The latest episode of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row featured a discussion of the network’s TV adaptation of Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall. Presenter Stig Abell interviewed scriptwriter James Wood and literary critic Suzi Feay, who writes for the Financial Times. The discussion takes place at the beginning of the broadcast and continues until about 11:00 minutes. Among the topics covered are Wood’s use of elements of Waugh’s novel in his script (answer: he used a lot). Feay is asked to put the novel, published in 1928, into the literary context of the time and to describe how Waugh’s style is translated to the screen. Abell characterizes the book as if “written by P G Wodehouse in a very bad mood,” and both guests respond by discussing the difficulty of putting some of that mood into the script, with particular reference to the character of Chokey and Waugh’s frequent jokes about the Welsh. A point is also made about the addition to the story of the pig’s head thrown from a window at Scone College in the opening scenes. Much has been said of that particular update in light of recent stories about the Bullingdon Club and Tory politicians. But it happens so quickly in the TV version that your correspondent didn’t notice it until a second viewing, even though he was watching for it.
The Sunday papers have printed reviews of the first episode. Euan Ferguson writing in the Observer’s review of the week’s TV is the most upbeat:
A grand surprise arrived on Friday in the shape of Decline and Fall. It shouldn’t, perhaps, have been that much of a surprise, given that the man responsible for adapting Evelyn Waugh’s first published (and most splenetically Welsh-hating, liberal-baiting) novel was James Wood, also responsible for the ever-subtle Rev., and that the casting was able to plumb such glorious heights as Stephen Graham, Douglas Hodge, David Suchet and Eva Longoria. For once, an adaptation caught Waugh’s inner voice, that singular interwar fruity whine of pomp, self-pity and high intellect, the all leavened by an utterly redemptive sense of the absurdity of the human condition, particularly Waugh’s own. Crucially, this was achieved without resort to the artifice of narrative voiceover, à la Brideshead. Wood just picked his quotes very cleverly. …
What emerges is a true comic fantasy, yes, but also one which captures that dreadful damp twixt-war tristesse: a certain boredom with politics, a certain class obsession, an irresolute yet total anger at… something. An End of Days. This BBC production, in which all excel, is thrillingly timely, given our fractious nation’s rude recent decision to Decline, and Flail, and also gives trembling hope that, finally, we might get a faithful rendition of the wisest funny novel of the 20th century, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
Louis Wise reviewing the week’s TV in the Sunday Times spends most of his column on the overrated and increasingly tedious BBC police series Line of Duty but manages to spare a bit of space for Decline and Fall which he found to be
… a jovial three-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, dating from 1928. As a Waugh fan, I was sceptical, but I have to say the cast are doing well so far, and many of the author’s lines remain as funny on screen as on the page. I fear, though, that any TV version will make this too cosy, too cartoonish. The book is certainly a caper, but it’s rendered superior by Waugh’s dark, cruel underlying tone. If we lose that, it’s just fancy dress.
In the Times’s Saturday edition, another critic (Hugo Rifkind), was somewhat more cautious:
… If I have a complaint, it’s that the whole thing threatens, just sometimes, to get a bit wacky. Waugh isn’t wacky. He is dark and bleak and hurt, and his best humour is positively suicidal. It’s the howl of a moralist adrift among blithe savages, who cannot live with his own unavoidable conclusion that all these terrible stupid bastards are better people than him. This series may appeal to people who fondly remember Fry and Laurie’s flawless Jeeves and Wooster, and there would be no particular shame in that. I’d prefer a bit of conflicted hate too, though. That’s what Waugh is good for.
The Sunday Telegraph’s review opened with this:
It’s all but 90 years since it was published, but Evelyn Waugh’s glintingly satirical debut novel still manages to feel more contemporary and relevant than much of the BBC’s Friday night comic output. This adaptation by Rev creator James Wood does it justice, tiptoeing skillfully through Waugh’s minefield of scabrous humour…
And finally in the Daily Mail, Deborah Ross found the adaptation
…a hoot and a riot. It’s satirical without ever spelling stuff out. And it’s been updated with some sly, modern jokes. The pig’s head flying out of the window was a dig at David Cameron, right? And I laughed and laughed and laughed…