Saturday, July 5, 2014

Evelyn Waugh Revisited

Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher on DVD

By David Luhrssen
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Evelyn Waugh is best known today for Brideshead Revisited, the basis for an outstanding British TV series (1981-1982) and a ho-hum movie (2008). But before he slipped into an elegiac mood of loss, he was known as Britain’s best comic novelist since Charles Dickens for Vile Bodies’ satirie of London’s “bright young things,” Scoop’s spot-on spoof of the headline manufacturing mass media, and his first novel, Decline and Fall, on the misadventures of a baffled school teacher.

The latter was turned into a 1968 film under a long-winded handle, Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher. The new title refers to the hapless protagonist, Pennyfeather, whose ornithological proclivities are mistaken for voyeurism. Expelled from Oxford, he finds work as a schoolmaster, the only occupation open to a young man sent down from university for “indecent behavior.”

After leaving Oxford, Waugh worked as a master in private academies similar to the squalid gothic pile depicted in the film, giving the proceedings a satirical authenticity. In the movie, the boys school is staffed by criminals, incompetents and fools. One fortunate lad is listed as winning all the foot races before they are run because his parents are donors. Everyone assumes Captain Grimes lost his leg in the war but, as he confesses to Pennyfeather, it was crushed when he walked in front of a bus while totally “blotto.”

The spoofing of upper class ennui and extravagance, as well as petrified educational system, had a certain resonance with the mood of the film’s time as the Swinging Sixties were about to turn radical.

Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher is out on a no-frills, no-extras DVD.

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