“Decline and Fall” (2017)
Created by: James Wood
Featuring: Matthew Beard, Stephen Graham, Douglas Hodge, Jack Whitehall, Eva Longoria
Jack Whitehall has come a long way since his British sitcom origins, he has worked to become a regular celebrity on English television, so it is not without any surprise that he may want to try something a little different. HE has struck gold with his new television series, “Decline and Fall” (2017), not quite a comedy but more fun than a drama – it has mixed results but the inclusion of a high caliber of supporting players means that there is always something interesting to look at, as well as a rich analysis of the upper class in the UK.
I was fascinated to see how this series would function as it was adapting an classic novel by Evelyn Waugh (Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh) into something that would not only be entertaining but fun to watch, with some acerbic wit thrown in. My mind was put at ease when I saw the name John Wood, the creator of the excellent “Rev” (2010 – 2014) which like “Decline and Fall” (2017) balanced drama, comedy, plot and narrative in such an expert way that it left you only wanting more. Wood seems to have a knack for comedies about people who are trying to find their way in an unjust world where no matter their own principles they are faced it situations outside of their control.
The series sees Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall) as an inoffensive divinity student at Oxford University in the 1920s, who is wrongly dismissed for indecent exposure having been made the victim of a prank by The Bollinger Club. This is just the set up, any more plot would spoil his on going adventures into a calamity of a life.
This is a wonderful mini-series that cracks along at a pace that may surprise many, it follows Paul as he stumbles from one situation to another – there are many elements within the narrative that are taken from other genres which make this great for a modern audience. There is no doubt this is a comedy that makes the central character the brunt of others whims to the point that he becomes a truly powerless figure without any agency of his own – but because of extremely poor decisions made by Paul you can never feel pity for him. Pennyfeather is taken advantage of by almost everyone from the opening scene where he is stripped naked, forced to run home naked while saviors are all around. Of course Pennyfeather is a representation of the lower classes of the time (although that could be easily said to be now, an anti Forrest Gump if you will) who is pushed around by the rich and powerful but never really getting ahead in the game of life. Of course the high and mighty that exist in this plot are all devious disguised crooks who are all guilty, one way or another, while Pennyfeather actually plays their victim, doing their bidding but clueless in every respect.
“Decline and Fall” has a real eclectic cast that on the surface may seem disparate but come together to bring the story to life in a way that my surprise many viewers. The cast led by Jack Whitehall who plays Pennyfeather without a hint of irony comes alive in a role like he has never before, which bodes well for his coming career – having escaped any comedy dungeon he may have been facing. There are far too many fantastic character actors to delve in too deeply but I have to talk about a couple.
Firstly not all characters make appearances or at least long appearances in every episode. The always-great Stephen Graham as Philbrick who turns up as a kind of butler in the first episode plays such a different part to anything else he has ever portrayed, is at once menacing, terrifying, funny as well as empathic all at very different moments throughout the series. Probably the surprise of the series is the American import Eva Longoria who plays Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the mother of one of Paul’s students, but by the end of the series is something of a femme fatale of sorts, who as a somewhat antagonist plays a most important part in Paul’s life, as well as his ultimate fate. The other main supporting character is David Suchet who plays one of the oddest characters in this series, he is initially a head master at the school Paul initially winds up at, playing it straight but with a bent that will strike many as eccentric, but like everyone else is not what he first appears. Finally Douglas Hodge as Grimes who comes and goes and must play three distinct versions of the same person, you will die laughing especially with his exaggerated limp.
The writer as well as main producer James Wood has crafted something utterly magnificent in his version of a fine novel that plays out like a bad dream, especially for the main character, Paul Pennyfeather. Wood who was the creative behind the excellent underrated “Rev” that featured another anti-hero in the form of Todd Holland’s Rev. Adam Smallbone (another great name), here has Pennyfeather the person not so much stuck in the middle, but pushed out in front of everyone else. Whereas Smallbone had some modicum of control, here Pennyfeather seems to have none at all – he is at the whim of others, even when he thinks he is being independent and in control. In fact much of the action takes place around him much like the student being shot in the foot on sports day, like us Pennyfeather is just a witness – great stuff.
Another aspect of the show is just how perfect the tone is, as well as how evenly the performances are with each actor within every scene. “Decline and Fall” is also a great break from other genre shows that are floating around, such as the endless supply of police procedural shows as well as the thrillers that seem to proliferate at the moment. The show is also a nice refrain from many comedies that have been produced, it is not highbrow but can come off like that, it is an interesting juxtaposition with many shows, even with its source material. When Waugh wrote this there is no way he could have known that it would be adapted into a television show, so we are witnessing a hero that is semi-autobiographical as well as an ideal hero of Waugh’s – but of course this is a deeply flawed character, which makes it even more human.
If you get a chance to view this mini series you should grab the chance, it runs for a little under three hours so it takes a small amount of time but the rewards are immense as is the entertainment, just great television, with excellent performance from a classic novel.