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Decline and Fall . . . Of a Birdwatcher

“I expect you will be becoming a schoolmaster. That‘s what most young gentlemen does what get sent down for indecent behaviour.”

“I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that no-one enters it without having some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.”

“We classify schools here as leading school, first class school, good school, and school. Frankly, school is pretty, pretty bad.”

“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

“It‘s the old school, that‘s the important thing. They may kick you out, but they never let you down. Sooner or later something comes up and they say ‘I can't bear to see a chap from the old school down and out. Let me put you back on your feet again‘.”

The Georgian, January 1968

The Film

Paul Pennyfeather is an inoffensive divinity student at Oxford University in the 1920s, who is wrongly dismissed for indecent exposure having been made the victim of a prank by The Bollinger Club.

From Evelyn Waugh's 1928 novel Decline and Fall, which was based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. It is a social satire that employs the author's characteristic black humour in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.

This adaptation was set in sixties rather than the twenties; look out for red telephone boxes (introduced in the thirties) and a couple of Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud IIIs with rare “Chinese eye” headlamps.

The Film received its London premiere in September 1968 (IMDB). It has never been issued on VHS or DVD and is rarely shown on TV.

Well known actors of the day included Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour), Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey), and Rodney Bewes (The Likely Lads).

A TV Mini-Series with David Suchet (of Poirot fame) as Dr. Fagan was made in 2017 (IMDB).

Filming Locations

The staircase at the Midland Hotel, St. Pancras Station, and Knebworth House in Hertfordshire were used for location shots of the school. At the time the Midland Hotel was used by British Rail as offices and very run down as is evident in the film; it has recently been restored as a hotel and apartments, the station itself now being the London terminus of the Channel Tunnel line.

Movie Stills

Watch the Movie

This copy was originally transmitted on UK television and recorded on VHS. The resolution is only 480 x 360 and the video quality is clearly limited, but it is the best there is for now in the absence of a commercial DVD release. The soundtrack was only mono.

Download the Movie

Right mouse click here and "Save target as..." or similar to download Decline-and-Fall-1968-Full-Movie.mp4 (465Mb)

Review in New York Magazine, 10 February 1969

The Plot

Decline and Fall is based on Evelyn Waugh's first published novel (in 1928 when he was just 24), and tells the story of Paul Pennyfeather. Unjustly dismissed from Oxford University for indecent behavior, he embarks on a series of adventures which take him first to Llanabba Castle, a ridiculous private school of no academic stature in Wales, and then into the fashionable high-society world of Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the rich and glamorous mother of one of his pupils.

On the point of getting married to Margot, he is arrested, convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for involvement in the white slave traffic which is the source of her money. After a relatively short period of time in prison (where he meets several individuals who had also been academic colleagues at Llanabba Castle), he is released through the agency of Margot's new husband, the British Home Secretary Sir Humphrey Maltravers.

Although in the book, Paul Pennyfeather resumes his studies as an Oxford undergraduate, studying to become a clergyman, the film ends with him walking off into the sunset to who knows what new adventures. Apart from Paul and Margot, played by the seductively lovely actress Geneviève Page, the story features a cast of characters who reappear in different contexts, notably Dr. Augustus Fagan, the proprietor of Llanabba (Donald Wolfit in his last film), Philbrick the school butler (played wonderfully by Colin Blakeley), Prendergast, one of the masters, who later has his head sawn off by a deranged prison inmate, and, most memorably, Captain Grimes (Leo McKern), an unrepentant pederast, bigamist and drunk with his eye on Fagan's daughter Flossie (Patience Collier), and for whom schoolmastering is just one more doomed venture in a career that only a man of great resilience could survive.