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DVD Review: The Evelyn Waugh Collection

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The works of the late British author Evelyn Waugh focused mainly on the lives and mores of the upper class in his country from the period leading up to WW II to the years immediately following the war. While some of his later works were primarily concerned with defending the place of Catholics in British society (it is still part of the British constitution that no British monarch can be married to a Catholic), he is probably best known for his ability as a satirist.

He was equally comfortable writing subtle, dark pieces which left one decidedly unsettled after reading them or composing nearly farcical send-ups of everything from the military to journalists that were close to side-splittingly funny. Either way, his acid-tipped pen could invariably be counted on to cut his subject matter down a peg or two, and hold any number of sacred cows up for ridicule.

Yet no matter how scathing he might be towards certain elements within society or the behaviour of a certain class of people, there would always be  one or two characters in each book whom we, the reader, could relate to on some level or another. Often times this character would either serve as our guide into the world Waugh had created and we would see events unfold from his or her vantage point. Most of the time this character was an outsider being introduced to what on the surface is something new and splendid. However, as we and they observe more closely it turns out to be suffering some sort of malaise and we first see the wear and tear around its edges, until gradually the depth of its corruption is revealed.

In 1981, Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) telecast an adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons that went on to become one of the most successful imported mini-series. Of course it only stands to reason that having seen the success of one Waugh story from the page to the screen that others would be soon to follow. Now Acorn Media has released a package featuring two of those follow-up releases, A Handful Of Dust and Scoop, under the title of The Evelyn Waugh Collection. The former is a dark look at the bored and idle rich, while the latter is a somewhat more farcical look at the press.

A Handful Of Dust tells the story of the disintegration of the marriage between Brenda and Tony Last. For while Tony is quite content living in the country keeping up the old family home, Brenda is bored with country life and wants the fun of playing in London. It's because she's so bored that Brenda begins an affair with a selfish social climber nicknamed "Beaver". As usual, the husband is the last to know in these instances and he quickly becomes rather an object of ridicule for Brenda and her new city friends as she and her paramour lead the high life paid for with Tony's money. Eventually Brenda convinces Tony she needs a flat in London so she can take "classes", and she and her lover are able to set up house together.

It's only when their young son dies in a hunting accident that Brenda decides to make the break with Tony. Being a gentleman, Tony agrees to grant Brenda a divorce and even goes so far as to pretend to be the guilty party by hiring a woman to spend the weekend with him in a hotel so he can be accused of adultery. However when Brenda starts to make unreasonable demands in terms of alimony — she has a young man to support in a style that he's accustomed to, after all — he refuses to go along with the deal. Instead, when a chance meeting throws him together with an explorer setting off to chart unexplored regions of the Amazon river in South America, he agrees to fund an expedition and sets off into the wilds, leaving Brenda high and dry.

While the acting of the leads is universally excellent, with Kristen Scott Thomas playing Brenda, Rupert Graves her young lover, and James Wilby the cuckolded husband Tony, Anjelica Huston, Judi Dench, and Alec Guiness steal the spotlight with cameo appearances at various points throughout the film. Unfortunately the script doesn't quite match up to the quality of the acting, for while we do feel some genuine sympathy for Tony, and loathing for Brenda and Beaver, we're never quite sure what has really motivated Brenda to take up with this young man who has almost no redeeming qualities and who treats her quite badly. He's so obviously only interested in her money that one can't quite fathom how she could want to stay involved with him for any length of time, let alone be the person she'd leave her husband for.

Scoop on the other hand is not only well acted, it is a much better script. It does a great job in skewering all aspects of the British press from the reporters in the field to the owners of the papers and their editorial staff. Through a case of mistaken identity young William Boot, a nature writer for "The Beast", is sent off to the African republic of Ishmaelia to cover the civil war supposedly in progress. When he arrives he discovers the press corps are all camped out in the capital city's one hotel and there's no sign of any fighting going on anywhere. Under orders to report back on a "Patriots" victory by Tuesday from the megalomanic owner of The Beast (Donald Pleasence), Boot is in serious danger of being fired until he uncovers an actual plot to overthrow the president by the minister of information.

Michael Maloney does a wonderful job playing William Boot, who although innocent to the ways of the world turns out not to be exactly stupid, as he does his best to report on a non-existent war. He is ably supported by Denholm Elliot as his editor at The Beast and Herbert Lom as a mysterious businessman who shows up in Ishmaelia just in time to help stage a counter revolution. Scoop is a rollicking ride which, although set in the 1930s, is every bit as topical in its treatment of the press as if were set today. This script captures Waugh's biting wit and acid tongue perfectly in both its depiction of the press's incompetence and the cynical manipulation of events by the unscrupulous businessman so he can secure Ishmaelia's mineral rights.

As both Scoop and A Handful Of Dust were originally shot in the 1980s, neither are up to the standards of current day productions when it comes to technical matters like sound and image quality. However these factors don't detract from the quality of the productions so they shouldn't be a deterrent to purchasing the package. Good acting, and, especially in the case of Scoop, quality script writing, overcome any technical deficiencies that you might experience.

Satire has become something of a lost art these days, so The Evelyn Waugh Collection from Acorn Media is a very timely reminder of what that genre actually entails. Unlike today's writers who seem to lack the subtlety necessary to bring it off, Waugh never descended to the level of cheap laughs in order to win his audience over, and both productions in this package live up to that standard. This is an ideal opportunity to see two works by one of the masters of satire brought to life and shouldn't be passed up by anyone who still appreciates the genuine article.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.