By ALEXANDER LARMAN
The news that Evelyn Waugh’s first and, to many, most beloved novel Decline and Fall is to be adapted by the BBC, fifty years after his death, was met with a mixed response. On the credit side, the writer is the estimable James Wood, whose sitcom Rev exhibited a knack for wit and absurdity that stands him in good stead. A supporting cast that includes David Suchet and Douglas Hodge breeds similar reassurance. But the adaptation stars Jack Whitehall as Waugh’s hapless Paul Pennyfeather, and one fears that Whitehall may merely serve up a period reprise of his similarly useless pedagogue Alfie Wickers from his own show Bad Education (which he wrote with Freddy Syborn).
Whether the result lives up to expectations or not, it is heartening to see one of Waugh’s comic novels being adapted for television, especially one that has been attempted only once before, in the Sixties, and then extremely badly. (A shame: one wishes for Michael Hordern as Prendergast, James Robertson Justice as Dr Fagan and Terry-Thomas as Grimes.) Although Waugh seems to have been adapted a fair amount over the years, his reputation in terms of television lies almost entirely on the seminal (if, it can now be said, overlong) ITV version of Brideshead Revisited (1981), with little else having captured the subversive joy of his peerless prose.