BBC Radio 7, 16-30 March 2010
I have to admit that I really don't know what to make of this adaptation. Its thematic purposes are clear, as Waugh suggests that the old English landed gentry are in a state of permanent decline in a rapidly changing mid-twentieth century society. Politics play a part, even though not overtly mentioned; in the wake of the Labour government's landslide victory of 1945, and the subsequent introduction of measures promoting equality for all - for example, the creation of the National Health Service - the old aristocracy, represented throughout the trilogy by Guy Crouchback (Hugh Dickson) seem more and more of an irrelevance. In Jane Morgan's adaptation, dating from the 1980s, this sense of decline was accentuated by Hugh Burden's mournful narration.
On the other hand, Sword of Honour is haunted by the threatening presence of Catholicism. This comes as no surprise, given the author's much-publicized conversion in 1930. At that tıme he wrote a series of article, claiming that his decision was prompted by the desire to reject the "absurd caricature" of modernity and rediscover the "real world" of religion. Waugh wrote that "[civilization] came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance." In Brideshead Revisited religion plays a significant role as a means for the protagonists to redeem themselves. Waugh himself wrote that the only way of representing human beings more fully was to focus on their relationship to God.
However in Morgan's production of the Sword of Honour it seemed that religion inhibited rather than enlightened the characters' view of life. The guilt associated with Catholicism prevented Crouchback from sustaining any stable relationships. He always seemed to be a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Waugh claimed that the trilogy represented an "obituary" for the Catholic Church in Britain; in Morgan's production, this "obituary" seemed something far more personal. Religion seemed to prevent Guy from being "simpatico" (his phrase) with everything and everyone around him.
This sense of dislocation was also evident in the way Morgan directed the production. Dickson's Guy was a singularly colourless character - someone who, like a chameleon, tried to be all things to all people, but ended up being loved by no one. His performance contrasted starkly with the memorable characterizations from a host of actors, including Geoffrey Bayldon, Carleton Hobbs and Norman Rodway as the blustering Apthorpe, Crouchback's close acquaintance (I hesitate to say 'friend.') Perhaps one had to forget religion and just be oneself in order to survive in mid-century England.