Evelyn Waugh: Satire and Sadism
Based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop is a satire aimed at Britain’s Fleet Street journalism during its heyday. The London newspaper The Daily Beast is a jingoistic publication owned and run by Lord Copper (Donald Pleasence).
When civil war breaks out in the African republic of Ishmaelia, Copper tells an editor: “This is a promising little war. When it comes to foreign policy, the Beast stands for strong and mutually antagonistic governments everywhere.”
Copper needs a war correspondent and settles on William Boot (Michael Maloney), a nature writer who pens a weekly column, ‘Lush Places’. Boot’s prose is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: “Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”
In a meeting with Copper, Boot tries to sketch out the basics:
Boot: Who is fighting whom in Ishmaelia?
Copper: The patriots against the traitors. Just remember that the patriots are in the right and are going to win. But they must win quickly—the British public has no time for a war that lingers on indecisively.
The worldview of The Daily Beast in 1938 is indistinguishable from that of Fox News in 2010. When Boot lands in Ishmaelia, he runs into Moke, a prep school chum working at the British consul. Over dinner, Moke gives Boot some helpful advice:
Boot: What’s everyone fighting over—it’s not just politics, is it?
Moke: (unrolls a map) Some people say there’s gold in the mountains, but no one really knows. Ishmaelia has never been explored or surveyed. See this town, Laku?
Moke: It doesn’t exist. ‘Laku’ is Ishmaelite for ‘I don’t know’.
Moke: A boundary commissioner once asked a local guide the name of a distant mountain. The guide said ‘Laku’, and it’s been on the maps ever since.
Boot finds a diversion in Ishmaelia when he meets a beautiful German girl, Katchen. When the press pool follows a rumor that the Fascists are gathering at Laku, the knowing Boot stays behind to pursue Katchen.
In the next scene, as western reporters haplessly search for the mythical Laku, one is reminded of the fiasco in Iraq where the press blindly searched for weapons of mass destruction. Katchen dumps Boot when her husband returns to Ishmaelia. Boot’s romance, just like the Ishmaelian Civil War, is illusionary.
Scoop is remarkably prescient and the fact that it’s still relevant today suggests that Waugh has identified a universal truth: the press is often used as a proxy by wealthy interests to delude the public.
The second installment in the Waugh collection is the bitter 1934 satire, A Handful of Dust. The story’s focus is on Tony Last (James Wilby), a member of England’s landed gentry. Tony lives at Hetton, a vast family estate that he shares with his wife Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas) and son John Andrew. Tony is an attentive husband and doting father—in other words, a bore.
In an early scene at Hetton, there’s a revealing exchange between Brenda and John Beaver (Rupert Graves), a houseguest of Tony’s:
Brenda: What do you think of the house?
Beaver: Oh… it’s magnificent.
Brenda: You don’t have to say that.
Beaver: Don’t you like it?
Brenda: I detest it… I wish it wasn’t so appallingly ugly.
Brenda begins an affair with the social-climbing Beaver, and before long everyone but Tony is aware of the fling. Waugh seems to be playing name games with his characters: Tony Last, the cuckolded husband, is the ‘last’ to know that the aptly named John Beaver has stolen his wife. The fact that Brenda’s son and lover share the same first name sets up the tragic, pivotal scene of the film.
During a foxhunt at Hetton, John Andrew is thrown from his horse and dies on the field. A family friend is sent to London to break the news to Brenda:
Brenda: What is it, Jock? I’m terribly scared… something awful, is it?
Jock I’m afraid it is… there’s been a very serious accident.
Brenda: It’s John?
Jock: Yes… John is dead. I was at Hetton—remember, the hunt was today.
Brenda: Oh… you mean John Andrew—thank god.
Brenda catches herself, but it’s too late—her heart is laid bare. Beaver means everything to Brenda. Her son, an innocent five-year-old, is expendable. We now have a main character with an inexplicable moral nature. Brenda is a monster.
Back at Hetton, Jock’s girlfriend, Rattery (Anjelica Huston), tries to distract the grief-stricken Tony with a game of cards. Tony is soon giggling after a few hands, and we’re no longer in the realm of satire. After a promising start, A Handful of Dust becomes coldly sadistic and inane. We lose all empathy for Tony and Brenda and the film falls apart.
One yearns for Waugh’s tragic masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, where the characters are flawed but human and their motives understandable. The extras for this DVD set are skimpy at best: there’s only a short biography of Evelyn Waugh along with cast filmographies.