Photos courtesy of Granada Television
Before there was “Downton Abbey,” there was another addictive, sumptuous costume drama that intrigued American TV viewers, goading them to turn to PBS for an epic immersion into Oxford University and its eccentric enrollees. For anyone who missed the high-class “soap opera” the first time around, thank goodness for Acorn online and Amazon Prime. With persistence and determination, an Anglophile who happens to be an arctophile (or vice versa) can discover the trials and tribulations of “Brideshead Revisited.”
Based on the novel, with autobiographical overtones, by Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited” told the story of a boundary-defying friendship/relationship between two university students. The sprawling story introduced U.S. viewers to actor Jeremy Irons, who played the cerebral, articulate Charles Ryder, and to Anthony Andrews, who had the splashier, showier role of Lord Sebastian Flyte.
Set in the 1920s, the miniseries featured fashions to die-for, and it also kicked off a craze of adults admitting to (and shopping for) companion teddy bears. The very handsome, dreamy, young Andrews played a sensitive soul who attended Oxford accompanied by his ursine confidant, Aloysius. With the show airing in the United States in the early 1980s (1981 or so, to be exact), the coupling of grown men (no matter how frail and boyish) with teddy bears did get tongues a-wagging. People were intrigued by the moody Sebastian and the bear that traveled everywhere with him.
What’s fascinating is that the seemingly improbable duo was based on a real-life person. While attending Oxford, Waugh became close friends with John Betjeman, who went on to become the “poet laureate” of Great Britain. Feted in his later years for his eloquence, keen wit, elegant ways, and advocacy for maintaining and preserving Victorian architecture, Betjeman was none of those things in his college days.
Instead, he was whispered about around campus for showing up at Oxford with his teddy bear companion (named Archibald Ormsby-Gore, aka Archie) and loyal toy elephant, Jumbo. Naturally, those who knew about his playthings penchant never forgot this peccadillo.
When “Brideshead Revisited” became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, folks grew attached to the Sebastian character, who seemed simultaneously charismatic and tragic, sophisticated and yet so vulnerable and needy. Replicas of his TV bear friend, Aloysius, were made and sold, during the initial run of the series as well as when it went into reruns a decade later.
In real life, the true “Brideshead bear” — Archie — was the inspiration for his owner to try his hand at children’s literature. In the 1940s — two decades after his sojourn as a university student — Betjeman wrote a story for his children that featured Archie as an amateur archaeologist. In the novella, he has Archie deeply interested in unearthing molehills, desperate to see if baby Druids were buried within.
The novella was published privately in Betjeman’s early years, but in 1977 it was published publically and called “Archie and the Strict Baptists.” In the tale, Archie was depicted as mounting and riding a hedgehog to and from church services.
This celebration of Archie as a unique bear of many talents was not the only time that Betjeman took pen to paper to extol the virtues of his stuffed friend. He also wrote a poem entitled “Archibald.” In this self-revealing ode, he talks about how he had temporarily banished the bear to the attic, fearing that his father would consider him weak or “soft,” if the toy was discovered.
The mystique of “Brideshead Revisited” has endured because of streaming networks, online showings, and a film re-interpretation in 2008. All viewers are always drawn to the conflicting, and conflicted, behavior of Lord Sebastian and his bear associate. Seeing a character that appears so polished, but has inner demons, and can only have them assuaged when he confides in a mute toy, is powerful and emotionally stirring. It is a tour de force role.
The inspiration for Lord Flyte — the real Sebastian — passed away in 1984. John Betjeman no longer felt the need to tuck away his Teddy or to hide his elephant toy in the rear of a closet. The novel, the miniseries, the fashion layouts that the show created, all of this allowed him to once again find comfort with his childhood favorites. It is reported that when he died, both Archie the bear and Jumbo the elephant were in his arms.
Whether that is true or just a piece of gossip that fits nicely into popular fiction, who knows? It gives comfort to all the “Brideshead Revisited” fans who always worried about the onscreen man-child who loved his teddy bear during his quest to be loved in kind.