Mgr Vladimir Felzmann reports from the set of the daring new film of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel Standing behind Emma Thompson in the grounds of Castle Howard as we waited in line behind grip, gaffer. best boy and aqueue of others to collect our lunch, my mind went back to 1981. Watching the classic television series Brideshead Revisited then, as I passed through the less than painless process of leaving Opus Dei, I never imagined I would revisit the story. I should have known better as, time and again throughout my life. I have been revisited by the unpredictable beauty of Providence.
After Easter 2007 I was, once again, passing through what the Chinese call "interesting dines'''. Then one . morning in May 2007 I picked up a voice mail. Would I ring Gabby? My name had been given to her by Molly Steele, secretary to the Catholic Stage Guild.
Gabby Le Rasle, the production co-ordinator of the new Brideshead Revisited movie, was looking for a RC priest to act as religious adviser during the filming. We arranged a meeting at a studio in SE16 so that I could get to know the Flyte family. the director Julian Jarrold and one of the producers. We all seemed to get on.
Emma Thompson, who plays Lady Marchmain, had already started to do her homework and was keen to improve her rosary technique. For some of the other characters religion — and thus liturgy and its equipment as well as its language of life — were strangers. They were all, it seemed, very keen to learn. I felt chuffed to be a part of the project.
I knew I could help the cast get into the RC mindset and ethos of the 1920s and 1930s. so radically different a perception from the God I now know and love. After all, I had been in Opus Dei for 2.2 years. I knew what it was like to live a religion when fascism and Catholicism embraced, and rules and ritual had to be immaculately obeyed on pain of mortal sin and eternal damnation, no matter what the cost to emotions and the well-being of the individual.
After the meeting ended, I showed the actor who Was playing Fr Mackay how to carry out an Extreme Unction and we worked on improving his pronunciation of Latin.
A few days later the postman delivered a copy of Shooting Script, May 11 2007.1 had never held a shooting script before. I found it fascinating to see the page layouts and read words that one day would be translated into action and dialogue on a screen.
On Thursday June 21 I took a train to York and having checked in at the Royal York Hotel was driven by minibus to Castle Howard.
It was quite an experience: the drive up and down and round the drive and under the arch and then this massive, gloomy pile, surrounded, it seemed. with a crown of "cherry picker" cranes. each with its massive floodlight; all tied together on the ground by a snake pit of cables.
I was shown into the chapel and set about giving it an RC feel with sanctuary lamp, crucifix above the altar. statue of Our Lady and holy water font, all in their appropriate places. Then a bite to eat and back to the hotel. I would be picked up at 7.00 am.
The minibus driver was courte ous and very friendly. I soon discovered that he was getting twice as much as me for a day's work. Being an amateur I said nothing. The education I was receiving was worth the discount.
Within the space of an hour I realised how unromantic film-making was, how repetitive, how timeconsuming and what dedication and commitment it called for. A scene shot time and again with different tight ness of frame focusing on different people from different angles. When the dialogue was being taped, the actors walked on carpet laid just for that take to prevent footfalls muddying the soundtrack. It seemed to me that for the producer's dream to come alive on screen requires as much sustained hard graft and meticulous care to detail as giving birth and bringing up a child with the skills to faze life by the time they leave home.
Between scenes, while gaffer and grip and all the others did their bit to prepare the next shot. I explored the house. It was gloomy and cold. As I wandered through the rooms I spoke with a man stacking equipment. As I moved on he asked: "Are you a kosher cleric?
"Yup, priesthood is my trade."
"Oh, I imagined you were an actor."
During another break I spoke to one of the producers about one scene in the script. I suggested that such graphic sex was not only artistically counter-productive but would warrant an 18 certificate, thus excluding young adults who, I thought, ought to see the film. In the event. the scene on the screen is more as it would have been in the 1930s: far fewer bodyparts exposed. Whether I was the cause that change I do not know.
A singing coach for the Salve Regina was brought on site. Though not tone deaf. I am tone dumb. A bit like the English cricket team on a bad day. I know what I ought to produce but simply can't.
Films are like icebergs: only a tiny. fraction eventually appears on the screen and soundtrack. Much of what I saw filmed ended up on the cutting floor edited out. A fragrant fragment of the Salve Regina is still there.
During a coffee-break conversation with Emma Thompson — what an actress! — it struck me how spiritually sensitive, articulate and honestly open a lady she is.
It was evident that most of the other stars in the film had little exposure to liturgy and prayers, Catholic creed and cult. How to bless oneself with holy water, how to bless oneself, how to genuflect and even kneel — as well as the RC version of the Our Father — were things needing to be learned.
Off the screen. I have a clear memory of a very close-knit team, of immensely delicate mutual respect as each moved without physical contact through confined spaces to do their bit, and how a walkie-talkie was used to shift a degree or two the floodlight through the window so that the shadow of a nose was a point.
The outcome? A beautifully crafted film. The name Caravaggio had come to mind as I watched the monitors on set. The name of that genius flooded back while watching the cast and crew film preview last month.
It is well worthwhile getting a party of friends to see it if you are interested in the themes of loneliness, lust, love and law, responsibility and addiction, outsiders yearning for a belonging, Catholicism and Christ, and the agony of concentrating more on process than the outcome of education.
Were the Flytes high-fliers fleeing emotional reality? Was Charles Ryder unconsciously riding to his Calvary and eventual renewal and rebirth? Class. discuss.
To condense the 1981 television series of 659 minutes in 11 episodes to one film of 100 minutes seemed a daunting ambition, but that dream has turned into an outstanding cinematographic experience. Chapeau to Julian Jarrold and his team.
Brideshead Revisited is released on October 3