The reviews of the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall continue to pile up after last night’s transmission of Episode One. These are nearly all favorable. There was a split decision in the Guardian. An editorial thought the project misguided:
That BBC1 has decided to remake Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 masterpiece Decline and Fall as Friday night television is both good and bad news for viewers. The satirical novel of innocence crucified and risen is brilliantly witty. But we live increasingly in a world of social conflict that is ripe for dramatisation, yet often evades characterisation on screen. Instead we escape into a past or a fantasy imagined far in the future or just far away.
Their reviewer Sam Wollaston on the other hand thought otherwise:
There’ll be a hoo-ha about this adaptation, of course – the usual one. How can a work so dependent on the wit of the written word translate to the screen, the Waugh-mongers will cry. But this shouldn’t be seen as an alternative; it’s more a companion piece. Of course it doesn’t all go in, and will be lighter for it. But having reskimmed the novel, I’d say that Rev creator James Wood has done an excellent job. This is less adaptation and more like a damn good edit, which manages to retain verbal nimbleness as well as the novel’s essence and spirit (plus a little light racial awkwardness). And as for tossing a pig’s head into the opening scene with the Bollinger boys, well, I think that’s allowed, as well as further adding to modern political relevance. In fact, can you hear it, beyond the hoo-ha, coming from the ha-ha, where the author is buried, in Somerset? Actually, you can’t, because it’s not noise but silence – the sound of Waugh not turning in his grave.
Similar notices appeared in several news websites including iNews (Jeff Robson), The Huffington Post (Caroline Frost), and Arts Desk (Mark Sanderson). A dissenting voice was Ben Dowell in Radio Times who writes that the novel:
…is a dark read at times, bit it is also side-splittingly hilarious. Full of black humour, cruel satire and memorable caricature, the book is epic in scale but fabulous in its detail. I defy anyone to read the scene involving the Llanabba silver band and the school sports day without falling off their chair laughing. Pennyfeather’s plight is also strangely moving, as is the fate of some of the poor boys at the awful school. Waugh once said that every good novel could be written on two postcards – and if any aspiring writer needs an exercise in concision and comic timing then this is it.
So what about the TV adaptation which starts on BBC1 on Sunday? Well, it is a very expensive, beautifully-directed production stuffed with some excellent performances. But I am not sure it works…James Wood’s script unfortunately feels as flat as a pancake. It comes across as little more than a strung-together collection of Waugh’s best scenes, his lines of dialogue trotted out but never really flying (the school sports day in episode one is quite funny – how could it not be? – but nothing as hilarious as the reading of it).Waugh is so much more than his dialogue anyway. The pleasure of his masterpiece is in his narration – his descriptions, his nuances, his heavy irony, the dripping richness of his evocations, the way he hides his jokes. He’s so good, in my view, that it is probably impossible to adapt – so we can’t blame Wood entirely. But the sad fact is that it doesn’t really come together and, like Prendy, I have my doubts about whether this will attract a new fan base for Waugh. But I hope I’m wrong.
Your correspondent would have to disagree with Radio Times. The adaptation was accurate, no major characters or scenes were sacrificed, the settings were true to form, much original dialogue was saved, and the performances excellent (for the most past). It is sad that more could not have been made of the Llanabba Silver Band but at least they were present. The most brilliant performance was the brief appearance of Kevin Eldon as Mr Levy the school recruiter. He was even funnier than the novel. But close behind was David Suchet as Dr Fagan. In addition to the pitch-perfect delivery of dialogue from the novel, Suchet’s Dr Fagan responded to several of Chokey’s remarks with a simple affirmative: “He do. He do.” That was also funnier than the novel in circumstances where a direct translation into the script of Waugh’s dialogue involving Chokey could have been awkward and cringe making. The only disappointment was a minor one. Lady Circumferance (played by Ashley McGuire) didn’t sound like Lady Circumference does on the page. She looked the part and delivered dialogue as written by Waugh, but her voice was not sufficiently over the toff.