TV: Decline And Fall, BBC1

Well we’ve gone back to the 1970s this week, we might as well go the whole hog and go back to the 1920s with this three-part television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel. And talking of hogs, we’ve barely been a minute into the action when the chumps from Oxford’s riotous Bollinger Club have lobbed a pig’s head out of the window into the quad.

But this isn’t a scathing piece of political satire, it’s more of a well-observed old school comedy of errors/manners. Poor naive nerdy undergraduate Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall) becomes embroiled in the Hooray Henrys' studenty japes, ends up running naked through the college and is sent down (kicked out to you and me). Bang goes his planned career as a vicar, instead he is banished to a small school in deepest, sheepest Wales.

Here he encounters a selection of characters who are, well, on the eccentric side. There’s the sleepy teacher (Vincent Franklin) whose wandering wig deserves a spin-off series of its own, the boozy teacher with a false leg and a brilliantly funny walk - the latter is played by Douglas Hodge, also recently excellent in Catastrophe. The headmaster is played by David Suchet and his two daughters by Katy Wix and Gemma Whelan. Stephen Graham, always good at being menacing, plays a particularly shady character with a dodgy geezer accent. And for a spot of flog-it-to-America glamour there is Eva Longoria as a single mum and potential love interest for Pennyfeather. 

The first episode sets things up neatly and the laughs - particularly in the opening half and whenever Douglas Hodge is in shot – flow thick and fast. Kevin Eldon also has a neat cameo as the head of an employment agency that finds jobs for naughty ex-students. It’s a bit like the Foreign Legion - if you are after a job there nobody really wants to know what you did wrong to get in this situation. 

When I heard Jack Whitehall had been cast in this I assumed it was a supporting role, not the lead role. While he has some big names around him he is very much the star and he certainly carries it off. Playing the nerdy fool is not a big stretch for him – he has already done a bum-revealing modern version in Bad Education – but he does it very well. It’s the kind of role Hugh Grant might have had a bash at a quarter of a century ago and will do Whitehall’s acting career no harm whatsoever. If we have to go back in time this three-parter is not such a bad place to head.

Decline And Fall, BBC1, Fridays from March 31, 9pm. On Catch Up here.

Character breakdown here.

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