The homosexuals loved it. The Catholics loved it. The literary types went gaga over it. The cinephiles praised the filming, the drama critics raved about the casting, and everybody — everybody — in the fall of 1981 seemed to be watching the PBS presentation of ITV's "Brideshead Revisited."
Now, 30 years on from that 11-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, an anniversary edition has been released in a packaged set (Acorn, three discs, DVD $59.99, Blu-ray $69.99). And to rewatch the series is to see — well, to see what a miracle that 1981 television version of "Brideshead Revisited" actually was.
If you want to know how profoundly the production could have gone wrong, take a look at the feature-length movie version of Waugh's book, which came out in 2008. Starring Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, it's a pretty enough film — if you don't mind losing all the historical sense, sexual nuance and religious intelligence of the book.
That, of course, is what Waugh feared in an adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited."
"The theme is theological. It is in no sense abstruse and is based on principles that have for nearly 2,000 years been understood by millions of simple people," he wrote in a nasty memo to studio executives when MGM was contemplating purchasing the rights to "Brideshead Revisited" in 1947. But all such things "are antithetical to much of the current philosophy of Hollywood."
So we didn't get a film version back when the book was first popular, and as the years went by, Waugh seemed to fade from public notice. The gleeful satires he wrote as a young man — "Decline and Fall" (1928), for example, or "Scoop" (1938) — no longer felt as biting. His "Sword of Honor" trilogy (1952-1961), about World War II, had come to seem dated. By 1980, most readers knew him vaguely, if they knew him at all, as the author of one of his slightest books, a 1948 parody of California and American cemeteries called "The Loved One."
A year or two later, the Anglo-Catholic novelist, who had died in 1966, was back suddenly — and back in a big way: all his books republished in new editions, the cruel precision of his prose restored to anthologies. He even had become something close to the favorite modern novelist of American conservatives.
Curiously, the 1981 television version of "Brideshead Revisited" managed all that mostly by luck. Pushed along by producer Derek Granger, the miniseries was plagued by timing problems, strikes and a script by John Mortimer that proved increasingly unusable as filming went on. Yet every glitch somehow was turned to an advantage.
The disappearance of the first director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, for example, brought onboard the unknown Charles Sturridge, who turned in exactly the competent, non-intrusive, slightly Merchant Ivoryesque filming that the story needed. The delay of a technicians' strike allowed the use of the previously unavailable Laurence Olivier as an actor and Castle Howard as a setting. The script disasters of the changing design — it was planned as six one-hour episodes, then expanded to seven two-hour episodes, before shrinking to 11 one-hour episodes — meant there wasn't time to do much more than lift large passages of prose straight from Waugh, and the resulting voice-over narration from the young Jeremy Irons made the series a success.
Made a star out of the previously little-known Mr. Irons, for that matter, but that's the way a magical production works. All the problems end up producing successes, and all the bad luck turns to gold. The awkward young actors (Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, Diana Quick as Julia) played perfectly against the assurance of the famous older actors (Laurence Olivier as Sebastian's father, John Gielgud as the father of the narrating Charles Ryder). Mona Washbourne as Sebastian's innocent old nanny, Charles Keating as the soulless politician Rex Mottram, Jeremy Sinden as a would-be Oxford aesthete: Every role in the 1981 series seemed a star turn.
As one rewatches it 30 years later, that's what shines through the television production. So much could have gone wrong. So much didn't. And we're left with something as faithful as television could ever be to the tale in which, as Waugh described it, "the physical dissolution of the house of Brideshead has in fact been a spiritual regeneration."
• Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and author of "The Second Spring: Words Into Music, Music Into Words."