Parade’s End has been billed as the television event of the autumn by those in the know. On paper it certainly boasts an impressive creative team, with acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard returning to television after an absence of over twenty years to pen a personal labour of love, an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s four book series from the 1920s. Benedict Cumberbatch spearheads a remarkable cast, all of whom are finely decked out in period costume. Surely this expensive BBC and HBO co-production is ready made to replicate the mass market appeal of Downton Abbey? In theory yes, but Parade’s End has high brow, literary DNA that makes it an altogether different beast from Julian Fellowes and ITV’s aristocratic love child.
Cumberbatch’s character, Christopher Tietjens, is the heart of this sprawling Edwardian story. He is a government statistician, with a superhuman mind, and today such a figure would be replaced by a computer. According to reports Stoppard wanted Cumberbatch for the part, and no one else, from the very beginning of a long writing process that stretches back into the 1990s. Of course back then, pre-Sherlock, Cumberbatch was a relative nobody in the acting universe. But something about the actor’s ability to suppress emotion and project immense intelligence convinced Stoppard that he was the perfect fit for Tietjens. Yesterday in Edinburgh Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss expressed similar sentiments about casting Cumberbatch as the world’s most famous detective; they only ever auditioned him for the part. Something appears to have clicked into place in an increasingly extraordinary acting career. Perhaps Cumberbatch is even more of a genius than the characters he plays.
Comparisons will be made between the characters of Christopher Tietjens and Sherlock Holmes, but they will mostly be misleading. Both possess brilliant minds and revel in acquiring seemingly dull details about anything and everything. Both hide a fragile emotional core from the world. However, arguably Sherlock keeps his emotions under wraps far better than Tietjens. Early reviews of the opening episode all touch on the climate of emotional repression in Edwardian society, and Tietjens’ resulting coldness, but I was surprised by his frequent vulnerability. On numerous occasions he refers to himself as “soft” and can scarcely disguise the pain in his face. He also loses his temper in public, with individuals and the establishment gossip they mindlessly pander to. Having said that he is a fiercely traditional and principled man, who lives his life by a set of values that seem increasingly out of date, both politically and socially. Contrast this with Sherlock who, in Conan Doyle’s books and particularly the new series, despises the flaws of the status quo.
Sherlock’s success is hard to match, but Cumberbatch could give the performance of his career in Parade’s End. The sheer depth of the material provides wonderful opportunities for all the actors involved. As author Julian Barnes writes in The Guardian, “the emotional level of the novel is high”. I have not read Ford’s book but its multi-layered power to absorb is clear from the obvious fascination that comes through in articles written by Barnes and others. Episode 1 of the adaptation also demonstrates the complexity and quality of the characterisation on show.
Tietjens is married to Sylvia, who is deliciously played by Rebecca Hall. In the opening scenes of Friday night’s series opener we flit between their first meeting (and subsequent romp) on a train and later, unhappier times, with Sylvia practically blackmailing Tietjens into marriage and then gallivanting around Europe with a lover, just to taunt him. In Sylvia, Hall is playing a character pleasingly out of her comfort zone, who oozes sex and seems to desire destruction out of nothing more than restlessness. In his Guardian piece Barnes describes Sylvia as the “most possessed evil character in 20th century fiction”. And yet there is something likeable about her. Despite her malice, or indeed because of it, she is tremendous fun to watch and she confesses that beneath her antics lies a frustrating affection for Tietjens, who has made all other men seem infantile and foolish to her.
For his part, Tietjens refuses to abandon the conventions of marriage and gentlemanly conduct. So he simply takes the sadistic betrayal Sylvia continually rubs in his face. He hardens himself to her games and is forced to take her back when she telegrams from Europe, fed up with her latest lover. When his friend and colleague, Macmaster (played by a refined version of Stephen Graham, of Pirates of the Caribbean and This is England fame) quotes love poetry at him, Tietjens harshly describes such talk as “congealed bacon fat”.
The psychology of this odd and manipulating marriage may be fascinating, but the episode really takes flight when Tietjens discovers there is hope for him to enjoy a real loving relationship. On a golfing trip with government figures two suffragettes raid the green, ambushing an MP and fleeing dramatically. The next day Tietjens realises he knows one of the charismatic pair, Valentine (played by Adelaide Clemens), as he breakfasts at the home of an amusingly mad vicar. She is clever and fiercely principled like him, and during a coach ride through the fog which ends in a symbolic collision between modernity and tradition, the two form an affectionate bond.
Suddenly Tietjens’ torment reaches a new level, with the knowledge of what he is missing. The episode ends with Cumberbatch sobbing into a horse in an empty field. The trajectory of a series that will encompass the First World War, the struggle for women’s rights and the personal lives of the characters is set, but where this rich parade will end is far from clear. I for one cannot wait to find out.