Critic and novelist D J Taylor has written an article expressing somewhat nervous anticipation in advance of next week’s premier of BBC’s three-episode version of Decline and Fall. It appears in the Guardian and is entitled “Would Evelyn Waugh have approved of the new TV adaptation?” Taylor recalls Waugh’s previous disappointment with film adaptations–specifically, the Tony Richardson/Terry Southern version of The Loved One. which Waugh refused to see, expressing disappointment that the original plans for a film to be directed by Luis Bunuel and starring Alec Guinness had not gone ahead. The BBC’s new version of D&F
has already stirred the usual mixed emotions among Waugh fans. On the one hand, warm satisfaction at the prospect of an adaptation brought to a TV channel otherwise graced by Mrs Brown’s Boys; on the other hand, a faint but congenital wariness born of the fact that so many dramatisations of the Waugh oeuvre have defied the best intentions of director and cast alike to produce films that, for all their enthusiasm, sell their onlie begetter woefully short.
Following the disappointing film of The Loved One, Taylor catalogues other adaptations starting in the late 1960s, after Waugh’s death, without expressing his opinion of their success one way or the other. He sees some hope in the fact that
It is difficult to go completely adrift with Waugh; dialogue alone is enough to carry a certain amount of weak casting or confusion over the precise satirical point.
Taylor sees some examples of this in Fenella Woolgar’s performance of Agatha Runcible in Stephen Fry’s 2003 adaptation of Vile Bodies. But he wonders how the scriptwriters of D&F will handle Waugh’s “mocking references” to Sebastian Cholmondeley. He points out that the most successful adaptation was ITV’s 1981 Brideshead Revisited where there was less comedy and several big roles that could be played by well-known actors. In the early novels such as D&F the scriptwriters must address the fact that “much of the humour is verbal rather than visual.” He gives as an example of the challenge this poses to scriptwriter James Wood the two-word sign off to the mention of Grimes’ marriage to the headmaster’s daughter: “Nothing happened.” To succeed Wood must triumph “on a battlefield piled with the bones of aspiring screenwriters who, like so many interviewing journalists, went to Waugh and lost.”
UPDATE (28 March 2017): D J Taylor’s article in the Guardian is now available online.