BBC has posted the episode of comedian Russell Kane’s “Evil Genius” podcast series that features a consideration of Evelyn Waugh. The idea is to have a panel decide whether each episode’s subject was more evil or more genius. Previous episodes considered John Lennon and Marie Stopes. The Waugh episode panel consisted of scriptwriter Jolyon Rubinstein and two actresses: Sadie Harrison and Ellie White. The first 5-6 minutes is taken up with determining that none of the panelists had any knowledge or preconceived notion of Waugh, the person or the writer, beyond some familiarity with Brideshead Revisited. Kane never established, however, any discipline over the panel who consistently spoke over each other, making the podcast difficult to follow.
Kane tried to begin what never comes close to resembling a discussion by reading an example of what he considers Waugh’s flawless prose. The sample he selects comes from near the end of Brideshead Revisited (1960 C&H ed., p. 333):
…perhaps all our loves are hints and symbols; vagabond-language inscribed on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
Having established Waugh’s writing genius, Kane tries to give a very brief summary of his life and works. Then he launches into the “evil” side of the balance, and the panel become fully engaged: he was snobbish, cruel, a bully, racist and antisemitic, misanthropic–pleasant to read but unpleasant in person. Kane confesses his own snobbishness when, growing up on a council estate, he always wished to belong to the middle class, whereas the middle class Waugh always wished to be part of the upper class. Then, as an example of Waugh’s cruelty, Kane describes his treatment of his son Auberon after he was wounded in the Army. Evelyn not only refused to visit Auberon (although it is not mentioned that he was hospitalized in Cyprus) but, after receiving a letter from Auberon in which he expresses gratitude to his father in contemplation of what was then thought to be his imminent death, Evelyn cut off Auberon’s allowance. Kane never got the panel away from obsessing over this particular bit of seemingly gratuitous child neglect. One of them thought even naming his son “Auberon” was an example of cruelty.
SPOILER ALERT: Those who want to listen to the 27-minute podcast should stop here. When Kane took a poll of the panel, they voted unanimously that Evelyn Waugh was more evil than genius. My own guess is that Kane himself would have voted the other way but was too effective at being devil’s (or evil’s) advocate.