Brideshead Revisited: Why festival devoted to Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece may never go ahead

It was on a Friday afternoon last June, as the heavens opened and drenched the stately lawns of Castle Howard, that Victoria Barnsley wondered if there might after all have been some divine intervention.

Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte (R) and Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. (Pic: Granada)

It should have been the opening day of the festival she had been planning for months, the first anywhere devoted to a single work of fiction. It was the book that had put her home on the world map, and guests from almost every part of the planet had been expected to pay homage to it.

In the event, the 75th anniversary of the publication of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, passed almost unnoticed. The festival was just another victim of the global lockdown.

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“I had never felt more conflicted,” said Ms Barnsley, a publisher by profession, who runs the estate in the Howardian Hills of north Yorkshire with her husband, Nicholas Howard.

Castle Howard where Brideshead Revisited was filmed

“It poured with rain all that weekend,” she said. “And my sadness that the festival didn’t happen was mixed with relief because Brideshead in the rain wasn’t the idea. It was all going to be picnics and punting on lakes.”

This year marks perhaps an even more significant anniversary for the grand house, home to the Howard family for three centuries – for it was 40 years ago that Granada Television’s monumental adaptation of the novel hit the screen.

It was filmed in large measure at Castle Howard – apparently Waugh’s inspiration for the fictional Brideshead Castle – and its phenomenal success in Britain, the US and beyond, placed the house indelibly on the world tourism stage.

Ms Barnsley had considered reviving the festival for this summer, but the uncertainty over international tourism made it impractical.

"I don’t know whether we’ll ever resurrect the idea now. It feels as if its time has come and gone,” she said. “It’s so sad. We were going to have glamping in the walled garden and Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bears’ picnic.

“As far as I know, no-one has done a festival around a single book or a single author. But it was a huge amount of work and the logistics in such a rural location were also challenging. We might revisit bits of it – the teddy bear’s picnic on its own could be a lovely thing to do.

“But there will be a perennial interest in Castle Howard because of Brideshead. There’s even a new BBC adaptation rumoured to be in the works.”

The original 1981 filming had been a watershed moment for Castle Howard. Nicholas Howard’s father, George, was ironically chairman of the BBC when he allowed ITV to film there, and the location fees helped pay for its restoration.

The magnificent dome, which had collapsed into the Great Hall when fire engulfed it in 1940, had been rebuilt in the early 1960s but Granada’s cash bankrolled the reconstruction of the Garden Hall, which was then just a shell.

“The new library was also built on the proceeds of it – another room that was just a shell from the fire and the Second World War,” Ms Barnsley said. “And of course, the huge international success began to have a serious impact on the number of visitors. It put Castle Howard firmly on the map.”

The series even brought the 1920s costumes of its leading characters back into vogue, and in New York baggy trousers became briefly a fashion statement.

The fad's roots, said Ms Barnsley, could be traced to her husband having lent the producers the cricket flannels that had belonged to his Uncle Mark before the war. After they were worn on screen by Anthony Andrews as Sebastian. Mr Howard never got them back.

But despite the popularity of Andrews and his co-stars, Jeremy Irons and Diana Quick, the real star of the series was the castle itself.

“In a way, the building is the main character and as a result people tend to think of the book being set in Yorkshire,” Ms Barnsley said.

Castle Howard was a natural choice for Granada’s location managers 40 years ago.

Evelyn Waugh had passed it in 1937 on his way to Ampleforth Abbey and was later a visitor there. When Brideshead Revisited was serialised in the USA and the publishers requested an illustration, he sent an engraving of the Yorkshire house. But the narrative dictates that the fictional Brideshead Castle is closer to Oxford.

In the decades since Granada left, the house and grounds have been used for many other productions, including the recent hits Bridgerton and Victoria, as well as a forthcoming drama about the life of Anne Boleyn.