In adapting a comic novel for film or television, there is the danger that the wit on the page will come across as stilted or, worse, inappropriate on the screen. Gladly, the new BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall does not suffer this malaise.
Over three episodes, director Guillen Morales, working with a screenplay by James Wood, transforms Waugh’s nifty saga into a curious mix of humour and caution. Played by Jack Whitehall, Paul Pennyfeather – with Waugh, the mirth begins with the names – is a student of theology at Oxford until he is kicked out of college when he is disrobed by a raucous group of seniors in a public area.
With no options before him, Pennyfeather heads to the Llanabba school in Wales whose situation is so dire that he is expected to teach sport, music and math all at once. But comic relief is at hand. The headmaster Dr Fagan (David Suchet), and two other teachers, Prendy (Vincent Franklin) and Grimes (Douglas Hodge) are his companions as he embarks on a madcap adventure that is all the more thrilling for being seen by Pennyfeather’s naive eyes.
It is laugh-out-loud funny. The highlight is the Sports Day at school, an event that has not been conducted for many years, and is being used as an opportunity to impress parents. Everything from sandwiches to tents to the tables and the cutlery is in place, except the sporting equipment. When the hurdles arrive they are too high for a high-school student, and the revolver for launching races turns out to be unfortunately loaded.
Meanwhile, Pennyfeather falls for Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the widowed mother of one of his students. Eva Longoria is all ooh-s and aah-s as a social butterfly whose money is an attraction to all manner of untrustworthy supplicants. Her own hands are hardly clean – there is rumour that her husband may not have died naturally, and she runs a prostitution ring under the banner of an entertainment company.
Pennyfeather and she are married in short order—the sort of major event that is given pleasingly short shrift as befits a Waugh adaptation. This is when, however, Pennygeather’s fortunes turn. Implicated in the prostitution racket run by his new wife, he is dispatched to prison.
Decline and Fall fumbles somewhat at this juncture, as it tries to paint Pennyfeather as a tragic hero. This seems a stretch in a series that has taken almost nothing seriously thus far, but Whitehall’s earnestness rescues the show. He is the right actor to play a handsome nincompoop, a perfect combination for sympathy.
Coincidences abound – both Prendy and Grimes are in the same prison, and Pennyfeather’s final rescue is midwifed by Dr Fagan. Meanwhile, the jaunty Margot makes an unfortunate exit. Is she villainous or vacuous? Waugh left that question unanswered, and the series sticks to this lack of resolution.
For all its successes, Decline and Fall worked better in Waugh’s hands, who sprinkled what is essentially a morality tale with generous doses of irony. Adapted to the screen, the series switches rather abruptly from really good comedy to something far harder to place.