Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Decline and Fall: a note on the recent BBC adaptation

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was one of the first "grown up" novels I read, a recommendation from my prep school headmaster, who was never one not to stretch an imaginative reader. I loved it, of course, though I had no idea what were the dubious sexual indiscretions Captain Grimes had really been "in the soup" for - I just thought he was a cad.

The recent BBC adaptation, starring Jack Whitehall, was beautifully rendered, and successfully captured the meek nature of Paul Pennyfeather set against the grotesques who people his world. It struck me though that the novel's central image of the big wheel at Luna Park was placed in the wrong mouth. The adaptation gave it partly to the criminal butler, Solomon Philbrick (and I can see why it was dramatically necessary to do so), and partly to Peter Beste-Chetwynde; but Waugh gives it to the architect Otto Silenus, in whose mouth it sits much better:

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

This circular imagery is very common to Waugh: people end where they begin, as Paul's career ends where it began, pointlessly.

Finishing the series on Pennyfeather's resurrection and a new Bollinger outrage was a good idea; but it lost the deep poignancy of Waugh's final scene in which Peter, having newly inherited his uncle's title and become the Earl of Pastmaster, comes into Paul's rooms at Scone College: it's apparent that the young man, whose interest in making cocktails at first seemed so charming, is now fast on the way to becoming an alcoholic:

"You drink too much, Peter."
"Oh damn, what else is there to do?"

One of the only truly close relationships in the novel, between the fatherless Pennyfeather and the fatherless Peter, also remains broken: "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair," where he reads about the "ascetic Ebionites", and Peter, presumably, dashes off into the drunken night. I think the adaptation suggests that Paul has learned from his time in the centre of the wheel: Waugh  suggests that he doesn't; as if, in fact, he has woken from a dream, or as if his "shadow" has returned to his real body (there is a mysterious passage half way through the book where Waugh talks of a moment when Paul becomes "real", and his "shadow" flits off into the second half.) Round and round and round goes the world; with nobody any the wiser.

A final note: I also must speak in defence of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; who in the adaptation is presented as a slippery fellow who'll betray Paul at the first moment. In Waugh he is at least honourable - though he does end up being Margot's lover.

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