Decline and Fall and British Humour

Writing in Standpoint magazine (“War on Waugh”), Waugh’s great grand-daughter Constance Watson expresses dismay at the reaction to the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall which recently concluded its three-episode run on BBC One (emphasis supplied):

The great British sense of humour — once renowned for its unwavering ability to identify and mock the absurd, its unparalleled propensity to ridicule the institutions upon which our society is built — is dying. … This tragic turn of events has been brewing for a while. … so it is with particular interest that I witnessed the barrage of condemnation that swirled across cyberspace following the broadcast of the first episode [of the BBC’s Decline and Fall]. Waugh was denounced as a racist, a snob, an anti-Semite and — less imaginatively — a conservative. And it wasn’t just the puritans on social media that leapt to vilify him. Alex Larman went further: “Waugh’s depiction of  1920s high society means very little to modern readers.”

Can it be so? … [Waugh’s] shrewd ability to capture the eccentricities of human conduct despite the 90 years that separates his fiction and our reality should serve to remind us of our infinite absurdities. So let us remember that: we are all ridiculous. And let’s keep laughing — before it’s too late, and we forget how to. 

Ms Watson must be referring largely to comments on social media rather than the print and broadcast media. The papers and weeklies were almost uniformly positive.  The only totally negative journal was Radio Times. The New Statesman published a critical review by Rachel Cooke but followed with a SRSLY podcast which was more favorable.  The TLS published a mixed review by an Oxford Eng Lit professor, but he was more concerned that the BBC had over-explained the humour and felt it would have been preferable to take the text as written. The other papers (including the broadsheets, weeklies and tabloids) and literary weblogs were more positive than not and several published multiple reviews. That was also the case with the Guardian and Observer–they had multiple favorable reviews and a critical editorial. See previous posts. Your correspondent missed the Guardian article cited by Watson, but it was not a review–more of a reconsideration of the novel, published on 20 March 2008, before the TV series had been conceived. Here’s a link. Watson has taken Alex Larman’s article out of context, and it deserves a fuller consideration (emphasis supplied):

…It is … true that after Decline and Fall, Waugh never wrote anything so uncomplicatedly funny again. … Along with Lucky Jim and A Confederacy Of Dunces, Decline And Fall is surely one of the greatest debut comic novels of the last century. … One of the reasons why the book possibly isn’t as popular today as it has been is that it can be argued that Waugh’s depiction of a world of 20s high society means very little to modern readers, and that the arch dialogue and authorial commentary make it difficult to care about any of the characters. This seems an unfair criticism. …

It’s possible another reason that the book isn’t as appreciated as it should be is that it has never been adapted for TV; the only version of it is an appalling film that has never been released on DVD. … It’s possible to imagine it working brilliantly with a younger David Tennant as Pennyfeather, Stephen Fry as Dr Fagan and someone very short “of about thirty, with a short red moustache, and slightly bald” to play Grimes. I quite like the idea of Toby Jones, who already proved in Infamous how skilled he was at portraying undesirable literary figures.

That’s hardly vilification. And Larman leaves it open to consider that the BBC’s adaptation, while not following his own casting prescriptions, may contribute something toward rehabilitating Waugh’s reputation among the “modern readers” to whom he refers. One wonders how many of the social media commenters on whom Watson apparently relies for her “barrage of condemnation” read anything much longer than a Twitter post. Tip of the hat once again to David Lull for sending us a link.

UPDATE (30 April 2017): In rereading the Alex Larman article in the Guardian for another purpose, I noticed that it was dated 20 March 2008, long before the BBC TV series had even been mooted. My renewed interest in the article was based on the fact that Larman thought Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name would be pronounced “Beast Chained” rather than “Beest Cheating”, as in the BBC’s adaptation. The Guardian’s search engine has a habit of resurrecting stories with renewed relevance from long past editions but without any warning that they are from the past.

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