Brideshead Revisited S1E1, “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, John Gielgud

Brideshead Revisited meanders a little while before getting started. Its first episode is an hour and forty minute jaunt which begins with Charles Ryder (Irons), officer in the British Army, alone and pensive. I’ve always felt loneliest when people have to tell me that I am, in fact, not alone; a close second is the feeling of loneliness that comes from being surrounded by people one doesn’t care about. Charles is such a man, with his mustache and his cap and his outward impenetrability. He doesn’t react to anything. One gets the sense that the Second Coming could begin and Charles Ryder would do little more than turn around, put his riding crop on his shoulder, and walk glumly away from it; it’s his default answer to just about everything. Combined with the intolerable grayness of every one of his scenes, and the unremitting focus on him and Hooper, who is Paddington with a lieutenant’s commission, and the joylessness of Charles’ narration, it seems like Brideshead is on its way to being the most soul-sucking thirteen-hour stretch in the history of television.

It is, incidentally, but that’s neither here nor there. (I know what you’re thinking. Roots is nine hours. I checked.)

In that first half hour, we learn three important things. First, we recognize – oh, and do we ever – that Charles is a middle-aged man who is utterly alone, without anything to anchor his life other than the army, which he does not seem to take any real interest in. It is where he is, but he cannot help but to see things secondhand at this juncture of his life. Second, Charles was a painter before he was an officer, which is not a profession often connected with soldiery. Finally, the location of the secret camp that Charles’ unit is headed to is Brideshead, a great, beautiful manor house (played by Castle Howard). Charles doesn’t just recognize Brideshead; he knows it intimately. The languid attitude he had before, the droning, the body language that makes it abundantly clear that he wouldn’t care if he dropped dead, is retracted when he finds out where he is. Even his thanks to the man who gives him the information is electrified. Thirty minutes of relative boredom (trash on the ground! a junior officer with untidy hair! the gas mask song!) can be forgiven for those three key pieces of information, which color the rest of the serial. For someone like me, who came to the miniseries without having read the book before and having only a vague understanding of its plot, revealing Brideshead is a fabulous twist which allows us to head back nearly thirty years into the past.

The central conflict of the miniseries, a fight that seems even more important to me than the endless “Is there a God, and just how Catholic is He?” posturing that dominates the last episode in particular, is expressed by Sebastian a little less than an hour into “Et in Arcadia Ego.” After having brought Charles to Brideshead for the first time to meet his governess, Nanny Hawkins, and after having discovered that his sister, Julia, is due at any moment, Sebastian hurries Charles out. Charles is a little hurt. “Who are you ashamed of, her or me?” he asks. Neither, Sebastian says. He’s ashamed of himself.

Presciently, Sebastian tells Charles that should he meet the Marchmains, he will become their friend and not his any longer. “They’re so charming,” he says. Even at this point – even with that long intro with the army, and only a small amount of Sebastian so far – we can sense the depth of this friendship and Sebastian’s ensuing possessiveness. There’s a hint a couple of episodes later that Sebastian has accepted Charles as part of himself; no wonder that he’s territorial. And yet it’s hard to imagine someone being more charming than Sebastian at this juncture of the episode, really. Something about Anthony Andrews’ voice, his inability to drive a car, the way he teases Charles about not knowing if a certain wine is good with strawberries, all of it comes together in this alluring package. Indeed, most of the episode deals one way or another with Sebastian’s golden personality. His teddy bear, Aloysius, is Sebastian’s Jiminy Cricket but hardly above a spanking if he gets “sulky.” Sebastian shows up to public places disguised in a false beard and spectacles. He throws up in Charles’ dorm room (from outside the window, no less), but makes up for it as best he can with a luncheon featuring plovers’ eggs and lobster Thermidor. Sebastian, we can already see, throws himself from sin to contrition and then heartily back into “delicious sin,” as his English contemporary, Sally Bowles, might have said. When it culminates with Sebastian and Charles sitting under a shady tree on a fine spring afternoon, drinking wine and eating strawberries and smoking cigarettes, it’s strangely clear that Sebastian is not comfortable with either delicious sin or fervent penitence. Sebastian is at peace when he does peaceful things, and nothing roils him like his family, which brings out the desire to sin and the need to repent. Charles can be awed by Brideshead. Sebastian runs headfirst into shame while he’s there.

Perhaps that peacefulness is why Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace) is a little bit contemptuous of Sebastian. Anthony can hold his sin in a way that Sebastian can’t; Anthony seeks upheaval in a way that Sebastian is uncomfortable with. (As someone will say next hour, Sebastian is like an overgrown child with his Aloysius and his Nanny Hawkins – but also, too, with his difficulty coping with change.) So it would be Anthony who is unapologetically homosexual in ’20s England where Sebastian is merely homosocial in public and filling that need to find “low door in the wall” which Charles so ambiguously discusses. And it would be Anthony who grabs a megaphone and recites Eliot from on high. And it would be Anthony who drinks four cocktails in about fifteen seconds and then regales Charles for hours on the subject of Sebastian’s meaningless effervescence. Have you ever remembered anything Sebastian said for more than five minutes after he said it? Anthony asks this question with some relish (for this is said over a dinner in which he is very clearly trying to seduce Charles, which is great), and we can see Charles’ discomfort with the question; we all know that he couldn’t possibly remember any of Sebastian’s bon mots. Sebastian is just Daisy Buchanan with a title.

Anthony Blanche will serve later in the miniseries to poke holes in the pompous, and no one does it better than he can. (He’ll show up again a couple of times, much to my pleasure, and in those scenes he is utterly on target.) His turns of phrase, unlike Sebastian’s, are endlessly memorable and potentially aided by the stutter. He sets a land speed record for the number of sentences begun with, “My dear” but it’s not just that which makes the endearment fabulous. “My dee-uh” reaches peak falsetto around the “dee” and is shut off, ultimately, with this clicking glottal stop. Most people would say, “My dear,” but Anthony is a showman, and his interpretation is “My dear:” with no question of how important that next sentence is.

“Where do you lurk?” he accosts Charles not long after meeting him. “I shall come down your burrow and chivvy you out like an old st-st-stoat.” Even his insults are basted in this marvelous sexual imagery. He recounts the tale of a time when a bunch of big hetero man come to toss him in a fountain; nothing, he tells them, could give him “keener pleasure” than to be “manhandled” by those “meaty boys.” If Sebastian is like Sally Bowles, then Anthony is like the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley; both of them have this way of deflating others while remaining pleasantly aloft themselves. Anthony Blanche is the magnificent digestif for those scenes with the army; after a few minutes with him, we’ve plain forgotten Jeremy Irons’ sad face and sad mustache.

I almost regret saying earlier that Brideshead can be a soul-through-the-nose experience, because so much of the first episode is the apogee of English politeness cringe humor. John Gielgud, playing Charles’ father, is dangerously funny. In the second episode, Charles’ characterizes his father’s reaction in seeing him as “mild regret,” and that’s a pretty fitting description. It’s not that his father minds him, really, it’s more that he’d rather be alone. Mr. Ryder is the Waugh character in this miniseries; I suppose if they made, I dunno, The Loved One into a miniseries (which is one heck of a supposition), they could bring Mr. Ryder back to be droll and pithy. He is a menace to Charles, who, despite the best efforts of his cousin Jasper (who is lame, self-important, and shares predictive messages about “Anglo-Christian sodomites”), is flat broke when he comes home. Charles would like to get some more money from his dad; his dad would much rather spend the summer making fun of how his son has no money. (What should I do? asks Charles. Well, his father says, your cousin Melchior had some bad investments. He went to Australia.) No one, amusingly enough, is safe. Charles invites a friend over to dinner just for some company; Mr. Ryder decides to pretend that this guest, Jorkins, is an American without telling Jorkins about it, and to add insult to injury invites over the wife of a friend to play the cello badly.

If it seems like Charles, our supposed main character, is a mite unimportant throughout this first hour, that would be a fair assessment. He is the straight man to Hooper, to Sebastian, to Anthony, to his father: even to Julia (Diana Quick), who shows up in the last few minutes of the episode. Like many of the best literary narrators – Nick Carraway, Johnny Wheelwright, Ishmael – Charles knows where he stands in relative importance to his situation. He accepts his unremarkable state, willing to be swept in front of Brandy Alexanders or the barracks or Brideshead Castle without really touching any of them. Amusingly, Charles seems most himself when he’s at home, at dinner with his father; silence and bemusement become him in a way that his gay escapades at college just don’t.

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