‘Decline and Fall’ brings macabre (yet elegant) Waugh comedy to life
In 1928, when Evelyn Waugh published his first novel, the satirical “Decline and Fall,” there was no television to speak of. (Books were like television once, culturally speaking, if you can believe it.) But his work, also including the novels “Brideshead Revisited” and “Scoop,” is very adaptable to the screen, with its vivid characters, colorful settings and made-for-speaking dialogue. Plus, it has the bonus of satisfying our undying taste for British period pieces.
New to America this week via the Acorn TV streaming service is a new three-part BBC adaptation of “Decline and Fall” with a cast that notably features Eva Longoria and David Suchet, who played Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for many years. Screenwriter James Wood, who co-created the ecclesiastical urban sitcom “Rev.,” and director Guillem Morales have made from Waugh’s text something both lively and leisurely, suitable to the author’s brand of antic, deadpan comedy.
Wood has taken almost all his material from the page, pruning and shaping without violating the original’s form, adding in incidental exchanges and bits of business that for the most part build upon rather than kill Waugh’s own jokes. If he sets off (literal) fireworks the original author left unlighted, because that is what the screen likes, Waugh at least put them there.
Jack Whitehall plays passive hero Paul Pennyfeather, a divinity student expelled from Oxford for reasons beyond his control — his clothes were removed by rowdies — and forced to find work.
“I expect you’ll want to become a schoolmaster — that’s what most gentlemen do that get sent down for indecent behavior,” the college porter tells him on his way out. And with the briefest stop at an employment agency, he is off to a job for which he is barely qualified.
And so he is off to Wales, to a bottom-of-the-barrel academy run by Dr. Fagan (Suchet), who greets his new employee, saying: “I’ve been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters into it unless he has some very good reasons he is anxious to conceal.”
Here Pennyfeather encounters fellow teachers Grimes (Douglas Hodge), who drinks and has a wooden leg, and Prendergast (Vincent Franklin), who frets and wears a wig.
Stephen Graham, whom American viewers will best know for playing Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” is the dissembling Philbrick, ostensibly a butler, but perhaps a criminal, or a novelist. Longoria plays Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the glamorous Latin American mo-ther of one of Pennyfeather’s students, who will carry the teacher away from school and land him (as the hapless Grimes says of his own misadventures) in the soup.
It is a semi-fantastical tale, full of extravagant characters who bear names like Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent, the sort of story that does not mind shooting a schoolboy in the foot for the sake of a joke and then giving him gangrene, adding infection to injury. It takes stabs at British secondary education, prison reform, prostitution and modern architecture and saves a few unkind words for the Welsh, “the only nation in the world,” says Fagan, “that has produced nothing of any worth … they just sing.”
(Some prejudices of the author and/or his characters have been softened slightly but not eliminated, while matters about which Waugh had to be circumspect are made a little more obvious.)
There are many delightful things here, from the production, with its old fabrics and furniture, through the performances. As Penny-feather, Whitehall takes a moment or two to register — which is not inappropriate to his character — but he fills in the role of a reasonably normal if fatally naive person quite nicely. Suchet, whose Poirot was at least one-third comedy, is wonderfully funny when confidentially informing Pennyfeather that “the fire escape is very dangerous and never to be used, even in an emergency.” Longoria, surprising to see in this context, acquits herself well.
Most pleasant perhaps is the sense that there is a kind of order even in a chaotic world, a force that brings these characters together to their benefit, though much might be suffered along the way. Perhaps that’s just literature, but it’s a cheery thought, the odd case of gangrene notwithstanding.
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