British Invasion: When 'Brideshead Revisited' Was Declared the 'Best Series Ever Seen on American TV'

Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981).
Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981). / Album / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1982, The Washington Post related a story about a woman who began suspecting her husband of infidelity. The initials “B.H.” had materialized on his calendar, scrawled in the schedule on consecutive Mondays.

Before long, her fears had been eased. “B.H.” didn’t stand for a mistress, but for his appointment with Brideshead Revisited.

The 1999 debut of HBO’s The Sopranos is often credited with ushering in a new and prestigious era of television. But for viewers of Brideshead Revisited, first broadcast in the United States on PBS in 1982, it’s very possible TV’s golden age was foreshadowed by a young Jeremy Irons and an astonishingly faithful novel adaptation.

It was, in the words of The Washington Post critic Henry Mitchell, “the best series ever seen on American television.”

A Novel Approach

Castle Howard in York, England is pictured
Castle Howard, which doubled for Brideshead. / David Goddard/GettyImages

Author Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited while he was laid up with a broken fibula he sustained while practicing parachute jumps during his military service. The book, which was published in 1945, presents a portrait of upper-class disenchantment. Protagonist Charles Ryder, embroiled in World War II, finds himself looking back on his experiences as a friend of the Flytes, a well-to-do aristocratic clan dwelling in the sprawling Brideshead estate.

Ryder first befriends Sebastian Flyte while the two are in college. Their friendship leads Ryder into the psychological thickets of the entire family: the domineering matriarch Lady Marchmain, the absentee Lord Marchmain, sisters Julia and Cordelia, brother "Bridey," and their various friends and lovers.

Ryder observes their many moral and romantic quandaries, though none are quite as impactful as Ryder’s own dalliance with Sebastian—a kind of platonic romance that stowed its gay undertones to suit a conservative 1940s readership. The novel is both aloof and emotional, a study in manners and grief as an older Ryder laments the cultured world the uncivil war has left behind.

Waugh briefly entertained an MGM adaptation in 1947, but it never materialized, possibly owing to the futility of trying to condense his work into a two-hour film. Decades later, British broadcast network ITV and producer Granada Television found that adapting Waugh’s novel into a truncated six hours would also prove difficult. According to the show’s first director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, multiple scripts were written and then rejected for their lack of fidelity to the source material; the six-episode allotment was providing too constricting, which raised alarm.

Instead, producer Derek Granger worked with credited writer John Mortimer as well as Martin Thompson to find the spirit of the novel and preserve—rather than distill—it.

“A prolonged showing on television, occupying many weeks and involving many episodes, gave an opportunity of doing something quite different,” Mortimer wrote in 1982. “What I hope the television Brideshead Revisited may do is give the viewer the feeling that he is living through the book and experiencing it at the length and, as nearly as possible, in the way the author intended.”

Casting a Classic

For the role of Charles Ryder, producers cast Jeremy Irons, who was largely an unknown; so was Anthony Andrews, who played the hedonistic Sebastian Flyte. Star power came in the form of the renowned Laurence Olivier, who would portray Lord Marchmain; and Sir John Gielgud, who played Charles’s fastidious father, Edward.

With the cast set, Lindsay-Hogg began shooting in April 1979. That August, a union strike forced the shutdown of British television projects, a problem that wouldn’t be resolved until October.

Lindsay-Hogg couldn’t continue on though, as he was committed to direct another film. He was replaced by Charles Sturridge, who saw the production to its completion and who often had to contend with doubts as to his motivations. Some in the crew believed he was there as part of some plot to collect insurance on a hobbled production.

While such an interruption would normally create panic, it proved fortuitous for Brideshead. The shutdown allowed Granada to observe that things weren’t coalescing properly. Instead of backing away, they doubled the budget and encouraged Sturridge to film practically the entire novel. It was a process that, beginning with Lindsay-Hogg’s work, took two years and 26,000 feet of film to complete.

The result was something unique not only to television, but to book adaptations in general. Instead of striking great portions of the book or altering its structure, the production opted to insert only minimal interpretation. Much of the dialogue and voiceover would come from Waugh’s book verbatim. At times, actors who hadn’t received new script pages simply recited from the pages of the novel. Irons provided voiceover as Charles, which would provide the internal monologue that dominated the book.

Granada also agreed to stretch the six episodes to 11, providing a deeper and more inclusive look at the novel’s many emotional entanglements and narratives. Brideshead Revisited was becoming something unique—not a book-on-tape, but a kind of book-on-film.

Brideshead Explodes

John Mortimer and Laurence Olivier are pictured in 1979
Writer John Mortimer (L) and Laurence Olivier (R) on the set of 'Brideshead Revisited' in 1979. / Michael Ward/Getty Images

That Brideshead Revisited was warmly received when it premiered on England's ITV in October 1981 probably came as little surprise. What may be more notable is the reception it received when it aired in America in January 1982.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that there was no quality dramatic television being produced at the time. Both St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues were in production, and both remain notable examples of ambitious episodic series. But the top 10 for the 1982-1983 season was dominated by shows like Dynasty, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, and The A-Team. It wasn’t clear how a rather unsensational and internalized British drama about a forlorn soldier and a wealthy eccentric toting a stuffed bear named Aloysius would play on the other side of the pond.

Yet Brideshead Revisited was nothing less than a phenomenon, inviting not only terrific ratings of 5 million viewers weekly for PBS, which broadcast it as part of their Great Performances series, but as a sumptuous bit of culture. According to The New York Times, it was “the biggest British invasion since the Beatles.” Viewers trotted out Oxford bags as seen in the series; young men began carrying bears in the Aloysius mold; New Yorkers found that all their regular dinner guests were too busy to gather on Monday nights, as a new installment of Brideshead was airing. Sales of the book, which had been dormant, soared.

(It also inspired two subsequent adaptions: One feature film in 2008, starring Matthew Goode as Charles and Ben Whishaw as Sebastian, as well as a planned BBC presentation with Andrew Garfield as Charles.)

It's possible, as Christopher Hitchens observed in 2008, that even American viewers far from British aristocracy found something relatable in Brideshead—the tug of nostalgia for a simpler time. (So potent was that affection, Hitchens noted, that when he was wearing a white linen suit and carrying a teddy bear in a profile reminiscent of young Flyte, passersby yelled “Hi, Sebastian!” at him.)

The American appetite for British television has hardly abated in the interim. Today, several productions, from Downton Abbey to Luther to dozens in between, are imported to great success. But Brideshead Revisited was something else—a series that had utter fidelity to its source material, and one which offered a glimpse of television’s potential. Many shows have been declared appointment viewing, but viewers of Brideshead actually bothered to write it down in their schedules.