In a departure from its usual practice, the TLS has added a TV column to its current issue. This contains Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s review, entitled “Vile Buddies,” of the BBC adaptation of Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall which concluded with last night’s Episode 3. Douglas-Fairhurst’s day job is Professor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, so this TLS column may be a departure from his usual reviewing assignment as well.
The review begins with an explanation of how Waugh, rather than meekly accepting his life as an accidental school master, “instead decided to rewrite it.” This produced one of the funniest books in the English language with a “rogue’s gallery of grotesques.” But according to Douglas-Fairhurst:
…the most important character doesn’t have any identifying features or even a name. He is Waugh’s narrator. In an essay he published in 1929, Waugh praised Ronald Firbank’s fiction for its switches between “the wildest extravagance” and “the most austere economy”, and the same is true of his own narrative voice, which lets him describe appalling events without ever being touched by them. It is the artstic equivalent of the comedian’s poker face.
While Douglas-Fairhurst does not suggest that this narrator could have been brought wholesale into the TV adaptation, he does find that
as scripted by the Rev creator James Wood, this is a curiously gloomy affair. Most of the time it sticks closely to its source, and whole lines are lifted straight from the page…Where it moves away from Waugh is its unwillingness to trust the exquisite flatness of his narrative voice.
Small details are dropped and larger elements are spelled out–for example, the script does not leave it to our imaginations that Capt Grimes gets “in the soup”, as Waugh discretely puts it, for being a pederast, but rather has him caught in flagrante with an adult chauffeur in the toolshed. And rather than having young Tangent “grazed” by a bullet, as written by Waugh, the TV version has him shot through the leg, with blood spurting out of the wound. These are elements of an “adaptation that is far too busy explaining Waugh’s novel to listen to it properly.”
It is not clear whether Prof Douglas-Fairhurst had seen Episodes 2 and 3 when he wrote his review, as all his examples are from Episode 1. The adaptors faced a much larger challenge putting those later and significantly darker bits of the novel on the screen while still bearing in mind Waugh’s admonition that the novel “throughout…IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY”. In those episodes, the tinkering with the novel’s details worked successfully in preserving Waugh’s intention that the story overall should be “FUNNY.” Moreover, as these things go, the adaptation comes out fairly close to the novel: the original story suffers relatively few changes in its transference to the screen. No major characters are sacrificed and the plot, such as it is, comes through relatively unscathed. And right to the end, IT IS FUNNY.
Thanks to reader Peggy Troupin for providing a copy of the review.