Decline and Fall review – Waugh-mongers be damned! This is a fine show

The ghastly gaggle of toffs are back with Jack Whitehall as the perfect Pennyweather and Eva Longoria bringing the glamour in this excellent companion to Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel

A ghastly gaggle of braying Oxford toffs leave behind a trail of destruction, safe in the knowledge that they’re rich enough for their own mess not to affect them and that it’s the poor man who will suffer the consequences ...

The previous government administration? Actually, this is Decline and Fall (BBC1). And you were worried that what Evelyn Waugh satirised in 1928 might have lost some of its relevance today?

Jack Whitehall is a splendid Paul Pennyfeather, decent but naive, and easily led astray by the raggedy collection of fellow “teachers” at Llanabba, the hopeless public school in Wales where he ends up after being kicked out of Oxford.

They’re wonderful, too: David Suchet as ineffectual headmaster Dr Fagan; Vincent Franklin as dipso Prendy; Douglas Hodge as gay peg-leg Grimes, who somehow always ends up in the soup (bigamy soup this time); Stephen Graham as creepy porter Philbrick.

From Desperate Housewife to yummy mummy Margot Beste-Chetwynde … Eva Longoria in Decline and Fall.
From Desperate Housewife to yummy mummy Margot Beste-Chetwynde … Eva Longoria in Decline and Fall. Photograph: Warren Orchard/BBC/Tiger Aspect

Eva Longoria provides the glamour. From Desperate Housewife to yummy mummy Margot Beste-Chetwynde, with silk legs and chinchilla body. Pennyfeather’s eyes are soon popping out of his head and his tongue lolling like an excited puppy’s.

There’ll be a hoo-ha about this adaptation, of course – the usual one. How can a work so dependent on the wit of the written word translate to the screen, the Waugh-mongers will cry. But this shouldn’t be seen as an alternative; it’s more a companion piece. Of course it doesn’t all go in, and will be lighter for it.

But having reskimmed the novel, I’d say that Rev creator James Wood has done an excellent job. This is less adaptation and more like a damn good edit, which manages to retain verbal nimbleness as well as the novel’s essence and spirit (plus a little light racial awkwardness). And as for tossing a pig’s head into the opening scene with the Bollinger boys, well, I think that’s allowed, as well as further adding to modern political relevance.

In fact, can you hear it, beyond the hoo-ha, coming from the ha-ha, where the author is buried, in Somerset? Actually, you can’t, because it’s not noise but silence – the sound of Waugh not turning in his grave.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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