Brideshead Revisited – Adrian Johnston’s Film Score

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“Brideshead Revisited” – Original score composed and produced by Adrian Johnston; orchestrations by Terry Davies, Adrian Johnston and David Firman

Chris Garrick (violin), John Etheridge (guitar), Peter Dixon (cello) & Jonathan Scott (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Terry Davies

Recorded 11-14 February 2008 in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester; “Music mixed at Air Lyndhurst Studios, London; 18 February 2008”

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: October 2008
Duration: 47 minutes



Evelyn Waugh wrote “Brideshead Revisited” during the period from December 1943 to June 1944, following a parachute accident that let him off military service. A sympathetic commanding officer allowed him to stay unemployed until the novel was completed, and Waugh wrote it with uncharacteristic passion because he longed to get back to the war. It was a time of depression when food was still in short supply and all the other deprivations of the war were still in operation, a time that Waugh recalled of “soya beans and Basic English”.

He tried to counter the bleakness of the period by setting the novel between the two World Wars and filling its pages with characters who enjoyed the hedonistic consumption of food and wine, who lived privileged lives in stately homes and who spoke in florid language from an even-by-then bygone age. Although the book was praised in its day (Time magazine dubbed it one of the hundred great novels of all time), and although Waugh himself thought it to be his best work, when the author came to re-read it five years after publication, he wrote to Graham Greene to say it appalled him and so he produced a revised edition which was published in 1960. Waugh could not have predicted what would happen after 1945, so he did not present the revised version of “Brideshead Revisited” as a contemporary view of Britain at the time, but offered it “to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the ’twenties and ’thirties, with which it ostensibly deals”.

The theme of the novel (the subtitle of which is ‘The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder’) as described by Waugh is “the operation of grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. The narrator is painter Charles Ryder who befriends Sebastian Flyte at Oxford and is drawn into the aristocratic Flyte family. Ryder is something of a blank page, open to all influences. Coming from a relatively dull family, mother already dead, father a remote figure not interested in his son or indeed even in life itself, Ryder becomes seduced by the Flytes’ way of life and, as an artist, is much taken by the grandeur of the Flyte country seat, Brideshead.

The Flytes are a strongly Catholic family. The four children, Bridie, Sebastian, Julia and Cordelia, are ruled by the matriarchal figure of Lady Marchmain, whose husband, Lord Marchmain, escaped to Italy after World War One to live with his mistress Cara. The novel covers Charles’s dealings with the Flyte family and how their Catholic upbringing continues to influence their rather unsatisfactory lives. It concentrates more on the relationship between Sebastian, his sister Julia and Charles Ryder. Sebastian, like Ryder, is an atheist but, unlike Ryder, also homosexual and alcoholic, which is why he hates his mother. Sebastian in his way loves Charles but Charles is actually in love with Julia, a fact revealed after Julia has married the appalling Rex Mottram and Charles has married a woman he does not really love. Their lives continue to be dominated by religion and the inevitable partings leave the main characters stranded in a sort of limbo life between tragedy and contentment.

In 1981 Granada turned “Brideshead Revisited” into a high-profile television series. Adapting it into eleven episodes allowed the makers to do full justice to the novel, something rare in the filming of any book. It put Castle Howard in Yorkshire on the map as a tourist destination venue, as well as the careers of Jeremy Irons as Charles and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, and it also flaunted such great acting names as Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain, John Gielgud as Ned Ryder, Charles’s father, Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain, Diana Quick as Julia, Jane Asher as Cordelia, Stéphane Audran as Cara and Simon Jones as Bridie. It also fielded a brilliant music score by Geoffrey Burgon including the opening theme played on a Baroque trumpet.

Anybody attempting to repeat the success of the Granada television series by telescoping the Waugh novel into a two-hour feature film has an improbable task on their hands. However, in the event, and pace the Waugh lovers who rushed to the book’s defence, Julian Jarrold’s film is actually reasonably true to the spirit if not the letter of the novel. It is essentially an encapsulation of the book and its main themes, a précis of Waugh’s intentions and on that level it works very well.

The adaptation is by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, the latter no stranger to adapting classic texts for television (“Pride and Prejudice”, “Bleak House”, “House of Cards” and others). The casting too is fairly inspired with Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain, Greta Scacchi as Cara, Hayley Atwell as Julia, Felicity Jones as Cordelia, Matthew Goode as Charles and Ben Whishaw as Sebastian. In fact Charles, Julia and Sebastian were originally to have been played by Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly and Jude Law until director David Yates decided to direct the latest Harry Potter film. It could be that, although Ben Whishaw is a fine actor, he does tend to overdo the ‘camp’ aspect of Sebastian, making him a tad too precious for words. Perhaps Law, so good as Bosie in “Wilde”, might have made a subtle difference.

One element that is not misplaced is Adrian Johnston’s score for the film. The composer, who is much experienced in writing music for films and television, having worked with among others Julian Jarrold before and with writer/director Stephen Poliakoff and Charles Sturridge, who directed most of the “Brideshead Revisited” television series . Johnston’s score for “Shackleton” with Kenneth Branagh won him an Emmy Award. For “Brideshead” he began by creating various themes or motifs for each character but without becoming too obsessive about it. Each theme has a name, such as ‘Sebastian’, ‘Memory’, ‘Guilt’, ‘Oxford’ – et al – and they are interwoven into a satisfactory score that complements the film.

Johnston had only three weeks to compose the whole thing, between the end of filming and the beginning of the recording sessions with the orchestra. The result is quite inspired and it sets the tone for the film; it never intrudes as so much film-music does in today’s features, but acts as an adjunct to the visuals, underlining the emotions rather than emphasising them as, say, the music in the Bond movies does. This is delicate writing that underscores the action and which creates the atmosphere for the scenes in the film and also subtly comments on what is happening.

The music on this Chandos release is divided into twenty-four variations on a theme. The main theme is ‘Sebastian’, a haunting melody for piano, a repetitive strain implying solitude and loneliness, for the character is at a loss as to where he is going. ‘Memory’ is a lushly romantic, albeit restrained, melody used at points where, according to the composer, there is a shift in time. Like much of the complete score, ‘Guilt’ uses the piano in a gentle, downbeat way that then develops into an orchestral passage. For ‘Oxford’ the cello is to the fore and then opens out into a busy main theme for orchestra, seemingly evincing people in a hurry to get on with their lives.

Later on there’s the grandeur and sweep of ‘Arcadia’ and the quietude of ‘That first visit’ which uses harp and piano. On ‘Wise old wine’ (a lot of wine is drunk throughout the book and the film), the composer presents a charming pastiche of the jazz-style of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Chris Garrick on violin and John Etheridge on guitar.

On the whole it is a delightful score that adds immeasurably to the film’s success, and all without a single title song (for that relief much thanks). The recording by the BBC Philharmonic and the soloists under Terry Davies is impeccable. It has a richly rounded sound, clear, concise and quite poignant. Rachmaninov wrote twenty-four variations for his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Adrian Johnston’s score for “Brideshead Revisited” could be a similar concert piece, either in toto or slightly edited. And if Michael Nyman and Ludovico Einaudi can hit the Classic fm Top 30 charts with their minimalist piano music, there’s no reason why Adrian Johnston’s ‘Sebastian’ theme should not make it to the top of the classic pops.

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