The splendour of British dining on TV
London — 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.
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.
Some of the funniest, most wickedly played scenes are those with John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Charles's misanthropic father, who dines at his fusty London home in a frogged velvet smoking suit. The costumes are spectacular.
Then there is Paris.
''Order something good,'' Rex Mottram (Charles Keating), Julia's friend and later husband, tells Charles. ''That's my intention,'' he replies, and conjures up a meal that consists of ''sorrel soup, a sole quite simply cooked, caneton a la presse (pressed duck), and a lemon souffle.''
At the last moment,thinking it all too simple for the very rich Rex, he adds caviar and blinis and a salad of chicory ''misted in chives.''
As time passes and the story continues, there are meals on trains, in Morocco , at the Ritz, and on board ship.
There is a wonderful shipboard party with an ice swan crammed with caviar at center stage. How will people eat it?, Charles wonders. People always manage, his wife, Celia (Jane Asher), notes; we once ate potted shrimps with a paper knife, she says.
In the subsequent storm at sea, the ship's dining room is a hilarious toss and pitch of silver trays and teetering sweet trolleys. Charles and Julia are the only healthy passengers on board. He breakfasts on salmon kedgeree and cold Bradenham ham, she on Muscat grapes and cantaloupe.
''Brideshead Revisited'' is, in every frame, a movable feast. To celebrate its arrival, you might re-create the grand Parisian dinner. Or stock up on peaches and berries, whip up some potted shrimps, or fix a treacle tart.
Then, settle back for 11 weeks of this exquisite Baroque binge. Potted Shrimps 1 pound tiny shrimps 8 ounces butter 1/2 teaspoon ground mace 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon mustard 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper Salt
Boil shrimps for 3 minutes, drain, then peel carefully. Put butter in a saucepan with mace, nutmeg, mustard, and pepper. Let butter melt, add shrimps, stir and heat without boiling, which will toughen the shrimps.
Lift shrimps out and place in tiny pots. Reheat butter just until foamy and skim it. Pour at once over the shrimps so they are well covered. Allow to cool and set, seal pots by tying paper over the tops, and store in refrigerator. They will keep a week. Serve in pots with crisp toast.
If tiny shrimps are not available, use larger ones cut into sections. Diced lobster meat may be prepared the same way. From ''British Bouquet,'' by Samuel Chamberlain (Gourmet Books, Inc.). Norfolk Treacle Tart 10-inch flan dish or tin 3/4 pound (350 g) plain flour Pinch of salt 5 ounces (150 g) butter 1 egg, lightly beaten Iced water Filling 4 slices white bread 2 crisp apples, peeled, cored, grated 8 level tablespoons golden syrup Grated rind l lemon Juice 2 lemons 2 eggs, lightly beaten 1/4 pint (150 ml) double cream 1 egg, lightly beaten
Make pastry by sifting flour and salt into large bowl. Rub in butter until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Make a well in center and add egg. Blend it in, adding just enough iced water to bind the mixture lightly together. Wrap and chill at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to gas mark 5, 375 degrees F. or 190 degrees C. Bring pastry to room temperature, then roll out thinly and use to line flan dish. Reserve remaining pastry for lattice top. Bake shell 10 minutes.
Grate bread to make crumbs and combine with apple in large bowl. Heat syrup to lukewarm and combine with crumbs, lemon rind, juice, eggs, and cream. When well blended, pour into the pastry and decorate top with lattice pastry strips.
Brush pastry with a little beaten egg. Bake in hot oven at gas mark 6, 400 degrees F. or 180 degrees C., for 20 to 25 minutes.
Serve warm or cold with cream. Serves 8 to 10. From ''Country Cuisine,'' by Elizabeth Kent (London: Sidgwick & Jackson).