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The splendour of British dining on TV

By Regina NadelsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 1982


The trouble with American television is that almost no one gets much that's good to eat. The folks at Southfork, for instance, no sooner sip their orange juice when the next ''Dallas'' disaster calls.

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Not so in England. The magicmakers who create television drama there provide lavishly.

Think of ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' when Mrs. Bridges rolled up her ample sleeves to cook dinner for King Edward VII.

Think of the seductive meals Louisa Trotter dished up for residents of the Cavendish Hotel in ''The Duchess of Duke Street.''

Now there is ''Brideshead Revisited,'' Grenada Television's extraordinary dramatization of Evelyn Waugh's novel, which begins on PBS Jan. 18.

''Brideshead Revisited'' was written in 1943. ''It was a period,'' as Waugh wrote in a later introduction, ''of soya bean and basic English and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food, for the splendours of the recent past and for rhetorical and ornamental language. . . .''

Like everything else in the novel, the period of soya bean is faithfully re-created in the film and, in the initial Army scenes where we first see Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons (''The French Lieutenant's Woman''), the fare at the officer's mess is Spartan.

Soon afterward, however, he finds himself billeted at a very familiar place: Brideshead, the home of the aristocratic Marchmain family. Charles's memories of that family, which are the stuff of this story, are never Spartan, but overflowing with the glorious prewar food.

There is the spectacular luncheon party at Oxford where in the early 1920s Charles first meets Lord Sebastian Flyte.

Along with the Sevres vases, the Daumier drawings, and Aloysius, Sebastian's teddy bear, there is Lobster Newburg and plovers' eggs in a nest.

''The first this year,'' says Sebastian, played by Anthony Andrews (''Danger UXB''). ''Mummy sends them from Brideshead. They always lay early for her.''

Andrews, incidentally, like Irons, is both brilliant and precisely right in his part, each in its way, a virtuoso turn.

At Oxford there are other meals: the solitary supper of an omelet, a peach, a bottle of Vichy water, eaten by Anthony Blanche (Nickolas Grace), the charcoal biscuits Charles consumes while cramming for exams, his breakfast at a shop where ''I ate my scrambled egg and bitter marmalade with the zest which in youth follows a restless night.''

And there is the hearty snack devoured by Charles's hearty cousin Jasper, whose role in life is to warn him from the dissolute Sebastian, a meal of honey-buns and anchovy toast and Fuller's walnut cake.

After a hunt at Brideshead, the Marchmain stately home, there are crumpets and eggs in the hall of the house that is itself one of the story's great themes.

Brideshead is played by Castle Howard, the Baroque Vanbrugh masterpiece in Yorkshire. A string of marvelous meals is eaten here on film, as they were in reality when cast and crew were entertained by owner George Howard.

On one occasion, Anthony Andrews recalls, there was a sit-down luncheon for 70. It is that kind of place.

Meals at Brideshead take place in the dining room or the octagonal painted parlor where Charles first comes to stay, and he eats a peach while Sebastian and his sister, Lady Julia (Diana Quick), dine.

Come to think of it there is a lot of fruit. Early scenes seem suffused with its ripe scent. There is the famous picnic Sebastian and Charles make of a basket of strawberries, the ''Muscat grapes'' from the hothouse at Brideshead, and the ''Alpine strawberries and warm figs'' from the kitchen garden.

In Venice, too, where Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), lives, there are peaches eaten off a cart, as well as a discourse by Marchmain on the superiority of Austrian pastry cooks to Italian ones.