By Will Barber Taylor
Paul Pennyfeather was set upon a quiet life of contemplation as a priest, so it comes as a shock when he is unceremoniously expelled from Oxford University through no fault of his own.
Without a private fortune to fall back on, Paul is forced to take a position as a teacher at a substandard boarding school in rural Wales. All too quickly it becomes apparent that Paul is not a natural disciplinarian. He finds scant comfort in drinking – to excess – with the other teachers.
Things start to look up, however, when Paul meets Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a wealthy widow and a mother to one of the boys at the school. Could it be that the attraction Paul feels for Margot is returned? Could his fortunes be changing?
Cast out of the dreaming spires of Oxford, Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall)’s descent into the realms of boarding school hell is brought vividly to life by the BBC’s new adaptation of Decline and Fall. Based on Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, the story follows Pennyfeather’s progress from life as a future vicar to one of increasingly morally ambiguous escapades. The first episode begins with Pennyfeather being sent down for accidental exposure when the Bollinger Club, Waugh’s own version of the Bullingdon, strips Pennyfeather of his trousers. The delight expressed by two of Scone College’s tutors at the Bollinger’s destructive behaviour because it will lead to them to being fined is brilliantly played by Tim Pigott Smith and Nickolas Grace. The satirical exposure of universities being more interested in taking money from their students rather than educating them feels as relevant now as it did during Waugh’s own stay at Oxford in the 1920s.
Pennyfeather’s forced rehabilitation at Llanabba, an obscure and underfunded public school in Wales is where the real comic satire begins. Pennyfeather is forced into teaching all manner of subjects he is grossly unqualified for by the colourful headmaster Doctor Fagin (played with relish by David Suchet). Pennyfeather is more hindered than aided by the other members of the staff, Captain Grimes (Douglas Hodge) and the former vicar Prendergast (Vincent Franklin). Grimes in particular is well served by this adaptation; his leering, drunken nature is never over the top but always in keeping with Waugh’s depiction of the character. Hodge’s performance fully realises the character and injects every ounce of odious humour into Grimes – there is particular emphasis on his wooden leg. This is a wonderful comic device that is well used throughout the adaptation.
The performances by the rest of the cast are similarly excellent; Whitehall’s Pennyfeather perfectly balances banal innocence with utter horror at the situation he finds himself in with Whitehall using this to its full advantage. Suchet’s Fagan is also a delight to watch – his simpering manner and delightfully camp walk add to the image of Fagan as a prima donna who thinks she’s at the Alhambra but is in fact in a pub in Hackney.
Not only is Decline and Fall a wonderfully faithful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel, it is also a sign that the BBC have remembered how to adapt comic novels. After the rather obnoxious and cartoonish version of P.G Wodehouse’s Blandings novels, it seemed as if the only way the BBC would produce any greater comic adaptations would be if they were dumbed down – Decline and Fall proves that they haven’t. The new adaptation of Decline and Fall is a joyful satire that will be enjoyed for years to come.
With thanks to BBC Media.