18 January 2009

Queen Mary Revisited

On this day in 1982, the Granada Television production of Brideshead Revisited was released in the United States and shown on PBS. What does this have to do with the Queen Mary, you ask? Apparently the book's author, Evelyn Waugh, set the novel's ocean liner scenes on the ship (though in the recent film version the ship is shown as the Berengaria. Interestingly, one of the off-ship interiors in the movie is decorated with artwork inspired by or actually taken from the Mary:  Deer Group, by John Skeaping. In the book, The Art of the RMS Queen Mary, this artwork is listed as lost). Mr. Waugh never said outright that he was describing her, but anyone familiar with the ship would recognize his depiction, particularly of the wood, the bronze gates, and the Art Deco furniture. 

Reading the shipboard passages, it seems as if Mr. Waugh wasn't terribly bowled over by the decor of the Mary--or perhaps it's simply Charles Ryder's state of mind that gives aspects of the following passage from the novel a certain less than impressed tone:

"I turned into some of the halls of the ship, which were huge without any splendour, as though they had been designed for a railway coach and preposterously magnified. I passed through vast bronze gates whose ornament was like the trademark of a cake of soap which had been used once or twice; I trod carpets the colour of blotting paper; the painted panels of the walls were like blotting paper, too; kindergarten work in flat, drab colours; and between the walls were yards and yards of biscuit-coloured wood which no carpenter's tool had ever touched, wood that had been bent round corners, invisibly joined strip to strip, steamed and squeezed and polished; all over the blotting-paper carpet were strewn tables designed perhaps by a sanitary engineer, square blocks of stuffing, with square holes for sitting in and, upholstered, it seemed in blotting paper also; the light of the hall was suffused from scores of hollows, giving an even glow, casting no shadows--the whole place hummed from its hundred ventilators and vibrated with the turn of the great engines below."

Another distinctive bit of decor pops up a bit later:

"The great bronze doors of the lounge had torn away from their hooks and were swinging free with the roll of the ship; regularly, and, it seemed, irresistibly, first one, then the other, opened and shut; they paused at the completion of each half circle, began to move slowly and finished fast with a resounding clash. There was no real risk in passing them, except of slipping and being caught by that swift, final blow; there was ample time to walk through unhurried, but there was something forbidding in the sight of that great weight of uncontrolled metal, flapping to and fro, which might have made a timid man flinch or skip through too quickly; I rejoiced to feel Julia's hand perfectly steady on my arm and know, as I walked beside her, that she was wholly undismayed."

Of course these gates weren't in the lounge, but in the cabin class dining room. The gate pictured above is from one of the private dining rooms, off the main restaurant. However, if you visit the ship, you will see the dining salon's primary gates at the aft end of the room. 

Waugh makes other references to the ship in this chapter, not only to her well-documented pitching and rolling, but also, in the dialogue of Lady Celia Ryder, to what would seem to be the Verandah Grill: "It's crazy to go to the restaurant," she said, "and pay extra for exactly the same dinner. Only film people go there, anyway." 

The Verandah Grill, known as the Starlight Roof after 10pm, required not only reservations but a surcharge for dining. And, as Lady Celia says in the book, film people did go there, including Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Victor Mature among others. If you follow this link, you can hear one of the club's head waiters talk about what it was like, and who showed up, in 1952. 


©Karen Clark

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