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The 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited is regularly used as an example by those convinced that we live in dumbed-down times. It is impossible to disagree, when you consider that this 11-part series of Evelyn Waugh's most famous novel went out on ITV at the prime time slot of 9pm. It would be inconceivable now; indeed one can't imagine the main commercial channel even taking the chance of showing a two-hour movie version.

But this is not the only reason why we could no longer witness such a blockbuster on the small screen. The series, with its portrayal of a young man's infatuation with the members of an aristocratic family all doomed in their own ways, came at an interesting cultural moment. It glistened in the schedules at a time when, elsewhere, that ripping yarn about pre-war champion Brits, Chariots of Fire, was winning Oscars, Charles was marrying Diana, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was selling in its thousands and Jeremy Hackett was discovering a surprising market for tweed among young people. Even the Season was enjoying a revival, as yet unsubsidised by Russian oligarchs. Nostalgia of the crinoline and country house variety was big business.

It was perhaps a final counterblast by the old establishment, a last fling. The British Empire strikes back, if you like. But those days of the early 1980s are long gone - even nostalgia isn't what it used to be. And it might explain why the new cinema version of Brideshead Revisited has such a marooned quality. American critics, many of whom now have little memory of or cultural affection for the British product which once dominated Masterpiece Theatre, have already mostly treated it as simply de trop. Other than the Merchant Ivory crowd and gay men in thrall to aristocratic taste - both diminishing demographics - it will surely struggle to find an audience here too.

Does it deserve one? Well, despite the director Julian Jarrold's sweeping use of Castle Howard as - once again - a stand-in for Brideshead, and the opening up of the book's Venice sequence to include some roistering Carnival scenes, it is in all senses a much reduced retelling. In following Charles Ryder's journey through the Marchmain family, the TV production took its time - 600 minutes of it - and in the process managed to convey a real sense of the grandeur not only of the milieu but of the themes running through the novel. Given the restrictions of television, this was an astonishing achievement.

Jarrold's film, on the other hand, gallops back and forth over a 20-year period within the space of an unnecessarily short couple of hours. It feels cramped, too full of incident and yet sketchy, and the overall effect is of nothing very much. You need much more time if you are adequately to convey feelings of loss, longing and regret. It could have done with the guiding hand of a David Lean or an Anthony Minghella, and maybe an extra 60 minutes or so.

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Tory Messiah?
September 29th, 2008
5:09 AM
David Cameron today excoriates Gordon Brown for his handling of the economy. It is said that Rupert Murdoch is the single person on the planet most responsible for the dumbing down that has occurred in the last 30 years-roughly since the 1981 Brideshead. But surely he was ably assisted in this by Tony Blair and "the frightful Cherie" to quote Debora Devonshire ("In Tearing Haste").The vulgarian, philistine, populist Blair government, to paraphrase V S Naipaul, was surely the cultural equivalent of Brown's fiscal vandalism, and the security services' supine failure to stand up to Islamic terrorism. If the economy, the security and the culture of Britain are being strangled to death by the Blairs, Browns and the House of Lords (Tony's Cronies)respectively, who is going to be the Messiah? Surely not David Cameron who will only lead Britain to new heights of cultural self-repudiation. The New Statesman (11 September 2008) reports that "Druggie Dave", suspected of being seen reading "Paradise Lost" had to be rescued from the contempt which this would earn him as the populist Tory by having it put about that it was OK, it was not John Milton's "Paradise Lost", but Giles Milton's ditto, a history of the massacre of Greeks and Armenians (again!)and the burning of Smyrna by the Turks in 1923 (co-incidentally a thrilling and gripping account of that tragedy of the Turks' making, another matter which ought to be acknowledged if Turkey is to progress its move to join the EU). Poor bookless, Big Brother Britain! What politician, rock singer or celebrity hairdresser, even assuming they can read, will ever be seen in public reading Brideshead Revisited?

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