So much unspoken

Even when I had access to TV, I apparently didn’t watch it all that much—there are several programmes I must only have seen bits and pieces of. One of these is Brideshead Revisited, but Martin R kindly donated the DVD box to us so Honeybuns and I have been watching it.

It’s something like 11 hours in total, so there is room for many themes to be touched on.

An occupational hazard, but I reacted to the video quality—there was a constant fuzz in the image. Presumably this was the quality you would get on video in the late 1970s and nobody thought about it then, but today, used to the razor-sharp images of professional digital video cameras, it felt odd.

The actors have been well-deservedly lauded for their performances, but since many of the actors were in their 30s, even as their characters were much younger, they seemed all the more immature. Cordelia Flyte, I eventually realised, should have been around ten years old or so in the first episodes, but played by an adult actress she came across as a half-wit.

The beginning of the story is the love affair between Charles and Sebastian. Neither of them speak of it in those terms, and the Flyte family do not allude to it either—except for Rex Mottram, who in passing mentions the Swiss doctor who is good at “sexual problems”, the character of which is not further discussed. At the time, their relation would have been illegal, so one imagines that nobody was very interested in raising the subject. It hurt to see a unhappy Sebastian weep forlornly, Charles unable to comfort him. I wanted to yell: “Hold him, you dolt!” Later on, safely in a heterosexual relation, Charles speaks disparagingly of “pansies”—so at least outwards he does not self-identify as homo-/bisexual. Interestingly enough, the narrative itself adds to the ambiguity—the most open display of affection Charles and Sebastian show is a sideways hug a few times, whereas the beginning of Charles and Julia’s relation is shown in a sex scene giving us ample view of Diana Quick’s nipples. It is as if the camera itself shies back from peeking into the closet.

I wonder whether the Oxford barbers who are so fond of Sebastian and the university porter who proudly declares he has no wife are implied to be homosexual. I’ve gotten the impression that at least in university settings homosexuality was accepted—as long as it was not explicitly mentioned, and apparently that’s why the openly gay Antoine Blanche is “sent down” (expelled). It is unclear to what extent Sebastian’s discomfort with his family is due to repression of his sexuality, rather than the general oppression by the Catholic Church so important to the family. He describes the dangerous charm of his mother, but she mostly comes across as fairly stiff and repressed—a pivotal castigation of Charles is done in measured and unemotional tones even though she would have been furious.

Charles also has family issues, while these are not made as much of. His father seems not to care much for him and treats him as mostly a nuisance when he turns up in the Ryder home. In adulthood Charles continues the family tradition in his complete neglect of his own children and I had absolutely no sympathy for him when he after his divorce whinges about having lost the right the see his son grow up.

As Sebastian sinks deeper into alcoholism, Charles is a very active enabler, keeping him with booze. At first I thought that perhaps he thought his love would reform Sebastian, but eventually I came to the conclusion that he just couldn‘t say no to Sebastian. At the same time, the rest of the company seem unable to cope with the situation, alcohol apparently so important to all of them that they just can’t imagine how to do without. (On top of that, all chain-smoke like chimneys, but that is not seen as a problem at all.)

Another theme, which is just presented and not discussed at all, is that of class warfare. For some reason the blurb on the Swedish DVD implies Charles is a Man of The People, but it is obvious that he is in fact quite well-off and only in comparison to Lord Sebastian Flyte could he be considered slightly further down the social ladder. If anything, Charles comes across as rather more snobbish than Sebastian and seems to agree with Lord Marchmain that the most disgusting thing one can be, is middle-class. The upwardly-mobile Rex Mottram is one of these despicable beings, being described as an incomplete person. What this incompleteness consists in is unclear, since the person we see is ambitious and competent and goes considerably out of his way to help the Flytes.

The working class is not considered at all, the numerous servants are just names to be thanked when they bring yet another drink on a tray. (In general it is a source of amazement to me that Britain doesn’t more regularly erupt in bloody popular uprisings.) When workers demand fair pay Charles joins a gang of truncheon-equipped and helmeted upper-class strike breakers to beat down the strikers.

Then the issue of religion. Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism and the book is intended to describe Charles Ryder’s path from agnosticism to the One True Faith, yet the religion is not really described as anything positive, and it destroys the lives of basically all the protagonists. This is somehow A Good Thing.
There is some excellent, yet possibly unintentional, comedy when religion is discussed. When Charles first meets Lady Marchmain, she immediately sets out to convert him. Teasingly he then asks her how she can expect to get to Heaven, as it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter Paradise. She serenely replies that God works miracles. How terribly convenient for her… Rex Mottram’s earnest attempts to figure out Catholic dogma is wonderful satire.

Finally, when the long-ago converted, then lapsed, Lord Marchmain is dying, the family pulls out all the stops in order to have the last rites performed. Charles opposes this on the grounds that it would be disrespectful of the Lord’s wishes and tries to find out what the exact purpose of the rites is. Nobody is actually able to answer him, but all are very adamant that they Have To Be Done. At this point Honeybuns got quite annoyed with Charles’ interference, why did he have to be such a dick about it? Then when the sacrament was administered and both Julia and Charles immediately become born again and decided to forswear happiness for the rest of their lives in order to please God her face fell. And then the series ended with Charles contentedly understanding that God’s purpose with the Second World War was that the briefly shut Roman Catholic chapel at Brideshead could be reopened, which was of course an all-important Good Thing.

Honeybuns was horribly down-cast after this and demanded that we immediately watch a more up-lifting film. I glanced at the shelf: six Shakespeare tragedies, a documentary on strategic bombing, more aviation-themed features, etc, but nothing in the way of comedy. “What kind of a person are you!? You watch sad films, you listen to sad music and you read sad books! You…you!” Well yes, that’s me.

1 comment:

Martin said...

AFAIK, the gay theme was pasted onto the story by the director (and scriptwriter?) of the TV series. In the book (which I admittedly haven't read), the caricaturish character who gets kicked out of university is the only gay man.