Decline and Fall's Jack Whitehall interview: 'It was my father's favourite book... I approached it as my first drama'

The stand-up and comic actor stars in the first ever screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s comedy classic ‘Decline and Fall’ which has been scripted by ‘Rev’ creator James Woods

Gerard Gilbert
Monday 27 March 2017 13:13 BST
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‘A lot of the subjects that it is satirising are still very relevant today,’ says Whitehall, who plays Paul Pennyfeather. ‘I think that says quite a lot about our country and how little has changed’
‘A lot of the subjects that it is satirising are still very relevant today,’ says Whitehall, who plays Paul Pennyfeather. ‘I think that says quite a lot about our country and how little has changed’ (BBC)

If you know and love Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 comic satire, Decline and Fall, you may have shared my foreboding when you read the announcement that the BBC were planning to film it. Their adaptations of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories – well received by some – only served to confirm for me that much can be lost between page and screen, especially humour so reliant on comic tone and use of language as Wodehouse and Waugh.

But then hope was restored when I noticed that they were going to be scripted by James Wood, creator and writer of Rev, and obviously the owner of a fine comic sensibility. The scripts certainly appealed to Jack Whitehall, the stand-up and comic actor from Bad Education and Fresh Meat. “I thought James’s adaptation was amazing”, he gushed after a recent preview screening in London.

“When the scripts arrived in front of me I was so excited because I knew the book as well. It was my father’s favourite book and he gave it to me and I read it when I was a teenager at school. It really appealed to me, the comedy of it, and the sort of darkness and wickedness of it really appealed to my sensibilities.”

Decline and Fall was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, a satire based on his undergraduate years at Oxford and subsequent experience as a teacher at a prep school in north Wales. Whitehall plays Paul Pennyfeather, an unassuming and blameless Oxford theology student who has an unfortunate run-in with drunken members of the Bollinger Club (a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club), loses his trousers and ends up being expelled for “indecent behaviour”.

Let’s get serious: Whitehall’s role in ‘Decline and Fall’ marks his transition from straight comedy to drama (Getty)
Let’s get serious: Whitehall’s role in ‘Decline and Fall’ marks his transition from straight comedy to drama (Getty) (Mark Davis/Getty Images)

“There’s rarely something I do where I keep my clothes on”, quips Whitehall, who was regularly divested of his garments over the course of four series of Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. “Yeah, my heart sank when I read that. I had thought I’m finally in a comedy drama and maybe this is the one where I keep my trousers on and, lo and behold, the first scene…”

Having been unfairly sent down from Oxford, Pennyfeather is then disinherited, necessitating a job at a chaotic prep school in north Wales called Llanabba Castle, where the common room is staffed by as fine a collection of comic monsters as can be found anywhere in English literature: Grimes, the gay bigamist with a false leg, “Prendie” Prendergast, the toupee-wearing former vicar with religious doubts, the mysterious and slightly sinister fantasist Philbrick, and the desperate headmaster Dr Fagan.

Casting is key here, and with Douglas Hodge (Grimes), Vincent Franklin (Prendergast), David Suchet (terrific in his first comic role since Blott on the Landscape in 1985) and Stephen Graham (Jack Whitehall’s suggestion) as Philbrick, this ensemble is pretty much as perfect as can be. And there’s an eye-catching addition in Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria as Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the glamorous South American mother of one of Pennyfeather’s pupils, who persuades the besotted teacher to tutor her son during the holidays.

“We share an agent”, says Whitehall, of how he first made contact with Longoria. “She’s good with that particular tone of comedy drama, and was very down to earth. I loved Desperate Housewives and I had to check myself quite a lot from telling her how much I enjoyed her as Gabrielle Solis.

“Also her husband [businessman Jose Antonio Baston] was on set most of the time, and he’s literally the coolest and sexiest man I’ve ever seen, so I spent most of the time when I was wooing her looking at him and feeling totally emasculated. Which was probably quite good from a character point of view.”

James Wood was approached by his sister, who works for the production company Tiger Aspect, to see whether he might be interesting in adapting Decline and Fall. “She enquired about the rights and I didn’t know whether the Evelyn Waugh estate would allow someone like me... us... get our hands on it. And amazingly they said we could have a go.

Monsters’ ball: Vincent Franklin as Predergast, Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather and Douglas Hodge as Captain Grimes
Monsters’ ball: Vincent Franklin as Predergast, Whitehall as Paul Pennyfeather and Douglas Hodge as Captain Grimes (BBC)

“I think it’s genuinely an amazingly funny book. Most comic novels, I find, don’t actually make you laugh like stand-up comedy or TV comedy... it’s very few books I find that actually make you laugh out loud. And it’s a comic masterpiece… a desert island book for a lot of people, including me.”

It’s surprising, then, that this is the first time anyone has tried to bring it to the screen. But then, as Woods points out, none of Waugh’s books have proved particularly attractive to television executives. “In my lifetime there has been a very famous Brideshead in the 1980s that people still talk about now, and the Sword of Honour trilogy was done with Daniel Craig and adapted by William Boyd. And that’s it. It’s not like the drama department where you get another Bleak House every 15 years – the kind of literary churn, Waugh is not part of that at all.”

Perhaps part of the reason might be some of the attitudes and language in Decline and Fall would these days be problematic. Episode one, for instance, includes the passage where Chokey, an erudite black American and Margot’s current lover, visits on sports day – the ‘n’ word freely bandied about in the novel.

“When I first started doing the job someone sent me an email that simply said ’do not do Chokey’”, says Woods. “There’s things he was writing in 1928 that you just don’t want to say now. When Chokey slips out of the car [in the TV version] you can see how the crowd reacts to a black man in Wales – it would have been an event, and they can be racist as characters but we cannot be as a show.

“Evelyn Waugh is often accused of being racist and whether he was as a writer of his time, or whether he was, we really didn’t want to get into that.”

Fall guys: Whitehall (Pennyfeather) with David Suchet as Dr Fagan
Fall guys: Whitehall (Pennyfeather) with David Suchet as Dr Fagan (BBC)

Waugh is also thought of as a reactionary snob, but Whitehall meanwhile believes that – rather depressingly – many of the targets in Decline and Fall haven’t dated at all in the 90-odd years since the book’s publication. “A lot of the subjects that it is satirising are still very relevant today”, he says. “It opens with the Bollinger Club, who [a barely disguised version of the Bullingdon Club] I think are very much part of the public consciousness now. Everything from public school system, the church, the prison system and things like that, they all get mentioned and they all still seem like relevant targets. I think that says quite a lot about our country and how little has changed.”

Whitehall himself, you feel, is changing – Decline and Fall further marks his transition from straight comedy to drama. “David [Suchet] approached this project as his first comedy in decades, I approached it as my first drama”, he says. “That’s what’s so lovely about this book, it does tonally shift so much. It’s raucously funny in that first episode, but then in later episodes – in particular in episode three – it goes to a much darker place.”

But before he can consider offers for Chekhov or Dostoevsky, Whitehall has a comedy action series, Bounty Hunter, coming to Sky1, and is about to join his father, the theatrical agent and producer Michael Whitehall, on a tour of Southeast Asia for a new Netflix comedy show. Will his father have approved of his adaptation of his favourite book?

“I think so, yes”, says Whitehall. “There was a lot of pressure on me doing this, not because of him but because it’s a lot of people’s desert island book, and you feel a great sense of duty. It was fun when we were on set but you are worried constantly that you haven’t got it right.”

‘Decline and Fall’ begins at 9pm on BBC1 on 31 March

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