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TV Review: Decline and Fall (Series 1, Episode 1)


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Evelyn Waugh’s debut novel, Decline and Fall, has been a solid addition to the satirical canon since its publication in 1928.

Now, for the first time, it will hit screens as the BBC launch the first televisual adaptation of the classic.

The plot follows the trials and tribulations of Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall) as he is dismissed from Oxford University for indecent exposure, after becoming the victim of a prank by the Bullingdon Club. At a loose end, he finds himself off to a rainy corner of Wales to teach at a run-down public boarding school. He joins forces with two hapless teachers, and falls in love with Mrs Beste-Chetwynde (Eva Longoria). He agrees to tutor her son over the summer holidays, and adventure and even more misfortune follows.

Each episode sees Paul in a different scenario. The first follows him at the public school - he gets to grips with teaching boys a few years his junior without any teaching experience, and helps run a pretty diabolical sports day, all whilst slowly becoming friends with two of the country’s worst teachers, Captain Grimes and Mr Pendergast.

It’s the dynamic of this trio that really pulls the programme together. Whitehall joins forces with Douglas Hodge and Vincent Franklin to create a group of unlikely, ineffective Masters operating in a useless school run by Poirot’s David Suchet. Together, they’re hilarious. In some ways, you can’t help but feel that their dynamic matches that of their characters.

Franklin is great as the pessimistic, toupee-wearing Prendy, and the contrast between this and the brusque and domineering nature of Grimes is brilliant. The chemistry between the two is electric. They’re both fantastic actors - the range of Hodge (he has previously played King Lear and Willy Wonka) makes itself clear in this comic performance.

As Fagan, the bumbling Principal who thinks of his school in very grand terms, Suchet is brilliant. His work with Whitehall is strong, as the two and their characters are polar opposites, exaggerating the humour of their interactions. Stephen Graham as a slightly criminal butler provides some comic tension to the group, and for fans of Game of Thrones - watch out for Yara (otherwise known as Gemma Whelan).

More than anything else, Decline and Fall is just pure entertainment. It’s hilarious - thanks in large part to the talent of writer, James Wood and his scripting. It’s no easy feat to condense Waugh into episodes, and there’s certainly pressure when working with something as well loved as Decline and Fall. He’s definitely risen to the challenge. The script is updated and brilliant, featuring some great contemporary references, including The Bullingdon’s tribute to David Cameron.

Decline and Fall has the ability to embed you in the world of Waugh. Costumes and locations work seamlessly together, making the programme feel strangely like a period drama. Period comedies are a rarer breed at the moment, so this is welcome.

It’s a long overdue adaptation, but the first episode is slightly let down by a slight stagnancy that plagues it. There’s no real push forward, no drive, and around 40 minutes in I found myself checking my watch and growing slightly restless. It picked up the pace not long after, but the action of the last few minutes felt rushed after a much slower 20 minutes.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to future episodes.

Decline and Fall will debut on BBC One, at 9pm on Friday 31st March.

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