TV COLUMN: Decline and Fall, MasterChef

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television...
James Waller-DaviesJames Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

It’s not often you get a piece of perfect telly, but Decline and Fall (BBC1) is just about as perfect an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel as is possible. Early days yet, but it may eventully sit alongside that other classic Waugh adaptation, Brideshead Revisited.

Waugh’s satire of 1920’s English middle classes still works today – after all didn’t John Prescott demand twenty years ago that “we’re all middle class now” – and the satirical targets still apply.

Jack Whitehall was a revelation as Paul Pennyfeather, in a beautiful and pathos filled performance. Whitehall played Pennyfeather with a straight bat, allowing Waugh’s hapless social virgin to be a centre of bemusement in a world of the absurd. An eyebrow nervously raised here; a tremble of lower lip there.

This dramatisation of Decline and Fall is not set in the aspic of its own time. The pig’s head launched from the window of the raucous Bollinger Club a contemporary tilt at an equally notorious and reportedly infamous Bullingdon Club. In a satire of middle-class mores, Waugh doesn’t skip the chance for a bit of toff bashing along the way.

Having been thrown out of his college for being the victim of a full public debagging in the quad by the Bollinger bullies, Pennyfeather finds himself in a boys boarding school, the well-trodden route for those “who get sent down for indecent behaviour”, according to his college porter.

The second division public school is a tried and tested trope of English comic fiction and Waugh’s provide for a full cast of pathetic comic creations. There’s no more downtrodden failure than a public school teacher and David Suchet, Douglas Hodge and Vincent Franklin balance caricature with a sadness riven with disappointment and loveliness.

Decline and Fall has the full emotional richness of all great comedies. Its palate are the colours of the absurd, the ridiculous, the embarrassing, and the pitiful. Perfect.

Far from perfect and getting as tired as a sad and lonely lettuce at the back of the fridge is MasterChef (BBC1). Presented again by the barrow boys of Gregg Wallace and John Torode, MasterChef is now on its thirteenth run to find the nation’s best amateur cook.

You need to get through a lot of stodge in the early rounds before you get to the small handful of chefs who know one end of an aubergine from the other.

Trotting out previous winners – who in fairness have fared pretty well since winning – is the only way to remind viewers that there may eventually be some talent in the talent show.

This week the Statler and Waldorf of the kitchen came up with new ways to try and be complementary about the burnt, botched and bizarre offerings plated up for their inspection.

Tea-tasters at least get a spittoon. Judging by the state of some of the slop slapped up, a vomitorium might have been in order.