A nod to Piggate brings Decline and Fall bang up to date

Jack Whitehall’s 1920s comedy has a very modern David Cameron reference in it

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The new BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall may be set in the 1920s, but people tuning in to this week’s first episode will see it’s bang up to date when it comes to cheeky political references. 

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The series opens with hapless Oxford undergraduate Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall) falling foul of the fictional Bollinger Club, whose debaucheries include a detail not mentioned in Waugh’s original text – a severed pig’s head, seen falling from the window of their raucous party. 

Said pig’s head is a clear reference to an uncorroborated anecdote found in unauthorised David Cameron biography Call Me Dave (written by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott), which alleged the former UK Prime Minister put a “private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s mouth as part of a initiation ceremony during his own time as an Oxford student. 

The resulting furore became known as “Piggate,” and given Cameron’s well-known membership of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club (upon which the Bollinger Club in the novel is based), Decline and Fall’s inclusion of the animal head seem to be a clear nod to the scandal. 

Of course, there’s no evidence that the incident during Cameron’s university days actually happened, and in any case the supposed activity wasn’t actually a Bullingdon Club-related matter – Call Me Dave alleged that the incident instead took place during an initiation for prestigious Oxford drinking society Piers Gaveston, which is a separate club only founded in 1977. 

Still, there’s no doubt that a nod to this Pork-ward moment was the perfect way to bring an 89-year-old novel up to date at a trot. We can only hope Jack Whitehall’s Paul doesn’t get himself into any such ill-advised and impulsive activities as the series goes on – though in fairness, you’d struggle to find one rasher.

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Decline and Fall airs on BBC1 on Fridays at 9.00pm