Friday, 15 January 2010

Capital Flyte

I've been watching the 1981 ITV serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I've never seen it, though I've always loved ITV's Brass which was made in 1983 and is to a certain extent a parody of it (and much more). It's probably just as well I didn't see it when it was first screened as I probably would never have applied to Oxford if I had. In fact, it pulls off the odd trick of giving a pretty good sense of the feel of life as an Oxford undergraduate, while at the same time profoundly misrepresenting what the university is really like. It suggests that Oxford is a beautiful, peaceful place populated by aristocrats with a mental age of five, and this is only about 15% of the truth. The majority of Oxford students are serious, hard-working, hard-drinking, emotionally repressed, distant, very ordinary, and very clever young people almost all situated toward the bottom of the autistic spectrum. Being amongst them is hugely stimulating and enriching, but there's also a constant sense of pressure and intellectual stress. Oxford itself institutionally is just weird, like nowhere else on earth.

It's an apposite time to be watching this adaptation, for two reasons. Trivially, the critics of The Guardian have just named it the greatest British TV drama of all time, and the world's second greatest (after The Sopranos). I think this is insanely overrating it, but that's not my focus here. Politically, it's interesting to watch it as Britain edges ever closer to a government composed almost entirely, like one of Sebastian Flyte's luncheon parties, of Old Etonians. I did my finals in 1988 in the same room as David Cameron, and remember meeting Boris Johnson (or rather hearing his then-stupefying accent) in 1984. A quarter of a century later they stand on the brink of running the country. The oddity is, though, that this serial could not possibly be made by British television today; while politically the Flyte tribe is poised for power, culturally it has never been more marginal.

The question is about the relationship between political factors and cultural production. How do films, TV programmes, books etc. reflect the political context of their time? When it was first screened, Brideshead Revisited was held, with Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and The Jewel in the Crown, to exemplify a nostalgic-repressive Thatcherite-Conservative agenda to roll Britain back to pre-war days, to undo the Attlee government's revolutions and re-establish the imperialistic, class-ridden and individualist values and politics of the 1920s and 30s. The serial gladly embraces a superannuated poshness: cut-glass accents, campy speech patterns, mincing gait and precious poses, in-references to a tiny and exclusive milieu, and an assumption of immense and unearned privilege. It was easy to see this in 1981 - especially since the source novel is bathed in nostalgia for a lost golden age - as the television embodiment of a Tory desire to return to the days when Britain was "great", whether Victorian or pre-Welfare state.

However, the serial could only have been made the way it was in a television landscape that Thatcher hated and set out, ultimately successfully, to dismantle. It's Reithian: it makes the good popular; it educates and entertains at the same time. Its financing relies on the monopoly position of the BBC and ITV: untold sums of money were thrown at it, enabling it to become, at 11 hours or two minutes per page, proportionately the longest TV adaptation ever made, and saturating every shot with props from Sothebys and famous and expensive actors (Gielgud and Olivier in cameos!). Various stately homes and Oxford colleges, Venice, Gozo and life aboard the QE2 are all lavishly and lovingly recorded. Nowadays there would not be ten per cent of the funding for such an adaptation, which would be one third of its length, mostly studio-shot, and cast TV actors unknown outside Britain.

Thatcher herself, it turned out, hated the Flyte set as much as any member of the Attlee government had. She turned the Conservative party inside out, marginalizing the aristocrats and the public schoolboys and promoting men, as Martin Amis said, with names like Keith and Norman - she was very keen on Jews, unlike Waugh's creations. The one character in Brideshead Revisited who would have thrived in Thatcher's Conservative Party and indeed her Britain is Rex Mottram, the Canadian whom Waugh treats as a sort of half-human joke. She had no time at all for the Anthony Blanches of her party, and spent her first few years as Prime Minister sacking them.

Thirty years on, Britain is turning back to the Etonians and landed gentry who ran and owned the country in the 1930s, and whom Thatcher ruthlessly sidelined. Since Thatcher broke the monopoly of the BBC and ITV and opened the TV landscape to market forces and infinite numbers of channels, it no longer has a TV industry financially capable of producing something so opulent and sumptuous as the 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited. But culturally too tastes have shifted. The habits and destinies of the upper-middle-class and aristocracy are no longer assumed to be interesting and valuable in themselves; solemn and tireless fidelity to a source novel (even one that is very good, and great in parts) and to a vanished historical era is no longer considered by adaptors as a worthwhile goal. A couple of years ago Waugh's novel was adapted for the cinema by people who elected to show Charles and Sebastian as an explicitly gay couple.

This is a complex pattern of associations. I am now, like Cameron and Johnson, of the age of Charles Ryder at the start of his reminiscences, and also inclined to look back at my time at Oxford, a time which was equally that of the filming of Brideshead Revisited. As a TV production fetishizing the aristocracy, a literary novel, and cultural production untouched by the market, the serial reflects the values of the interwar years actually overthrown by the dominant politics of its own time. And while the social descendants of the serial wait in the wings to take political control once again of a country they have never ceased to own, so they have been driven off the cultural radar except in their historical guise. British TV today is cash-oriented and middle-class or below if contemporary; aesthetes and those from higher social positions appear in the distant past, and then with little concern for accuracy. This all suggests that cultural production reflects political contexts ambiguously and in more complicated ways than we sometimes like to imagine. There is a lesson there for any historical attempt to understand culture.

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