The BBC unveiled their latest classic novel adaptation in the form of Decline and Fall, a televised version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 comic novel. Featuring comedian Jack Whitehall as the lead and boasting American star Eva Longoria, it promises a light tone and easy humour. It achieved this well, but in the end it was the source material that really was the star of episode one, with sharp quotes punctuating busy scenes.
Despite an unusual leading couple, Decline and Fall isn’t completely unconventional. It still boasts familiar faces to British television in the form of David Suchet, Douglas Hodge and Vincent Franklin. Set in the 1920s, the story begins with young Paul Pennyfeather (Whitehall), a well-meaning Oxford student studying to join the church. Assaulted one night by the Bollinger Club (a clear nom de plume for the famed Bullingdon Club), he gets blamed for their antics and is expelled to work at a teaching post in Wales. Pennyfeather then has to contend with a strict headteacher (Suchet), as well as his other stressed colleagues. One bright light is a mother of one of the pupils, the mysterious Margot Beste-Chetwynde (Longoria).
A three-part series, the plot progresses at an impressive rate, with a preview for next week showing an escalation in intrigue. Whitehall takes on a very different role from his work previously as a comedian and playing the boorish posh boy JP in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. Paul Pennyfeather is quite endearing, an obliging character who’s trying to cope with the loss of his planned career path. With his big eyes, Whitehall makes him an engaging lead, and more than a match for the colourful characters that surround him.
It must be said that there’s nothing artistically brave or inventive from this period drama. Decline and Fall is directed by Spanish filmmaker Guillem Morales, whose horror movie Julia’s Eyes sparked quite a lot of interest in 2010. He’s since gone on to direct another BBC series, Inside No. 9, but his style is far more restrained for this novel adaptation. Perhaps he felt that he had to adhere to the stereotypical period drama style, but it’s a shame to have such vivid characters without the visual flair to really make the most of uncomfortable scenes and rollicking antics.
However, there may be another intention behind this. Without any cinematic license, the screenplay really takes centre stage, bringing brilliantly sharp lines from both original novelist Evelyn Waugh and screenplay writer James Wood (Rev, The Gamechangers). Waugh, who also wrote Brideshead Revisited, took no prisoners with his satire and this novel is no exception. One particular favourite line is when Pennyfeather is being told that his new role will include a host of exotic sounding subjects, including German. Having no experience of the German language, he says as much, to which the advisor replies, ‘It’s wonderful why one can achieve when one tries’.
The satire feels very modern at times. The very fact that Pennyfeather’s fate is entirely changed due to the bad behaviour of a more privileged group can’t help but have some resonance in an age where the Bullingdon Club still exists, and still churns out powerful political figures. It’s easy to wonder if Waugh could have even imagined that the arrogant group he chose to satirise in his novel in the 1920s would still have survived into a completely different age.
In terms of next week, there’s plenty to look forward to as we find out more about Margot Beste-Chetwynde and uncover more scandalous doings in the hidden societies of the 1920s. Despite initially having been highly cynical from the marketing material, I’ll be enthusiastically tuning into what will hopefully be an entertaining and sharp second episode of Decline and Fall.
Episode 2 of Decline and Fall airs Friday 7 March, with episode 1 available on BBC iPlayer now.