A Superb Adaptation from the Writer of Rev That Gets Waugh’s Ugly but Hilarious Satire Just Right by Playing It Dead Straight

Vincent Franklin (Mr Prendergast), Jack Whitehall (Paul Pennyfeather) and Douglas Hodge (Captain Grimes) in ‘Decline and Fall’
Vincent Franklin (Mr Prendergast), Jack Whitehall (Paul Pennyfeather) and Douglas Hodge (Captain Grimes) in ‘Decline and Fall’

Autres temps, autres moeurs.

Jack Whitehall could have been perfectly awful as Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall (BBC1, Fridays). He has spent most of his career comically playing up to a common person’s idea of what a posh person looks like: the stand-up who went to the same public school (Marlborough) as Kate Middleton; JP, the Jack-Wills-wearing yah character from Fresh Meat, who went to Stowe; Alfie, the impeccably upper-middle-class, Mumford & Sons-loving history teacher, in Bad Education.

But Evelyn Waugh’s class humour is more sophisticatedly snobbish than that, written for a more discerning audience in the days — sigh — when even semi-educated people knew the order of precedence between a duke, a marquess, an earl and, say, a common-or-garden baron. Would Whitehall, lowly son of a mere theatrical agent, really be up to such subtleties? Or would he overplay it as yet another lovable, mugging Hooray?

Well, I’m happy to report that young Jack (still only 28, the bastard) has done Waugh proud. He has produced a performance, his most mature to date, entirely in the service of the part — which is to say, self-effacing, mildly bewildered, almost cipher-like in its modesty. Pennyfeather’s job, after all, is to act as the bemused butt of Waugh’s sadistic humour. The world is a cruel and unjust place, Waugh had already realised by the time (at 24) he published his first bestseller. Pennyfeather is his part autobiographical hero, part torture victim.

You see him play both roles in the glorious opening scene where the Bollinger (i.e. the Bullingdon) is holding one of its booze-ups, ‘baying for broken glass’, and Pennyfeather, a mildly studious, tweedy undergrad destined for the clergy, makes the mistake of walking across his college quad at just the wrong moment. His punishment is to be brutally debagged.

Afterwards, we see the college authorities discussing how to punish this terrible crime. By which, of course, they don’t mean the raucous toffs — who are immune because they can afford to buy their way out with fines — but Pennyfeather who, by allowing himself to become a victim in so vulgar a way, has proved himself quite unworthy of the college. Naturally, the only thing to do is send him down. ‘I expect you’ll want to become a schoolmaster,’ says the mildly sympathetic college porter as he hands back his room key. ‘That’s what most of the young gentlemen does that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.’

This is classic Waugh, his voice and humour already fully developed

Read the rest at the Spectator.