75 years and several adaptations on, the lavish indulgence of 'Brideshead Revisited' still provides audiences with champagne-flavored escapism

The dome appears first, rearing up suddenly from behind a cluster of trees that are just beginning to edge towards gold. Ahead of me, little groups of people bundled into anoraks and clutching umbrellas (this is Yorkshire, after all) amble towards it, craning their necks upward to catch a better view. We round a corner and the rest of the house—it’s more like a palace, really—spreads out before us. We have already passed some impressive sights on our way in: crenelated and turreted entrance gates, quaint former stable blocks now housing the obligatory ticket office/shop/café, and, bafflingly, a massive stone obelisk practically piercing the low-hanging clouds above the main drive. But Castle Howard in full view surpasses all the rest.

Why am I here, in the brief lull between two UK lockdowns, looking up at this astonishing feat of British architecture? I suspect for the same reason as about fifty percent of my fellow visitors. Nominally we are here to see Castle Howard. But really we are here to see Brideshead.

Like so many others, my determination to take advantage of extra free time during lockdown has mainly devolved into binge-watching TV shows that I have always wanted to see but never gotten around to. One of my first ventures was the 1981 Granada Television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason that I finally decided to take the dive—perhaps it’s just that an 11-hour ’80s period epic seems less daunting when the outside world has suddenly become off-limits—but I don’t appear to be alone. In true Baader-Meinhof fashion, almost as soon as I began watching Brideshead it started to crop up everywhere, in listicles about the best books to read or shows to watch during lockdown and on the Instagram feeds of influencers who were suddenly cracking open the boxset for a re-watch.

2020 was always going to be a big year for Brideshead Revisited. It marked the 75th anniversary of the novel’s original publication, and nearly 40 years since the watershed television adaptation was first broadcast. It’s the year that Call Me by Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino began work on a new adaptation set to star Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, and Joe Alwyn, and the year that Castle Howard, the now-iconic filming location used in both the 1981 series and the 2008 movie, planned to hold a full-blown Brideshead festival. The ongoing pandemic should have derailed all of this, but despite canceled anniversary events and delayed production schedules, COVID-19 seems only to have heightened interest in both the source material and its adaptations. In my case, even after I finished all 11 lengthy episodes I just couldn’t seem to let Brideshead go. I found myself playing the theme as soothing WFH background music and fretting at the lack of tweed in my closet.

Waugh completed Brideshead in 1945 during a five-month leave from military service. He was disillusioned by wartime austerity at home and violence abroad. “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster—the period of soya beans and Basic English—and in consequence, the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language” he later wrote. The novel was well-received on publication, but it wasn’t until the huge critical and commercial success of its television counterpart decades later that Brideshead truly entered the public lexicon. “Brideshead fever” catapulted Jeremy Irons to international fame and sparked a lasting trend for linens, tweeds, and teddy bears on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, Granada’s adaptation is widely considered to be one of the best British television productions of all time. It retains an enduring power, with the mood and aesthetic of the series still exerting influence in fashion, film, and television today.

Alternating between a present blighted by World War II and sun-dappled flashbacks to bygone youth of the 1920s and ’30s, the story charts the unhappy entanglement of Charles Ryder with the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Flyte family, from his first meeting with flamboyant Sebastian Flyte at Oxford through to his doomed romance with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. Both on page and on screen it is saturated with nostalgia, in love with, yet haunted by, the past. This tension between past and present is particularly evident in the 1940s “present-day” sections that bookend the story, where “homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless” Charles finds his Army battalion unexpectedly stationed at the palatial Brideshead and himself overwhelmed with memory: he has been here before. “My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time,” he says. Recalling Brideshead in happier times, from his first visit in the ’20s as Sebastian’s wide-eyed college chum to later gatherings with the wider family, allows Charles some respite from the dreariness of his present.

Perhaps this is why Brideshead has seen such a surge of popularity in 2020…Who wouldn’t want to trade in masks and Zoom meetings for champagne and strawberries on the riverbank, skinny-dipping in the Baroque fountain of your family’s estate, and fanning yourself with a white linen handkerchief whilst complaining about the Venice heat?

The tendency to romanticize and mythologize the past during periods of upheaval is not a new phenomenon. The war represented the epitome of such upheaval for both Waugh and by extension Charles, and also had an impact on how Brideshead Revisited was consumed by post-war readers. The heady flashbacks to golden days and wine-soaked nights cavorting in Oxford or Venice, depicted in Waugh’s almost impossibly rich and verbose prose (indeed, a frequent criticism leveled against the novel is that it is hopelessly over-written), struck a chord with readers coming off years of rationing and bomb shelters. Even as the war began to fade into the past, Brideshead continued to resonate with more modern readers, and later viewers. Writing in 1982, John Mortimer, one of the television adaptation’s screenwriters, said “‘Brideshead’ comes to television at a time when the world may appear to be in an even more desperate plight than in 1944. The consequences of war are now far more appalling, and the simple optimism that looked forward to a just and equal society seems to have vanished in bitterness and despair.”

Perhaps this is why Brideshead has seen such a surge of popularity in 2020, a year for which the word “upheaval” might as well have been invented. Who wouldn’t want to trade in masks and Zoom meetings for champagne and strawberries on the riverbank, skinny-dipping in the Baroque fountain of your family’s estate, and fanning yourself with a white linen handkerchief whilst complaining about the Venice heat? Even when Brideshead enters its more downbeat second half, there’s something satisfyingly transporting about the sumptuously described misery of the aristocracy.

And although there was no World War for Brideshead viewers to contend with in 2020, it’s no coincidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has been repeatedly framed in war-like terms by politicians and the media, particularly in the UK and the US. Both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have eagerly adopted a militarized—and often nationalistic—rhetoric of Covid-as-war, with doctors “fighting on the frontlines,” world leaders “battling against the enemy,” and everyday citizens pulling together, making sacrifices, and keeping calm. In this culture of uncertainly and fear, it’s not surprising that many have turned towards familiar sources of comfort for escapism and entertainment during lockdown, with viewers flocking to nostalgia-heavy platforms like Disney+ and Britbox (the UK’s Netflix for classic soaps and BBC period dramas).

Case in point: I myself became a paying Britbox customer solely to watch Brideshead and then kept on paying just in case I wanted to watch it again. Brideshead is not necessarily a happy story, but there was something wonderfully comforting about it all; the melancholic theme, the opulent sets, and especially Jeremy Iron’s soothing, languorous voiceovers (much of which is lifted directly from the book without scrimping on Waugh’s extravagant turns of phrase). It was the perfect tonic to the constant stream of case numbers, death numbers, and election updates screaming at me from all of my screens.

My Brideshead preoccupation reached its peak when my boyfriend and I booked our brief trip to visit Castle Howard, which after featuring as the titular edifice in two separate adaptations feels as much a character in the story as any of the actual protagonists. Standing in front of the Atlas fountain, walking between the marble busts of the Antique Passage, and wandering through the exquisitely landscaped grounds felt like stepping into Sebastian and Charles’s world. Despite the ever-present masks and sanitizer, for a few hours 2020 slipped away and we all became inhabitants of Brideshead both real and imagined.

On our train ride home, a second UK-wide national lockdown was announced, with Boris Johnson urging Britain to “come together now to fight this second wave.”