There was gentle entertainment on Friday evening BBC One – well, superficially gentle, at any rate. True, the Beeb’s three-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall has all the dulcet strings, cut-glass accents and easy-on-the eye sartorial and architectural trappings you’d expect of expensive period drama. But in setting out to do that masterpiece of social satire full justice, it has also been sure to keep its teeth commendably sharp…Waugh is tricky to get right on screen, but there was barely a bum note in this lovingly crafted hour of elegant, acidulous entertainment. One suspects Mr W would have approved.
Although not mentioned in the review, there were more adjustments needed in the script for this episode than were required in Episode 1. For one thing, there is less dialogue in the chapters of the novel covered by the latest episode. Characters such as Otto Silenus and Sir Hupmphrey Maltravers are consequently given more lines than they had in the novel and a new character is introduced known only as “Tom (Reporter).” He is a gossip columnist Margot has barred from her parties, but he talks his way past Paul Pennyfeather and shows up dressed as an Arab. Paul later uses Tom to leak a story about Otto’s affair with Pamela Popham as a means of squelching Margot’s impending engagement to Otto. Tom (a possible allusion to Driberg?) seems like a fugitive from Waugh’s next novel Vile Bodies, as does Margot’s recitation of various sorts of themed parties she has been attending. There are fewer laughs in this episode, but the same is true of this part of the novel. A few things are regretfully lost: more might have been done, for example, with Waugh’s satirization of modern art via Otto’s design of King’s Thursday instead of having Paul reluctantly play a piece of ear torturing “modern” music on the piano at the urging of several of the guests. The funniest part of that scene was his improvisation for a title of his piece which he declared to be “The Fat Lady from Stuttgart” after quickly looking round the room and joining together the first two things he saw.
Sadly, the same day this episode was broadcast, the papers carried the story of the death of one of the cast members. This was Tim Piggott-Smith who played Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean of Scone College, in a cameo appearance in Episode 1. He may also appear [Spoiler Alert!] in the final episode when Paul returns to Oxford. According to his obituary, at the time he died, Piggot-Smith was rehearsing the part of Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman for a production scheduled to open later this month in Northampton.
Finally, the Guardian has reproduced an excerpt from a recent book about English boarding schools. This is Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class by Alex Renton. The author manages to work the BBC’s adaptation of Decline and Fall into the excerpted text:
Decline and Fall features fiction’s first account of another traditional cast member of the boarding school drama, the predatory Captain Grimes. His actual crime is only hinted at in the novel; the BBC’s current rollicking TV adaptation is much more open about the “peg-legged pederast”. But the sophisticated reader would have had no problem understanding what Grimes did – and had been sacked from the army and many boarding schools for doing. Grimes is acclaimed as one of the century’s greatest comic creations. In his diaries, Waugh writes with loving admiration of Grimes’s original, the disgraced former army officer WRB “Dick” Young. A serial molester, certainly, but also, according to Waugh, a resourceful and witty man of “shining candour”, and they remained friends until Decline and Fall was published. Later, by way of revenge, Young wrote a school novel in which Waugh was the paedophile teacher.
UPDATE (9 April 2017): Deborah Ross writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail agreed with the Telegraph’s critic about the BBC’s Decline and Fall adaptation:
…this adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel is still an absolute delight. The tone is just right, with everyone acting from the same register – that is, comically, but without ever descending into caricature.
And the New York Times reports in its obituary of Tim Piggott-Smith that he appears in two films yet to be released: Abdul and Victoria (with Judi Dench) and King Charles III (a TV film reprising his stage performance).