Evelyn Waugh’s friend and fellow novelist Nancy Mitford once wrote of his sense of humor: “Even his close friends were not spared. He criticized everyone fiercely and was a terrible tease, but he set about it in such an amusing way that his teasing was easily forgiven.” If Waugh was congenitally unable to resist putting the boot in, the abuse managed to tickle those on the receiving end, or at least cause them to take notice of the skill. In his novels and, to a degree, in his life as well, Waugh turned grumpiness into charm.
His brand of humor works best on the page; like his contemporary P. G. Wodehouse, Waugh perfected a brand of verbal comedy that’s most amusing in its original form. Unlike his more dramatic works, notably Brideshead Revisited, which inspired a successful 1981 miniseries, Waugh’s comedic efforts have fared poorly on screen. A delightful exception, however, has arrived in the three-part TV miniseries of Decline and Fall, which in the U.K. aired on the BBC this spring and in the U.S. has just arrived on the superb streaming service Acorn TV, which along with the competing service Britbox is an indispensable addition to the TV menu for fans of both current and classic British series.
Decline and Fall, Waugh’s first novel, published when he was only 24, is a mordant bildungsroman about the travails of Paul Pennyfeather, an ordinary (and in truth somewhat dull) middle-class Oxford student who gets expelled in 1928 after he is victimized by upper-class pranksters who strip him naked and force him to sprint back to his rooms in the altogether. Because his classmates can afford to pay fines, they are not only forgiven but celebrated (the punishment for their vandalism generates cash to pay for more port for the dons). Paul, lacking funds to pay fines, is instead banished for gross moral turpitude and directed to share the sad fate of others sent down from university: teaching teenaged boys.
The TV adaptation gets Waugh’s humor exactly right: pugnacious and genteel, shocking yet understated, viciously deadpan, awash with fondness and cruelty. Somehow Waugh is both vicious and wistful about his days at Oxford, and later teaching at a “public school,” as the Brits call their private ones. At a North Wales academy of exceedingly modest reputation, Paul (played with impeccable naïvety by Jack Whitehall) finds his lot has been cast in with an assortment of n’er-do-wells who have sought refuge there with various degrees of shame to hide. Fellow pedagogue Captain Grimes (a hilarious Douglas Hodge) is a voluble drunkard, forever “in the soup,” who confesses he was nearly shot during the Great War “for something I did.” When an officer pressed a revolver into his hand and urged him to do the correct thing, he recalls, “It was a bit hairy for a moment.” That line (not present in the original but added in James Wood’s able script) shows a real sense for perhaps the most English of humor techniques — the colossal understatement.
Adhering to that dry tone throughout instead of seeking to punch up Waugh by making the jokes more visual is exactly the right choice. (Grimes, by the way, survived the war because his superior officers learned he had attended one of the best public schools — Harrow.) Later, Grimes confesses with a twinkle in his eye, he lost a leg in conflict with a tram. “Drink had been taken,” he says, without much regret, as though the incident amounted to a bit of a lark. The students are under the impression Grimes lost the leg at Gallipoli.
Waugh can be astonishingly nasty in passing — the hapless boy Lord Tangent loses a foot at school because a drunken master shoots him at the starting line of a race with what was supposed to be a starter’s pistol, and his mother Lady Circumference hardly bats an eye. But the studiously blasé attitude shown by all, to everything, is what makes it so funny; no real harm, it seems, can come to these silly people who refuse to acknowledge suffering in the first place. (The decision made by the series’ director Guillem Morales actually to show the gangrenous foot as surgeons put a saw to it seems to me a mistake; it’s blunt rather than blithe, and yet it isn’t even the most gruesome scene Morales stages.)
Gliding from one mishap to another, Paul falls in love with an aristocratic widow (Eva Longoria) who is the mother of one of his students and counts among her vapid fashionable friends a Brutalist German architect who says things like, “I love her as much as I love concrete.” When Paul winds up in prison (his only real crime being his naïvety), the narrow strip of window in a cell echoes the architect’s favored technique of building homes with light punitively rationed through narrow windows, and some of his old colleagues from the school turn up at the prison as well.
Waugh may have been keenly aware of class divisions — the mere son of a publisher, the novelist felt the sting of social inferiority among the aristocracy and later used his wealth and status to affect the “persona of a duke,” according to his biographer Philip Eade — but Decline and Fall sublimates that obsession. It’s a brilliant exercise in satirical leveling in which everyone in England seems to be drinking from the same well of absurdity. The TV adaptation is so faithful to Waugh’s glorious silliness that it ought to function as a gateway drug to his other work.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.