Controversial Blus: Brideshead Revisited

This is one I've been meaning to cover since I first started this site.  1981's Brideshead Revisited is a title I've triple-dipped on... quadruple-dipped if you count the old 5-tape VHS set.  I've never regretted any of 'em, and that's despite the fact that the common critical consensus seems to be that I should have.  At least the last time.  "Stick with the DVD" seems to be the summation of every online review I've ever read of Acorn's 3-disc 30th Anniversary blu-ray set, the series only HD release to date.  In fact, they got me to put off upgrading until it was long out of print and tricky to find for a reasonable price.  Not that I totally disagree with all of those writers' findings (we'll get into it all), but they're crazy if they seriously believe it's not or barely worth upgrading.
If you've never seen it, Brideshead Revisited is a true classic, even by the strictest definition.  Even in this "golden age of television," I don't know if it's ever been matched.  It's an adaptation, of course, of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and every bit the profound reflection on life, love, friendship, religion and family that Waugh put on paper.  Admittedly, it garnered a ton of attention by having far greater production values than any other television effort had in the past.  And that's no longer a unique asset BR's got going for it (although its varying and clearly authentic international locations are still quite impressive), but time has proven that it never needed those things to stand up as a masterpiece.
Jeremy Irons stars as the titular Charles Ryder in an arresting performance, while Anthony Andrew's turn as Sebastian effectively defined his entire lifetime career.  The pair dominate the entire series, even after one of them drops out of the second half.  If you read the book, now, or even just hear the title mentioned, and you picture these two guys.  But the whole cast is spot-on, not the least of which include screen legends Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud as their fathers from utterly different worlds.  But really, it's everyone - every supporting role from Blanche to little Cordelia is indelible, the perfect syncing of the written word and on-screen performance.  It's wild to think, for instance, that Simon Jones made this and starred in The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy in the same year, and then nothing but British soaps and little TV appearances.  Everyone here is a star at least as long as the show runs.
By the way, yes, there was a remake in 2008, and I've seen it.  It's better than you might expect, with the two young leads replacing Irons and Andrews holding up significantly better than you'd think.  It's got Emma Thompson in it, too, and you can never go wrong with her.  But it's a movie, not a mini-series, and so obviously it suffers from immense condensing and abridgement issues.  The movie barely runs longer than the pilot episode, leaving ten full episodes worth of content out.  It's like reading the Cliff's Notes instead of the novel.  And imagine a version of the story without the wonderful intrusions of Gielgud and Olivier.  But if you just can't, you'll get another chance, because apparently HBO and the BBC are producing a third version, this time starring Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Garfield, who are all much too old to play the leads, so goodness only knows what they're doing. Actually, I can picture it turning out pretty good, but remaking one of the all time greats is always doomed to some degree of disappointment.
So Acorn originally released Brideshead Revisited as a 3-DVD "Digitally Remastered Collector's Edition" set in 2002.  A few years later, in 2006, they reissued the series as a 4-disc "25th Anniversary Collector's Edition" DVD set.  And finally, in 2011, they wound up for their third pitch: their 3-disc "30th Anniversary Collection" blu-ray set.  You know, the one everyone says not to get, because it's basically the same master as the 25th Anniversary or whatever.
2002 DVD top; 2006 DVD middle; 2011 BD bottom.

Clearly, this is not at all the same master.  The 2002 and 2006 DVDs are, yeah.  They're downright identical transfers, right down to the seriously damaging interlacing that mars five out of every six frames.  You could be forgiven, if like me, you read online reports that the blu was 1080i and let them put you off, naturally expecting more of the same or similar frame rate issues.  Even the back of the case lists this set as 1080i, but no, thankfully it's 1080p and plays great, fixing that problem that persistently plagued the previous editions.  And while the picture is framed consistently at 1.32:1 across every edition, the blu has clearly pulled back to reveal a little extra information along all four sides.  This is a substantial upgrade; you can't look at these images side by side and say one is just as acceptable as the other:
2006 DVD left; 2011 BD right.
And I've isolated a section not slashed with the ugly scan lines that make most of the DVD so ugly.  It's still a blurry mess compared to the far crisper blu.  Furthermore, BR was shot on 16mm, not 35, so you can only expect so much fine detail.  Grain's a little soft, this is clearly not a modern 2 or 4k scan or anything.  But it also doesn't have any haloing, artificial sharpening or any of the other common signs of misguided tinkering we're used to coming across in cases like these.

With that said, for all these steps forward, it does seem to take a clumsy step back in the colors department, which look strangely flat here.  Look how all the shadows seem to have been washed off Irons' face in the third set of shots, for instance.  The DVDs' contrast is a little overblown, and their colors are a bit on the cool side (I'm pretty sure the tablecloth shouldn't be green in that first set of shots), but the blu doesn't seem to have any true whites or blacks at all.  Everything has an odd pastel wash to it.  I can imagine why reviewers who hadn't actually seen the DVDs might assume this is basically how the DVDs looked, but with just a little more compression softening.  But it's not.  This is a serious, important jump in quality, and if you're still trying to watch the old DVDs in 2021, you're missing out.

I should point out that while the DVDs transfers are the same, the 2006 edition did introduce one nice improvement: they added optional English subtitles, which are missing from the original set.  Thankfully, the BD keeps them.  But less happily, it also keeps the lossy audio track, which has always been a fine, clear track with just a feint, natural hiss poking along in the background.
One area no reviewer denies the latest version improves on is the special features.  The initial DVD set really one had one noteworthy extra, and even that was hidden away as an easter egg: a joking, just over three-minute television interview with one of the series' directors about Sebastian's famous teddy bear (notice: he's pictured on all three covers atop this page).  It's cute.  And besides that, the original DVDs just had a nice booklet and some production notes.

The 25th Anniversary release turned it into a deserving special edition, with a 47-minute retrospective documentary and audio commentaries for two episodes with producer Derek Granger and the series stars Irons, Andrews, Nickolas Grace and Diana Quick.  There's also about ten minutes of vintage outtakes and a photo gallery, plus the teddy bear clip and (slightly different) booklet.

Well, the 30th Anniversary blu holds onto all of that, including the teddy bear clip and (slightly different-er) booklet, plus adds even more goodies.  We get two more episode commentaries, by Granger and one of the directors, and another commentary by the series other director over a series of production stills, that runs a good forty minutes.  This series has a bit of a complicated history with directors, where one was rather controversially replaced with the other, so it's great to finally hear from the both, at length, here.
So yes, I'd say this is quite an essential upgrade, actually, as it progresses so far forward.  Sure, compared to most movies on blu, this one doesn't look as impressive.  You can chalk some of that up to BR being a 16mm fullscreen production, but no, the critics are also right.  This blu could and should definitely look better.  The lossy audio underwhelms, too.  I guess, maybe if we're super lucky, the upcoming remake will inspire BFI or Network to come to the rescue with a worthy restoration, at least for region B viewers.  But if you manage to come across one of these in the wild now, I'd seriously recommend snatching it up.  It may well be your last and best chance.  And then toss those DVDs.

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