The Spectator in a blog column by Douglas Murray has added to its earlier praise for the BBC’s adaptation of Waugh’s Decline and Fall. This follows Friday’s transmission of the final episode of the series and focuses on that episode. But it opens more broadly with he declaration that the series as a whole was “a triumph.”:
…I had always assumed that this earliest of Evelyn Waugh’s novels was un-filmable. The plot is slightly sketchier, the characters slightly more limited than in Waugh’s later novels. Which isn’t to take away from the fact that it remains one of the funniest novels ever written. And now here, amazingly, was a near-perfect adaptation. … The cast was uniformly superb [and] by the final episode … seemed to be moving to some heavenly (if also partly grotesque) harmony. … Of course if you love a novel, it is hard not to watch any adaptation partly by looking for the mistakes.
Murray goes on to consider the case of the presentation of Prendergast’s death. In the novel Waugh put this gruesome topic into the comic context of having Philbrick report it to Paul Pennyfeather in chapel by fitting it into the words of the hymn O God Our Help in Ages Past. That made it funny on the page but may not have worked so well on the screen. So the BBC adaptation came up with a more direct presentation of Prendy’s demise. This ended with a macabre sight gag (not mentioned by Murray) which was one of the funniest moments in the series. And they saved a bit of the chapel scene beloved by Murray when Pennyfeather reports to Philbrick the escape of Grimes from Egdon Heath Prison to the tune of the same hymn. That itself was not as funny as Waugh’s version of the hymn but was reasonable compensation for the modification.
In his conclusion, Murray seemed to agree:
Anyhow – they bottled giving Waugh’s version exactly, as they bottled a tiny number of other things. But it worked fantastically nonetheless, and I will more than forgive them for it. If the BBC can gather a cast of this calibre and make an adaptation able to please even the most pedantic fans, then the BBC is clearly doing something right. I’m tempted to say ‘for this be all thy sins forgiven.’ Which might be overdoing it, but this tour-de-force will certainly put any such sins to the back of the mind for a time.