Wednesday, September 3, 2008

“Brideshead Revisited,” Revisited

Rowing in The Lake in Central Park. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Those millions of us who watched the PBS series “Brideshead Revisited” in the early 1980s recall with great fondness the bittersweet story of a British aristocratic family and its historic house “Brideshead” based on the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh.

Author Evelyn Waugh.
The series, which ran for two seasons (and 659 minutes) made a star of Jeremy Irons who played the protagonist Charles Ryder opposite his contemporary Anthony Andrews (whose star also rose as a result of it) who played Lord Sebastian Flyte. Every actor and actress in the series had a great career success with their roles and the cast included Sir Laurence Olivier (who played the father, Lord Marchmain, who exiled himself with a mistress in Venice) and Clare Bloom who played his very Roman Catholic wife Lady Marchmain (the book’s “reason” for the exile) and Diana Quick who played Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister and Charles Ryder’s love interest.

Both the film and the TV series were shot in visually sumptuous locations, especially at Castle Howard, the fantastic 17th-century stately home of the Earls of Carlisle (the Howard family) designed by van Brugh who also had a great part in the design and building of Blenheim Palace, the country seat of the dukes of Marlborough (the Spencer-Churchill family).
Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, stars of the TV version of “Brideshead Revisited.”
The 12 hours of the series gave the producers and writers an opportunity to follow much of the Waugh novel with details that included even dialogue taken from the book, and to follow the complex and elaborate relationships of the family.

“Brideshead,” which was Waugh’s most popular novel, was inspired by his relationship with a real-life British family, the Lygons, (the Earls Beauchamp – pronounced Beech-um) who have occupied their ancestral, Madresfield Court for the past 1000 years (not a typo) and still do to this day.

Madresfield Court.
Evelyn Waugh met Hugh Lygon, son of the 7th Earl Beauchamp, in 1922 at Oxford – where Charles Ryder met Sebastian Flyte – and became a frequent visitor to Madresfield where he also became great friends with his classmate’s sisters.

Although the novel implies that Charles Ryder’s relationship with Sebastian had a homosexual subcontext, and indeed, it may have been so in real life with Waugh and Hugh Lygon, it was Hugh’s father (like Lord Marchmain in “Brideshead”) who was the center of the family problem/scandal that overshadowed the family’s well-being.

William Lygon, the 7th Earl, was also homosexual and had had a number of liaisons which were eventually brought to the attention of his brother-in-law (his wife’s brother), the 2nd Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor – England’s richest landowner (Belgravia).
Castle Howard, the location of “Brideshead Revisited" for both TV and movie.
Homosexual acts in those merry olde days of yore, were considered criminal behavior and punishable by prison sentences. Westminster, who besides being homophobic as well as an arrogant prig also hated his brother-in-law from an ancient (unlike his) aristocratic family.

The duke, who was informally known as BendOr, took the matter all the way to Buckingham Palace. When King George V (grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II) was told by the duke that he could provide evidence of “criminal acts of indecency between his brother-in-law and a number of men,” the king is said to have responded “I thought men like that shot themselves.”

Nevertheless, the matter was considered so serious that three Knights of the Garter were disbursed by the King to call on the Earl – who was a friend of his, and also a Knight of the Garter – to urge him to resign all of his official posts (a member of the House of Lords) and to leave England that midnight!
The Beauchamp family, 1925, when Evelyn Waugh was a new friend (l. to r.): Coote, Maimie, Sibell, Lettice, Lady Beauchamp, Lord Beauchamp (the 7th Earl), Elmley, Hugh (model for Sebastian), and Dickie (with family dog).
The Earl immediately informed two of his daughters – the only children who were in the house at the time -- of the matter. His plan was to depart immediately for Wiesbaden, Germany where he planned to commit suicide. However, through a series of interventions, first by his doctor and then by constant the companionship of his adoring children who took turns keeping him company, he was persuaded to live.

Six years later, not long after the death of King George V, Hugh Lygon – Evelyn Waugh’s great friend and the model for Sebastian in “Brideshead,” died from a fall where he hit his head. His father returned immediately to England, at the risk of being arrested, to be at his son’s side when he died three days later. The new king, George VI (Elizabeth’s father) was persuaded to drop the charges against the grieving father in 1937, six years after his exile, allowing him to remain in England and at Madresfield.

Waugh’s novel, fashioned on the family, took a more romantic version of the family’s great dramas, authentically portraying, however, the personalities who occupied by the 160-room “castle” (with moat) that the Lygons and their ancestors had owned (and never sold) for a millennium.
The current stars of the movie, "Brideshead Revisited," Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw.
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead family and his novel “Brideshead Revisited” lives on, like the family that inspired it, in a wonderful new film version that stars Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, and Ben Whishaw and directed by Julian Jarrold (director of “Becoming Jane”). It was released by Miramax in this country at the end of July. Andrew Saffir’s Cinema Society in collaboration with Victorinox (Swiss Army knives and accessories) hosted a star-studded screening of the film at Loew’s 19th Street to a new audience – many of whom were not around to see the television series twenty-seven years ago.

Click to order.
The Cinema Society’s screening was as always a star-studded affair that included the film’s stars – Goode, Atwell, Thompson, Whishaw and its director Jarrold, as well as co-star Jonathan Cake and producer Douglas Rae – and Mamie Gummer, Jurnee Smollett (“The Great Debaters”), Rachel Dratch, Julianne Nicholson (“Law & Order”), Mekhi Phifer (“ER”), Paul Blackthorne (“Lipstick Jungle”), Alicia Witt, Linda Wells, Amy Sacco, Kelly Killoren Bensimon, Alexandra Richards, Nigel Barker, Hamish Bowles, Nicole Miller, Keren Craig, Rufus Albemarle, Mick Rock, Rain Phoenix, Sam Shaffer and Kathryn Neale, Daniel Benedict, Johannes Huebl, Olivia Palermo, Yigal Azrouel, Gigi Mortimer, Jessica Joffe, Richard and Sessa Johnson, Glenn O’Brien, Byrdie Bell, Jamee and Peter Gregory, Eric and Kimberly Villency, Miramax President Daniel Battsek, and Victorinox’s Joh Siff and Pierre-Henri Mattout.

As is the drill with the Cinema Society’s snazzy screenings, when the lights came up at the Loew’s 19th Street, the stellar ones swept up by the film’s wistful romance, retreated to a chic supper party a couple of blocks north on the Roof of the Gramercy Park Hotel.

If you’ve never seen the film, or read the book, you’re in for a great treat, a stirring romantic family epic. And if after seeing it, you can’t get enough, you can now rent the DVD’s of the series. And if that’s still not enough, there’s more: Jane Mulvagh has written a fascinating and compelling biography, ”Madresfield; The Real Brideshead – One House, One Family, One Thousand Years,” published this year by Doubleday in London.
Hayley Atwell
Andrew Saffir and Amy Sacco
Alicia Witt
Jonathan Cake and Julianne Nicholson
Daniel Battsek
Bonnie Morrison and Rufus Albemarle
Glenn O'Brien and Gina Nanni
Hamish Bowles and Douglas Gilman
Grace Savage and Genevieve Bahrenburg
Byrdie Bell
Gigi Mortimer
Helen Lee Schifter
Jamee Gregory
Eric Villency
Jason Pomeranc and Ali Wise
George Wayne
Daniel Benedict, Pierre-Henri Mattout, and Johannes Huebl
Niki Beel, Richard Johnson, and Sessa von Richthofen
Julian Jarrold and Douglas Rae
Kristin Jones and Keri Putnam
Leslie Stevens and Court Williams
Jurnee Smollett
Keren Craig
Kelly Killoren Bensimon
Mamie Gummer
Nicole Miller
Judy Licht and Andrew Saffir
Olivia Palermo
Hud Morgan and Jessica Joffe
Sean Evans and Matt Kibble
Linda Wells and Lauren Wells
Rachel Dratch
Yigal Azrouel and Amanda Garcia Santana
Matthew Goode
Nigel Barker
Paul Blackthorne
Pierre-Henri Mattout, Matthew Goode, and Joh Siff
Rain Phoenix and Liz Vap

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