Ed#442 Good, Bad & Brideshead

26 September 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#442 Good, Bad & Brideshead

It was early in the 1980s – a time before streaming and downloading, when the idea of recording something off the television (using an easily tangled video tape) was regarded as illicit. To stay abreast of a TV show, the only safe course of action was to be home at the appropriate time and then – so quaint! – actually sit and watch it. The big TV show of the time, one that launched careers and redefined what was possible on the small screen, was the 11-part UK TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). Think of it as an earlier, more literary, version of Downton Abbey. And what a cast it had: a young Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews (fated to be remembered ever after as the doomed and dissolute Lord Sebastian Flyte), Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud… Once sucked in, people cancelled social events and stayed home to watch it. This happened in the UK when it was first screened (October–December 1981) and then later in Australia, where people were grumpily accustomed to seeing and reading things long after they were available elsewhere. Other TV series made an impact before Brideshead – I was hooked by a seven-part adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), which starred Alec Guinness and first appeared in 1979, and US cop shows on TV would never be the same after Hill Street Blues (1981–87) – but Brideshead was the one that got everyone talking. I revisited it not long ago; it has held up well. But it now seems smaller: back then, people talked about episodes – now people count in series.

Today, the hot TV show is Breaking Bad – now approaching, or just past, its conclusion after five series over five years. Confession: I haven’t been sucked in – though it may yet happen (DVDs have given old films and TV shows a sort of immortality). But I haven’t been immune to the BB phenomenon: I live and work with addicts. And it is clear that one of the differences between watching, say, Brideshead in the early 1980s and Breaking Bad today is the advent of social media. It is harder than ever to keep secrets. As soon as an episode of anything is screened anywhere in the world, someone, somewhere, will post a commentary or critique online. So people planning to watch that same episode in their own time, without knowing about plot twists in advance, must cocoon themselves from the web; stay away from social media. I’ve seen this happen with Dr Who fans and, more recently, Breaking Bad devotees – one of whom, incidentally, insists that the lead character played by Bryan Cranston is not, as our cover suggests, a Bad Guy but, rather, a good guy gone wrong. Point taken. Though I suspect this is already the subject of online debate.

It’s the kind of attention many moviemakers would envy. As Anthony Morris argues in his cover story, TV series like Breaking Bad (and Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos and others before it) prompt debate and discussion that very few modern movies engender. For many years, TV shows were considered to be a lower art-form than movies – illustrious actors would seldom stoop to TV roles. Brideshead helped change that, with screen stars Olivier and Bloom cast as the imperious Lord and Lady Marchmain.

In New York in 1998 I happened to meet Bloom. I was meant to be interviewing her about a coming arts-festival appearance in Australia. But I mentioned I’d liked Brideshead and still listened to Geoffrey Burgon’s haunting music from the series. She responded coolly; this was work she’d done long before. When she left, to go to a rehearsal downtown, she shattered any lingering illusions. Lady Marchmain took the subway.