The Brits and their leading acolytes, the Anglophiles of American public broadcasting, must be at their wits’ end, hunting up the next droll, costume-bedecked Brit dramedy of sex, class, wit and houses big enough to have names. But the next “Downton Abbey” might be in the non-fictional life of the author of one of the greatest earlier TV serials to cross from Brit TV to PBS — Evelyn Waugh, author of “Brideshead Revisited.”
Philip Eade’s new Waugh biography “A Life Revisited” is maddeningly cavalier with dates, and overly reliant on one having read the earlier Waugh biographies (and incomplete autobiography), too snooty to do a decent job of recapping the works that made Waugh famous, just concerned with the road to fame, and the infamy that followed.
He may not have been, as his son insisted, “the funniest man” of the 20th century. But Waugh came close, a middle class snob who idolized and ridiculed the Noel Coward classes like no one before or since. He was P.G. Wodehouse with a literary mien, a cultural observer/satirist who introduced all sorts of upper class “Upstairs/Downstairs” cliches into the zeitgeist, mainly the foibles of those who lived “upstairs.”
The son of an editor, a man to whom many a volume of lit from the early 20th century was dedicated, brother of a published author, descended from other writers, he took to “the family business” like no other, and produced “Scoop,” “The Loved One,” “Brideshead Revisited” and other classics of the ’30s-50s.
Eade recaptures the child’s annoyance at his theatrical father, his social striving, his boy buggering boys’ school boy school days (come to full flower in college). An academic under-achiever, Waugh built his novels on the sons of lords and dames and all the nonsensicals of British nobility. He observed, changed the names, and skewered one and all in books that made many a future House of Lords lout blush.
Waugh served in World War II rather the way “gentlemen” (like his love/hate pal, Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son) did, with posh appointments to elite units, leadership imposed by class, danger faced (on just a couple of occasions) with a stiff upper lip.
He married, divorced, converted to Catholicism, remarried, pursued women single and married, cozied up to a ditzy Pope to get an annulment, and fathered children like they were going out of style.He comes off as superstitious, a Catholic apologist who thought nothing of upbraiding peers who had the temerity to be atheists, and a loyal friend to the likes of Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, or at least his wife.
He was not quite a bounder, but a lousy parent, a mean and frequent drunk and part of a tiny elite that seemed to watch out for each other as they surfed the waves of war, woe and post-war “welfarism.”
And at every step of the way, the man was quotable.
“Of children as of procreation— the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.”
“Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.”
“There is a great deal to be said for the Arts. For one thing they offer the only career in which commercial failure is not necessarily discreditable.”
“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums who find prison so soul-destroying.”
“He was gifted with the sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich.”
“O God, make me good, but not yet.”
“His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.”
He’d make the great subject for a serial autobiography, weaving in and out of the history of WWI boys’ schools to fascist sympathizer/bigot/anti-Semite to WWII “hero” to Great Man of British Letters. I envision a “Man Who Came to Dinner” take, with say Eddie Marsan or David Wenham — nobody too pretty, mind you. None of this McAvoy or Garfield casting. Maybe Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne or Ben Whishaw.
Skewering, flirting, shocking and mocking. Waugh is a natural for a mini series. All his life experiences leading up to his “masterpiece,” “Brideshead,” which captures class, Catholicism, homo/bisexuality and WWII officer corps heroics in one tale.
What say you, PBS?