Decline and Fall continued to delight this week with its second episode, packed full again with witty dialogue, sharp visual gags and easy performances from a lively cast. Despite a leading man that many find polarising, and vague marketing, this show has excelled expectations and done the author of the source novel very proud indeed.
After a busy set-up episode, the sequel largely transported us away from the stuffy boarding school of Paul Pennyweather’s (Jack Whitehall) employment and into the bourgerious life of Margot Beste-Chetwynde (Eva Longoria). Taken there to ‘tutor’ her teenage son for the summer holidays, Paul instead finds himself drawn into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous, meeting dubious characters such as eccentric German architect Otto (Anatole Taubman – if he looks familiar, he played Montcourt in Versailles) and society journalist Tom (Hadley Fraser).
One particular joy of this series, and perhaps of the source text, is the way that it plays with the borders of reality. The house that the BBC have visually created as the carefully built abode of Margot, looks like a 1970s brutalist masterpiece, despite the 1920s setting. Characters flit around, and reappear in seemingly unexplainable ways. The story doesn’t try to be realistic, but grounds the characters just enough to use that flight of fancy for genuine comedic value, and it works.
Combined with the extraordinary, Decline and Fall as a television adaptation is highly aware of the cultural surroundings of the novel. Whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us Jay Gatsby’s all-night parties, Margot’s afternoon soiree has all the same extravagant clothing and easy drinking, except placed in the harsh and unforgiving light of a cloudy British afternoon. It seems to aspire to glamour and debauchery, but only manages some trite comments and a few vulgar politicians. There’s no direct correlation can probably be made between the source material and the American text, with just three years between publications, but it seems that the producers of this adaptation were well aware of a glossy and distant cousin.
This episode also gives us more of Eva Longoria’s Margot, who is charming, manipulative and in charge. Longoria has already spoken profusely in the press tour for Decline and Fall of her enthusiasm for being part of a British period drama, and it’s comes across in her complete commitment to this very fun character. Like most of the characters too in this drama, she completely walks over the naive Paul, who is often a little put out but never enough to object to whatever he’s been tasked with.
However, Margot does lose out in one respect, and that’s in getting the best lines. That belongs to the colourful side characters, and to Paul’s well meaning, if baffled, responses. In one scene, Paul is being shown vivid portraits of prostitutes by Otto, as the architect talks passionately about his work, whilst the pictures remain concealed from the viewer. Maintaining his oh-so-British repressiveness, Paul looks politely but doesn’t quite know what to say. Otto then offers:
‘Paul, I’d like to give you this one as a gift’
‘Is there perhaps one without you in it?’
It’s rare to find a period drama that inspires true laugh out loud moments. Contented chuckles, of course, but rarely will there be something to inspire an involuntary outburst. Decline and Fall is that rarity, able to catch you off guard with brilliant gags and perfectly delivered lines. For those having a dull or tough day, it’s guaranteed to bring cheer. Unlike many other dramas too, the story isn’t hugely important. Characters come and go, and you don’t necessarily expect to see some again. However, there’s no need to feel disappointed in this, since the fun comes from interactions, not necessarily from the steps that characters take in their lives.
It’s fun, it’s sharp and it’s unabashedly naughty. Decline and Fall deserves a good audience and hopefully by the end of its three episode run, the comedy-drama will have achieved that. It’s certainly achieved plenty of affection from this cynical writer.