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The Problem with the BBC's adaptation of Decline and Fall


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Oh dear. Mind you, I suppose it was an unlikely marriage, wasn’t it? An impeccably modern and decent and correct broadcaster adapting a novel by one of the most caustic wits ever to have graced the English language. 

Waugh loathed much of the modern, which he considered to be indecent and incorrect. This isn’t fully realised in Decline and Fall, Waugh’s first novel (published when he was just 24), but one can still find the germinal feeling.

It buds in Brideshead Revisited, where the beautiful Sebastian Flyte squanders youth and charm on indigence in his flight from old traditions and obligations; and Charles Ryder, having lost Sebastian, finds fame painting old country houses before their inevitable sale and conversion into flats. He finds, in the end, that the path he once trod has split and diverged; the world has gone one way, and he another.

In Scoop (1938), the provincial William Boot, who writes quaint nature notes for The Daily Beast, is mistaken for a fashionable novelist and transplanted from his old world to the new, sensationalist milieu of the modern correspondents, to hilarious effect.

And the sentiment blooms in Men at Arms, of the Sword of Honour trilogy, where Guy Crouchback finds his cause in the outbreak of WWII. “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”

This loathing and contempt is essential to Waugh’s humour, his satire and parody. If you don’t get that, you don’t get Waugh.

Adapting his works without that understanding leaves you with… Well, the BBC’s Decline and Fall; an inexpensive, unfunny almost-parody of Jeeves and Wooster. Waugh was heavily influenced by Wodehouse, of course, but it is his humour, and the beliefs and prejudices which underlay it, that make him more than a simple mimic of light-hearted Wodehousian farce.

The BBC, which some still call Auntie, would fit well as a character in any number of his books. As an old and desperate Lady, say, whom beauty and fertility have abandoned, who dresses like a woman half her age and holds all the most fashionable opinions.

Or an old country house – perhaps even King’s Thursday itself – taken over by a relation, probably American, as distant from the first family as she is from good, traditional taste, and who demolishes the old house and commissions in its place something soulless, something “clean and square” (for nothing “is more bourgeois and awful than timbered Tudor architecture”). She hires a young architect, one of undoubted genius but nebulous talent, who, in pursuit of perfection – which, he believes, involves the removal of the “human element” – erects a “surprising creation of ferno-concrete and aluminium.”

That woman, or that building, is the BBC. Decline and Fall has been adapted by the very thing it parodies, a modern and fashionable institution, run by a modern and fashionable clique. And it shows.

Some of Waugh’s opinions, and many of those given or lent to his characters, were barely tenable even in the ‘20s. They might, if uttered today, see one indicted for ‘hate speech’.

Waugh was a brilliant satirist, of course; he knew well that the higher classes, left to their own fashionable circles, could behave in the most classless manner; cruelty, violence and bitterness taint them, and taint the jokes made at their expense. Again, if you don’t get this, you don’t get Waugh and you don’t get his books.

But here another problem presents itself, for it is now the case that untenable views and opinions may be held in private but not expressed or discovered, even by fictional characters who exist only to be ridiculed.

So, in Decline and Fall, Dr. Fagan’s wonderful ‘analysis’ of the Welsh is almost entirely neutered. The relatively innocuous observation – that the Welsh produce no art, “they just sing” – remains, having been preferred (doubtless for reasons of pleasantry) to this:

“From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with humankind except their own blood relations. In Wales there was no need for legislation to prevent the conquering people intermarrying with the conquered..." 

Naturally, if one is so averse to harming the feelings even of the Welsh then the overt racism of the vicar – who says of Chokey, Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde’s guest and temporary lover, that “the mistake was ever giving them their freedom. They were much happier and better looked after before.” – will find no place in the adaptation. And if there’s no room for that, then how will it cope with the pederasty of Captain Grimes, which forms so much of the book’s sinister yet tragically funny subtext? One might tactfully suggest that pederasty is something the BBC knows quite a bit about, yet this knowledge is almost certainly considered dreadful rather than useful.

Because the whole thing has been defanged, the show is deprived of any meaningful contrast. Dr. Fagan’s mild-mannered response to the unfortunate boy who has been shot in the foot by the starting pistol – “get him some cake” – is mildly amusing, but is much more so in the context of a book which has at least exposed us to its opposite.

The whole thing is entirely too self-aware, and is so because it is concerned with being likeable. Far from exposing its characters and their behaviour to ridicule, it renders too many of them as being conscious of their plight. The opening sequence, with the dons observing the destruction wrought by the Bollinger Club, who quickly work out that the college would profit more from fines were the Club to attack the Chapel, is made less funny by the don's participation in the joke. These are not people acting as they do but as they should for comic effect.

All of which combines to betray the spirit of Waugh’s book. Whilst Waugh ridiculed the fashionable – and did so in part out of bitterness at his own exclusion from the circles he mocks – the adaptation indulges in fashionable ridicule. The pig’s head hurled from the window by the Bollinger Club is the consummate exemplar of the problem; everyone laughs at Cameron and the pig, because it’s perfectly safe and acceptable to do so.

But everyone, here, represents the fashionable carelessness and superficiality of the modern. The BBC has aimed to adapt Waugh for a modern audience; it has succeeded only in making itself the target of the joke. Waugh is long in the grave, but his satire is as potent today as ever.

Decline and Fall airs on BBC One.

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