BBC’s Decline and Fall Reviewed in The Tablet and The Spectator

Two of the weeklies are the first off the mark with reviews of Episode 1 of BBC One’s Decline and Fall adaptation the day before it airs. These are by James Delingpole in The Spectator and Lucy Lethbridge in The Tablet and both are highly favorable. Lethbridge likes Jack Whitehall’s portrayal of Paul Pennyfeather and James Wood’s script adaptation but finds particularly praiseworthy the numerous supporting actors who:

…play to the hilt the gallery of grotesques that populate the lonely corridors of Llanabba. And how they have enjoyed themselves. David Suchet, splendidly, madly, off-kilter with an air of distracted distinction that hides an ineptitude of gothic proportions, is magnificent as the headmaster Dr Fagan. Douglas Hodge, once a stalwart young man of the 1990s classic drama, has adapted to middle-age triumphantly with a glorious performance as the ghastly, tragic, deluded Captain Grimes. …Then there is Mr Prendergast, “Prendy”, battered by religious doubts, the meaning of meaning, whose toupee has lost him every scrap of authority he ever had: “I don’t think anyone would fall in love unless they’d been told about it.”

Lethbridge’s only disappointment is Eva Longoria in the role of Margot Beste-Chetwynde (“too slight and uncharismatic next to the rich character parts playing alongside her. Her accent is all over the place and she mouths the words rather than understanding them.”) It should be recalled however that Margot is an outsider. Waugh described her as South American so one would expect some accent slippage. And her character as written by Waugh lacks the comic depth of the others.

Delingpole was skeptical of Whitehall’s ability to portray Pennyfeather with sufficient nuance but is in the end well pleased with his performance:

I’m happy to report that young Jack (still only 28, the bastard) has done Waugh proud. He has produced a performance, his most mature to date, entirely in the service of the part — which is to say, self-effacing, mildly bewildered, almost cipher-like in its modesty. Pennyfeather’s job, after all, is to act as the bemused butt of Waugh’s sadistic humour. The world is a cruel and unjust place, Waugh had already realised by the time (at 24) he published his first bestseller. Pennyfeather is his part autobiographical hero, part torture victim.

Delingpole also foresaw the difficulty of adapting a book which combined comedy with a pronounced darkness:

… the bleakness and callousness of Waugh’s world view which is — I suspect — tinged with not a little self-hatred. Waugh at Oxford — and he wasn’t the only one here present who felt that way — had more socially in common with Pennyfeather than he did with the Bollinger boys. … Get the tone even slightly wrong and you’d either end up with something queasily discomfiting or with something where all the jokes fall flat because everyone is just a caricature for whom you never really care. With this quite superb adaptation —scripted by James Wood (creator of Rev) — you do care because he has played it absolutely dead straight.

He expresses some disappointment in the apparent de-emphasis in the part of Chokey, Margot’s black lover, but can see how that may have been necessary: “This is the 1920s, after all — autres temps, autres moeurs.” The series starts tomorrow on BBC 1 at 9pm.

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