Decline and Fall

Jack Whitehall may feel like a surprise choice to lead a lavish BBC Evelyn Waugh period piece, but you could argue Decline and Fall shares at least as much DNA with his smutty school sitcom Bad Education as it does, say, Brideshead Revisited.

It’s not just that, in both shows, Whitehall plays a hopelessly out-of-his-depth teacher – in this case, Paul Pennyfeather, an earnest young theology scholar forced to take a job at a third-rate Welsh public school after being sent down from Oxford; there’s also the fact this is Waugh’s most unashamedly broad comic farce – a knockabout romp in which, for example, school sports day descends into chaos when a drunken master accidentally shoots a pupil with the starting pistol before igniting a tent full of fireworks while looking for his lost toupee.

Writer James Wood, who co-created Rev with Tom Hollander, foregrounds such clowning, possibly at the expense of Waugh’s more subtle wit, and eagle-eyed viewers may also have noted the appearance of pig’s head among the braying poshos of Oxford’s “Bolly” club, which may or may not qualify as subversive political satire.

The characters, meanwhile, all have names like Sir Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington, who steals our hero’s trousers, and the Honourable Mrs Margot Best-Chetwynde, who, in the alluring form of Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, steals his heart.

The gallery of comic grotesques also includes David Suchet as the school’s feckless headmaster, Dr Fagan, Gemma Whelan and Katy Wix as his dotty daughters, Dingy and Flossie, and a brilliantly shameless, showboating turn from Douglas Hodge as Captain Grimes, a drunken, dissolute bigamist with a wooden leg. Told you it wasn’t Brideshead Revisited.

Whitehall is actually perfect casting as the preppy, puppy-eyed Pennyfeather, and the whole production is exceedingly handsome. The only problem is it’s not actually that funny – the jokes are firmly of the type your English teacher made a point of laughing a bit too loud at, and I’d be very surprised if it turns many of Whitehall’s young audience (he has more than 5m Twitter followers) into avid Waugh readers.

TV extra:

 

Henry IX

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are responsible for at least three of the greatest TV comedies of all time (Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, in case you needed to ask). So it’s with a heavy heart I report that their latest effort, about a fictional British monarch suffering a midlife crisis, failed to raise a single smile – despite a great cast including Kara Tointon, Don Warrington and, as the titular king, the hugely likeable Charles Edwards. Hopefully it gets better.

 

The Trip to Spain

There’s no regular TV column for a couple of weeks, but I’d be failing in my duty if I didn’t exhort you to watch The Trip to Spain, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – playing larger-than-life versions of themselves – once again engage in delightfully catty bouts of verbal sparring, niggling one-upmanship and competitive Michael Caine impressions, this time at a selection of fine Mediterranean dining establishments. The full series ‘drops’, as the young people say, on Sky Atlantic on 6 April.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 6, 2017

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