The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian all make tonight’s first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall recommended viewing. The notice in the Times’s “Viewing Guide” by James Jackson is the most detailed:
Alongside that other academia satire, Lucky Jim, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is one of the 20th century’s great debut novels. It helped to set a template for a strain of English satire in which pompous failures, manipulative women and alcohol conspire to create headaches for the hapless hero. … Jack Whitehall is convincingly bookish in the lead role, but the real fun is in the gallery of grotesques ripping it up around him. His Oxford dons, for example, are stiff-collared fogeys hammed to the hilt by Tim Pigott-Smith and Nickolas Grace (alumnus of another Waugh TV adaptation, Brideshead Revisited). David Suchet is Llanabba’s haughty headmaster…Meanwhile, the pupils are derisive, the common room decaying, and the alcoholic one-legged fellow don Grimes — Douglas Hodge, doing wonders with a potentially problematic character — gets Pennyfeather plastered, advising him to beat any of “the little turds” who put varnish on his chalk (the script is freely adapted). At least things look up when the alluring Mrs Beste-Chetwynde (Eva Longoria) asks him to be private tutor for her boy. What could go wrong? It all adds up to uncomplicated fun that captures hints of Waugh’s sour satirical undertow.
The tabloids also weigh in, with positive notices from the Mirror (“It all makes for a gloriously entertaining period comedy.”), the Evening Standard (“Friday night seems like an odd time for Decline and Fall to be airing. The new BBC comedy-drama boasts a period setting, a warm tone and an impressive cast that surely would nab it a Sunday evening slot – if Line of Duty wasn’t already there to give us all heart palpitations with its fourth series.”) and the Sun which finds Jack Whitehall “elevated to new levels of what he himself calls “proper acting”, and he passes with flying colours…Schoolboy and teacher shenanigans provide the laughs tonight, but things take a darker turn in the next two episodes…”
Radio Times also offers up support in the form of a feature article by Eleanor Bley Griffiths on Oxford’s Bullingdon Club and its inspiration for Waugh’s Bollinger Club in the novel:
When it comes to the real Bullingdon Club, there are no recorded instances of foxes being battered to death with bottles – but the secret society has a long history of bad behaviour….The Bullingdon Club pops up again in Brideshead Revisited (1945) when drunken members try to push Anthony Blanche into a college fountain.
One dissenting voice comes from the New Statesman where Rachel Cooke writing in their TV and Radio column was less than enthusiastic:
Early Evelyn Waugh? No, me neither. But even if I was a fan, I would be slightly mystified by the BBC’s decision to commission an adaptation of his first novel, Decline and Fall (Fridays, 9pm). Why this book, now? The satire is somewhat laboured and it doesn’t score many points in the contemporary relevance stakes…
She finds much to like in the script and the performances (except for that of Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde):
Yet somehow it just never sparks to life. It is very silly and it is very white. How I wish the Beeb had done Scoop (again) instead.
The series starts tonight at 9pm on BBC One and will be available on the internet on BBC iPlayer shortly thereafter.