming, direction and settings are excellent, but I can't imagine this series being produced with such a lavish style in the early part of the 21st century. It has a very downbeat ending to it and not exactly leaving you with a feeling that any of the characters find happiness in any way shape or form.

There is another connection I have, although vaguely with 'Brideshead Revisited.' I mentioned earlier that I had worked on 'A Voyage Round My Father' at Greenwich. During the run of the play, there was much talk of it transferring to the West End. It did eventually make it to the West End, but I don't think it was the same production and if so it had a different cast. I know that Alec Guinness played the central character of the Father, and if memory serves he did come to see the Greenwich production which had Mark Dignam playing the Father. Laurence Olivier came to see it and came back-stage after the performance. He played Lord Marchmaine in 'Brideshead, although he doesn't actually have a major part and is only in two episodes, when Sebastian takes Charles to Venice and in the final episode when Lord Marchmaine returns to England and there he has a somewhat long and drawn-out death. I remember when I first saw the series in the 1980's this episode, which runs for 90 minutes did seem a little over-long. But I can at least say I have been in the same room with Laurence Olivier, although not to speak to! Much later on Thames Television did a new television version of 'A Voyage Round My Father' and Oliver was in that. Another actor from "Voyage" has a small part in "Brideshead Revisited," John Nettleton, who played the commanding officer at the beginning and the end of the series, from the time that Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons, revisits Brideshead Castle when he is an army officer and billeted at the house at the beginning of the Second World War. And I did notice in the closing credits that an actor I worked with at  Ipswich Theatre in the 1970's, Stephen Mallatratt, had a minor role. He went on to adapt the Susan Hill book "The Woman In Black for the stage and which has become a huge hit in the West End and on tour. He wrote scripts for many television series including "Coronation Street."

Compared to current television dramas it's light years ahead of, say Downton Abbey. I have seen one episode and I can't see what all the fuss is about.  Not particularly engaging characters and the story lines don't convince. I think the big problem  Carol and I have is that there are far too many adverts on I.T.V. I think within an hour's running time you get three breaks which is every 20 minutes. It's actually better to record on Sky+ and then when the advertising breaks come up just fast-forward through the commercials. I realise that it's these commercials that pay for programming on I.T.V., but when it's for such things as car insurance and sofas, then it does get incredibly boring. And can someone explain why these sofa companies are always having sales? We watched something else the other evening and there were no less than three adverts all for sofa companies? 

Having been to Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which is used throughout as the location for Brideshead Castle, and thoroughly loving the place, and the fact that it was filmed in various other locations throughout England, together with an exceptional cast, this is one television series well worth seeing again. I  can recommend it highly.

Why is it that so much of television today gives me a headache? I don't mean the subject-matter so much as the fact that directors insist on using some really headache-inducing camera techniques,
 what they call 'whip-pans' and something which makes me feel positively sick, where you have a couple of actors standing still and the camera spins around them? What on earth is that all about? You get things chopped up in the editing suite so you get a lot of very brief 'clips' and it's hard to make out what it is. Another is when they insist on having the actors walking along and the camera follows them, but instead of it being a smooth 'dolly shot' where the camera runs along a specially-constructed track, you get a really horrible wobbly hand-held camera shot which makes you feel queasy. Not nice. Well, none of this seems to be used in the making of 'Brideshead Revisited.' I presume it was made when such techniques weren't used much.  Is it because these unpleasant filming techniques are a way to cut costs? No reason can I give except that it's 'trendy' or 'arty.' Actually means that I'm not going to endure the show and just turn off or find something else to watch.  it seems that producers treat their audience with a great deal of contempt because everything seems to be in short time spans, that is, scenes are short as if the audience can't concentrate on anything for no more than a couple of minutes at a time. This was true of things like 'EastEnders' (which, incidentally, I can't stand as it's full of such hateful characters who are always falling out with each other and always shouting. Not good for one's nerves. Just not enjoyable viewing.) where you have several concurrent story lines and they keep on switching between them and you never know exactly what is going on unless you watch regularly.  Then there's the drama series adapted from a novel or something and instead of adapting it in sufficient episodes to make it worthwhile watching it's done in perhaps two or there when perhaps six or even more episodes would be better. No doubt this is because of budgetary constraints. This was evident a few years ago when they did a series based on 'South Riding' which was done in three episodes and the plot line was telescoped so much into the timeframe it was incomprehensible. None of this occurs with 'Brideshead Revisited.' In some ways it's incredibly slow and there are whole episodes where virtually nothing happens, but at least there is some character development. I know there is a newer, film, adaptation of 'Brideshead' but it makes me wonder how on earth you can telescope so much story into a running time of about 90 minutes without it seeming rushed. Well, with the vast running time of the Granada version of the book there is definitely space for the story to develop along with the characters.
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