Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Charting the Whims of War"

Charting the whims of war

Harry Waters, Newsweek, 31 December 1990

Evelyn Waugh, who approved of very little, might have appreciated "Masterpiece Theatre's" sense of timing. The PBS series christened the wealth-obsessed '80s with Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and now it's about to give us Scoop, the British novelist's classic spoof of war correspondents. Desert war correspondents. Of course, Waugh wrote Scoop 52 years ago, but its journalistic types are timeless (they probably dogged Achilles' heels at Troy) and the cast is a perfect fit. Donald Pleasence, Denholm Elliott, Herbert Lom -- they're quality chaps, all. Now that we think about it, Waugh should be bloody grateful. Viewers, too.

Scoop was inspired by the author's misadventures covering Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Abyssinia for the London Daily Mail. Like Waugh, the protagonist of the two-hour adaptation, which airs Dec. 30, is flagrantly unsuited for war duty. He's William Boot, a dilettantish nature columnist for The Daily Beast (the column, called "Lush Places," features lyrical celebrations of the "great crested grebe" and the "questing vole"). Through a mistaken-identity mix-up, Boot gets packed off to cover a looming revolution in the obscure East African republic of Ishmaelia. Waugh surrounded Boot with the Fleet Street types he most loathed, and they're all here: Lord Copper (Pleasence), the Beast's war-happy publisher, a staunch believer in "strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere;" Salter (Elliott), the craven foreign editor, so terrified of his boss he can only protest his inane pronouncements by stammering, "Um, up to a point, Lord Copper," and Corker (Jack Shepherd), the quintessential tabloid hack, though a master of fiction -- just read his expense reports.

Boot is such a boob he arrives in the desert toting a collapsible canoe. Naturally, he winds up triumphing over his naivete as well as scooping his rivals. Along the way, Waugh twits everything in his range finder. Foreign correspondents and their home offices communicate in indecipherable cablese ("Unproceed Laku-ward," instructs one message). A villainous rebel harangues a crowd while a makeshift native band cheerfully cranks out "Begin the Beguine," Boot's upper-crust relatives, brains embalmed in aspic, welcome him home as if he'd never left.

Lovers of the novel -- Scoop was to a generation of journalists what Catch-22 was to World War II vets -- will doubtlessly rue what the film had to jettison (mostly, Waugh's matchlessly acerbic observations). Then, too, a couple of the nuts in this fruitcake seem dated: when's the last time anyone laughed at an inebriated Swede named Olaf? Happily, Michael Maloney, the little-known British actor who plays Boot, perfectly captures the character's endearing bewilderment. He's Waldo in a safari jacket. No one, though, has more fun with his role than the underrated Pleasence. His ruler of the Beast may be a man of epic fatuity, but he knows what his readers don't want -- and that's a long, messy war. Dispatching Boot Ishmaeliaward, Lord Copper warns him: "We shall expect ... victory about the middle of July." It makes you wish every war conformed to Waugh's first rule of engagement. Wage them only, um, up to a point.

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