Decline and Fall: some great performances but you’d be better off with the book

Ben Dowell finds that new BBC TV version of Evelyn Waugh's 1928 classic, starring Jack Whitehall, misses much of the joy and brilliance of the book. But did it ever have a chance of measuring up?

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Decline and Fall is a brilliant 1928 book by Evelyn Waugh that centres on the misadventures of a young man called Paul Pennyfeather.

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He’s a likable and scholarly chap who is sent down from Oxford after a run-in with the Bollinger Club (modelled by Waugh on the real-life Bullingdon Club of David Cameron fame) and is forced to work as a schoolmaster in a terrible Welsh public school, Llanabba, run by a toadying weirdo called Dr Fagan.

There he meets an array of fabulous characters including young Peter Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced ‘Beast-Cheating’) and his beautiful rich mother Margot Beste-Chetwynde with whom he falls in love.

Great characters in the school include the appalling (but jovial) alcoholic bigamist Captain Grimes. He’s the character who always finds himself “in the soup” and has a fake leg, convincing the boys of the school that he lost it at Gallipoli when actually it was in a tram accident.

And there’s also Prendy, the teacher with the wig who should have been an ordained minister had he not been beset by “doubts” (a word he uses a lot).

In the latter part of the book Pennyfeather travels to South America and find himself involved unwittingly in a murky story of white slavery and prostitution. It is a dark read at times, bit it is also side-splittingly hilarious.

Full of black humour, cruel satire and memorable caricature, the book is epic in scale but fabulous in its detail. I defy anyone to read the scene involving the Llanabba silver band and the school sports day without falling off their chair laughing. Pennyfeather’s plight is also strangely moving, as is the fate of some of the poor boys at the awful school.

Waugh once said that every good novel could be written on two postcards – and if any aspiring writer needs an exercise in concision and comic timing then this is it.

So what about the TV adaptation which starts on BBC1 on Sunday?

Well, it is a very expensive, beautifully-directed production stuffed with some excellent performances. But I am not sure it works.

Jack Whitehall is a perfectly passable Pennyfeather, but the laurel probably goes to Douglas Hodge who is always brilliant and (thanks to his recent scene stealing in Channel 4’s Catastrophe) seems to be making something of a comeback. Here he captures all the ghastly humour and dreadfulness of Grimes – you can almost smell the whisky and bitter on his sweaty body.

Hodge does the leg thing brilliantly – his gait is perhaps the funniest silly walk seen on TV since John Cleese in Monty Python.

I also rather enjoyed Vincent Franklin’s Prendy – a performance which captures his mousy fear and the darkness within his soul. Eva Longoria is suitably elegant, alluring and utterly untrustworthy as Margot (below).

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But James Wood’s script unfortunately feels as flat as a pancake. It comes across as little more than a strung-together collection of Waugh’s best scenes, his lines of dialogue trotted out but never really flying (the school sports day in episode one is quite funny – how could it not be? – but nothing as hilarious as the reading of it).

Waugh is so much more than his dialogue anyway. The pleasure of his masterpiece is in his narration – his descriptions, his nuances, his heavy irony, the dripping richness of his evocations, the way he hides his jokes.

He’s so good, in my view, that it is probably impossible to adapt – so we can’t blame Wood entirely.

But the sad fact is that it doesn’t really come together and, like Prendy, I have my doubts about whether this will attract a new fan base for Waugh. But I hope I’m wrong.

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Decline and Fall is on BBC1 on Friday nights at 9pm