It’s 30 years since Brideshead Revisited became a TV sensation – and turned Castle Howard into tourist destination for fans. MAXINE GORDON reports on our love affair with the Ryedale country pile.

ENGLAND 1944. Captain Charles Ryder finds his troops stationed at a country house – Brideshead. It is a place he had known some 20 years earlier in halcyon days with his friend from Oxford, Sebastian Flyte.

Looking worn and weary from war and life, Charles gazes wistfully up at the magnificent dome-crowned building and reflects how in hearing the name of Brideshead “the phantom of those haunted late years began to take flight”.

And so begins the story of Charles Ryder and the Flyte family – a saga first told in Evelyn Waugh’s 1946 novel, and lavishly brought to the small screen in Granada’s no-expense-spared production that included location shooting in Gozo, Venice and on the QE2.

The series first aired on ITV in October 1981 and ran over 11 episodes. It captivated the nation – much in the way Downton Abbey has today – and went on to win seven Baftas.

It featured a stellar cast headed by Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain, Sebastian’s father, and John Guilgud as Charles’s father, Edward. It launched the career of Jeremy Irons, who played Charles, and turned Anthony Andrews into a household name forever to be associated as the pretty, blue-eyed Sebastian who never left home without teddybear Aloysius.

Arguably, the biggest star of all was the house – Brideshead, played by North Yorkshire’s Castle Howard, seat of the Howard family.

Today – some three decades after the Granada series – Brideshead and Castle Howard are one and the same in many people’s eyes.

Indeed, when a film version was made three years ago, this time starring Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Lord and Lady Marchmain, producers decided no other house would do. And so Castle Howard was cast as Brideshead for a new generation.

Castle Howard curator Christopher Ridgway reveals that for many visitors to the house, fact and fiction remain blurred.

“There are lots of comments in the visitors’ book of people visiting ‘Brideshead at last’. It seems they are not clear whether they are going to bump into the Flyte family or the Howards,” says Christopher.

The real house – dating from the 18th century and designed by Vanburgh – is even more captivating and interesting than Waugh’s creation, he believes.

“There is something rather magical about the place. The real Castle Howard is much more interesting than the fictional version; it has many more stories, many more years of history, characters and events.”

In his new book, Castle Howard and Brideshead, Fact, Fiction and In-Between, Christopher explores the weave between the house and its fictional renditions, examining Waugh’s inspiration for the magnificent Marchmain home as well as how TV producers and film-makers brought it to life.

As you might expect, it is packed with pictures from both productions, as well as sumptuous stills of Castle Howard and its interiors.

Visitors to Castle Howard today can view a special exhibition on the TV and film productions and see the sets recreated for the 2008 movie. Fans of Brideshead can have great fun spotting the iconic locations, such as the Atlas Fountain and the exquisite Temple Of The Four Winds, where Sebastian and Charles’s frivolous wine-drinking scene was shot.

In real life, Castle Howard remains a family home (Simon Howard lives there with his wife Rebecca and their nine-year-old twins, Octavia and Merlin) and a successful rural business supporting 110 full-time jobs.

Money made from the productions – as well as profits from the estate’s other business ventures – have been ploughed back into restoring and sustaining the house and its 9,000 acres.

Proving that Castle Howard is more than just “Brideshead”, Christopher is looking ahead to a new exhibition to open in 2013-14 highlighting war and the country house.

While Charles Ryder discovered Brideshead had been taken over by the Army during the Second World War, in real life Castle Howard was requisitioned by St Margaret’s School, Scarborough, to house 150 schoolgirls. They took part in one of Castle Howard’s most dramatic episodes – removing some of its treasures during the great fire of 1940 that destroyed the dome.

To find out more about that story, you’ll have to visit the great house for yourself.

• Castle Howard and Brideshead, Fact, Fiction and In-Between by Christopher Ridgway (Castle Howard Estate, £10) is available from Castle Howard and online.

Castle Howard on film

BRIDESHEAD Revisited may be synonymous with Castle Howard, but the great house has been the star of the screen on several occasions.

2008: Brideshead Revisited
Julian Jarrold directs a film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel over six weeks in the summer of 2007. Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon lead a young British cast.

2006: Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties
Billy Connolly stars in this children’s movie about mistaken identity, where Garfield ends up being king of the castle (Castle Howard).

2000/2001: Great Estates
A through-the-keyhole look into all aspects of life at Castle Howard in this documentary series about some of the great estates of England.

1996: A Year In The Life Of Castle Howard
A six-part documentary on Castle Howard.

1994: The Buccaneers
Castle Howard features in this BBC production of Edith Wharton’s novel of the 19th century encounter between English aristocracy and wealthy American heiresses.

1981: Brideshead Revisited
Granada TV’s epic production made household names of Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons and crowned Castle Howard as one of the most famous country houses in the land.

1978: Twelfth Night
A BBC production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and surprisingly the only time Castle Howard has been used for a Shakespeare play.

1975: Barry Lyndon
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by William Thackeray about a young, roguish Irishman who is determined to make a life for himself as a wealthy nobleman.

1966: The Spy With A Cold Nose
A spoof cold war spy thriller starring Lawrence Harvey with Castle Howard masquerading as the Kremlin in Moscow.

1965: Lady L
Directed by Peter Ustinov, and starring David Niven, Sophia Loren and Paul Newman in a tale of European anarchists and aristocrats.