When it comes to playing top-drawer British aristocrats, actor Anthony Andrews, 34, seems to be the man for all centuries. Next week the blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Andrews tilts his lance as the hero of CBS' version of the Sir Walter Scott story Ivanhoe. A few years back Andrews played a young 19th-century nobleman in The Pallisers. In his own century, however, Andrews is even more authentic as the fey, alcoholic and doomed Lord Sebastian Flyte in PBS' current Brides-head Revisited. He totes his teddy bear to Oxford, dines on plovers' eggs and champagne, and indulges in homosexual pinch and tickle with co-star Jeremy Irons. The lavish 11-episode, $10 million production of Evelyn Waugh's elegiac 1945 novel (the Washington Post calls it "the best television series ever") has made Andrews a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. That's the good news. The trouble is that Andrews, married and the father of two, is being twitted mightily about his convincing portrayal of the effeminate snob Sebastian. "I had played 'straight' men long enough," explains Andrews. "I wanted the stretch as an actor. Sebastian is the bit of skeleton in everyone's closet." Ironically, Anthony first was offered the Irons part but asked for the switch. He denies reports of an on-set feud. Still, when Irons interrupted the two-and-a-half-year Brideshead shooting to film The French Lieutenant's Woman with Meryl Streep, Andrews grumbled that his longtime friend "had gone off to become an international star."

If it was envy, there's no more reason for it. Andrews had hoped that last year's PBS series about a World War II demolition expert, Danger UXB, would prove his U.S. breakthrough. It brought him glowing reviews, but little renown. Brideshead has delivered both, but it seems unlikely that wider success could improve on the life Andrews now leads. Married in 1971 to heiress Georgina Simpson, 30ish, whose father owns the ritzy clothing store Simpson's of Piccadilly, Anthony and his family rattle around their $350,000, six-bedroom Edwardian home in Wimbledon. Children Joshua, 9, and Jessica, 7, attend a nearby private school. Andrews also rents a house in West Hollywood, and he and his wife own a collectible dark-blue 1961 Bentley, a black Mini and a beige Range Rover, all driven by a Russian chauffeur named Boris. A nanny helps with the children and meals.

He was not to the manor but to middling north London born. When Anthony was 5, his father, a composer, died of lung cancer, leaving his dancer mother to take odd jobs to support her two sons and three daughters. Because his father had been a Freemason, Anthony received a scholarship to the now defunct Royal Masonic school in Hertfordshire. There, at 14, he had his first brush with acting—playing the goddess Athena.

Describing himself as "an academic disaster," he took a series of jobs after leaving school. At 20 he found himself at the prestigious Chichester Festival Theatre. "My job was to clean the stage on my hands and knees," he says. He graduated to bit parts on stage and TV, more repertory and finally a role as a schoolboy in the London hit Forty Years On, starring John Gielgud. Besides the "education" of watching Gielgud, Anthony "made £18 per week and shared a flat in Soho with a girlfriend. It was very exciting, living there at the back doors of theaters." He recalls how "Soho strippers used to dash from one club to another, starkers under their coats."

A fellow cast member from Forty Years introduced him to Georgina, then an actress. "I was ignored," Andrews insists. "Georgina had a part in a soap opera and considered herself already successful." Later they collided at a London birthday party for Sal Mineo. "We met in the middle of a darkened room a la West Side Story," he remembers. It was hardly romantic. "She said, 'Oh, God, I thought you were someone else.' She's very shortsighted." But something clicked. They wed within a year, despite the reservations of Georgina's wealthy parents. "They expected at least a duke," she laughs.

The couple shared Georgina's tiny King's Road flat for a year until Andrews became the "archetypal 'juve' lead" on British TV. Eventually they moved up to Wimbledon. Georgina gave up acting soon after their first child was born. She has set up a fashionable boutique in her family's store, but devotes most of her time to her home, where Anthony indulges his love for chess and painting (mostly clowns). They share a passion for horses. One of the two they own will be ridden by Mark Phillips, Princess Anne's husband, in competition this spring. Anthony did most of the riding himself for Ivanhoe, and Georgina, a horsewoman since 6, shows hunters. Recovered from a 1978 riding accident that left her in a coma, with a broken pelvis and temporary paralysis on one side, Georgina says, "I'm not as brave now."

Andrews admits to a similar hesitancy about his next career move. Hollywood beckons, but the role has to be right. No period pieces or drawing room comedies, please. "If I get any more, I'll scream," proclaims Anthony. His admirers have no such complaints. "If I'm stopped in a supermarket or on the street, I'm delighted," he says. "It means I've reached my audience."