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.
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