‘Higher than the beasts, lower than the angels, stuck in our idiot Eden’*
Parade’s End a landmark new television series from England, was adapted from four related novels set just before and during World War 1 and produced by the BBC2 in association with HBO. Novelist, poet, critic and editor Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) wrote this terrific tale of destruction and regeneration following his own life threatening wartime experiences and it was published in 1924 and 1928 to huge critical acclaim.
Having been nearly blown to smithereens by a shell in 1916, Ford wanted to draw a picture for everyone else just what it was like coming to terms with being part of such a huge conflict and how it impacted on the rest of his life. It was an awful moment in history, as scores of young people were called upon to give their all for King and country.
Ford wanted people to relate to just what it was like physically, philosophically and emotionally for those constantly being shot at in hastily dug deep wet soggy trenches in the ground. They shared their life changing experiences with people from all walks of life and backgrounds.
Commissioned from renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), with Bafta Award winning Susanna White as director, BBC 2’s Parade’s End, reported our British correspondent in September 2012, turned many heads and pleased critics when it gradually unveiled in England.
Just the fact these two powerhouse organisations came together with Mammoth Productions to bring about the five part series said a great deal about it.
They are all about producing intelligent, ambitious dramas and their collaboration, according to our British correspondent, seems to promise a whole new ‘golden age’ of British television drama and period piece production.
Executive producer Damien Timmer noted that at the centre of both Tom Stoppard’s adaptation and the novels is the constant dance between the three wonderful main characters – Christopher Tietjens, his manipulative wife Sylvia and the girl he really loves, Valentine Wannop; ‘they are such important characters in 20th century fiction and Tom brings them to life magnificently’.
Parade’s End had an excellent ensemble cast with a fine cast of supporting actors, all led by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) who was truly awesome and quite mesmerizing as the Edwardian English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, a very unusual kind of hero.
His performance was extremely sensitive, as he allowed us to see that he’s not really another uptight Englishman, but just one trapped in a world he has been born into.
Tietjens we find has the courage of his convictions, based on the values he has been raised on, and in which he firmly believes, despite them having being inherited from the previous Victorian age.
Fiercely intelligent and exasperated by many of the people who inhabit his life, Tietjens drives his wife Sylvia totally to distraction as he compensates kindly for her failings and forgives her weaknesses, because he doesn’t want to visit his own disgrace on all the other people he loves.
He does not know what to do as everyone of worth in London gradually discredit him. We all feel his pain as he tries to rebuild himself from within as a modern man.
The action takes place mainly in England although some mock up shots of England were shot and edited in Belgium, and on the western front in Europe. Each of the five episodes is an hour long.
As you can imagine the settings, both inside and outside, are totally scrumptious to say the least, whether they are in turn of the 20th century houses in town or an old Baroque style inspired English country house, which is really Duncombe Park in Yorkshire.
Then there are the glorious interiors, the picturesque landscapes, the horses and carriages and the gentleman’s and ladies costumes, which all reflect a time when all was not how it looked or seemed.
The series moves along at a rapid pace and is a feast for both the eyes and the senses, while the masterful panoply of words and phrases of the script reflect the best, and most expressive aspects of the English language.
She seduces him on the spot because he is the first man she has encountered in a long time who is not immediately bedazzled by her beauty.
He is indeed a challenge and so she must have him.
The combination of Sylvia and Rebecca Hall is sublime. She lights up the screen with her luminosity and draws us all close in such an intimate way that while we either love her or hate her, we never really lose sympathy or empathy with her plight.
Enjoying the thrill of the moment, and a sexual encounter of the first kind, on this occasion Christopher Tietjens will find that he has to pay a very high price.
The compensation and result of their brief liaison is an adorable child and he marries her to protect and acknowledge the little boy as his son – these are the days long before DNA so he can never really be sure.
The scene where he rocks the little chap, who has been woken by a nightmare, gently back to sleep having soothed his little soul with a gentle caring voice and a kiss, reveals how Christopher does has the ability to give real affection.
It is extremely poignant, beautifully filmed moment and deeply touching.
As the first episode opens Sylvia is standing in her boudoir taking a phone call in the pink dress every woman will surely want to own. She has superb milk white skin offset by a crowning glory of beautifully coiffured Titian hair. The French style panelled room is a bedroom any woman would delight in.
Her exquisite wedding trousseau, a necessity for every bride of any substance to own during the elegant Edwardian era, surrounds her. This very beautiful woman is a deeply disturbed soul. She is never at peace within, although always appearing calm without.
Sylvia constantly embarks on flirtations, flings and affairs to keep from becoming bored with the life she has, and the things that she thinks she wants. She even goes so far as to run off to the continent with one of her lovers, until he becomes stale from overuse. This forces her hand and she has to reach out to her kindly husband and ask him to take her back.
Fortunately, anticipating that this might happen, he has already had a story put about via a friend, that she has gone to help her ailing mother abroad. This at least explains her absence from home. He does it just in case he is forced in the future to accept her back. He needs to be sure that the rest of his adult family will still be able to keep holding their heads high for the rest of high society to see, although his close friends know the real truth.
Employed by the government as a statistician Christopher simply refuses on any account to compromise his principles, either professionally or personally. He also refuses to manipulate facts for some men who want him to fudge facts so that they can achieve their own political ends and so he stands on his own by resigning from his post.
When he is faced with the battle between his duty to his hastily married wife Sylvia and the unhappy marriage he finds himself locked in with her vs. the love of the wonderful woman he later meets and realizes he loves, is far more than difficult. When he meets the passionate idealist, the very active and vocal suffragette Valentine Wannop, Christopher Tietjens is thrown into complete inner turmoil.
This girl has an air of country innocence about her and she wears her heart on her sleeve for him to see very clearly. She is vibrant, brilliant-minded, with an enormous amount of free will and an amazing amount of naivety mixed with real integrity. Valentine has her own set of morals that are not influenced by her parents, her brother or the society she moves in, which are so different from his own.
For her its simply about being right or wrong and she won’t give into the constraints other women of her time are forced to accept. She’s a powerhouse of energy, helping to force the change toward equal rights for women and for women getting the vote.
Put into a predicament, Christopher has to endeavour to balance what he really feels for this tiny slip of a thing who fascinates and intrigues him, with what he perceives as being right for his position in the judgmental hypocritical society he is an integral part of.
Tietjens has to reveal that part of his nature that allows him to place Valentine into a place in his life, where he can keep operating normally in all its other spheres while having no regrets and retaining his ability to function in the other world of his creation. We all feel his struggle as deeply as he does, such is Cumberbatch’s skill as an actor.
Valentine, played by Australian Logie award nominated actress Adelaide Clemens, appeals to all Christopher’s best instincts and the courageous, chivalrous and gentle side of his complex nature. While they conduct an affair of the minds only it is clear that she completely understands his feelings and forgives all his failings.
Instead she champions his desperate need to break out of the box that the circumstances of his life and the ‘class’ of society that he has been born into, wants him to accept. She knows that the single act of spontaneity, he indulged himself with before thinking, has turned out to be very costly for all those who depend on him, including herself.
The depth of her understanding and lack of demands only goes to make her even more appealing to him.
Everyone watching feels deeply that he is as frustrated as she is; such are the acting skills of these two star-crossed lovers who cannot consummate their loving and caring relationship or be truly honest about how they feel about each other for a long time, and it hurts.
When he goes away to the war she is terrified, unable to come to terms with the thought of losing him no matter how hard the road is that they tread together.
His elder brother Mark is played by Rupert Everett, who is almost unrecognisable behind his outmoded whiskers. His faith in his younger sibling has up until now seemed steady and sure and he is faced with a dilemma when he hears all the gossip that is abroad about his brother and so he shares all the stories with his father.
The consequences happen… no chance of father and son talking it out together to find out if the gossip is true. Dad cannot continue to face life with such a shameful son so he merely ends it.
Everett is an enigma, and a wonderful foil for Cumberbatch’s proper Christopher. Where Sylvia is concerned the relationship the two brothers, once shared, becomes fragile and sorely tested.
To be sure motherly affection is not something that abides in Sylvia’s hard heart. Scenes of her praying in her attempts to remain ‘chaste’ and keep herself for the husband she falls more and more in love with are entirely blasphemous.
Stephen Graham plays Christopher’s best friend Vincent MacMaster, who is also a civil servant. His job keeps him from going to the War and he receives a white feather in the mail from those who do not like this fact.
He likes to think that he is very much a man of the modernist movement. He is passionately interested in the published works of the leader of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and mixing with the glitterati of the literary world.
He holds literary salons and enters into a love affair with Edith Duchemin, who is also unhappily married to a man of the cloth.
Playing Edith’s husband, the poor unbalanced, and sometimes lustful vicar of Christ is the always dishy Rufus Sewell.
He uses his lazy eye, deep, gravelly exceedingly handsome rich voice and fierce intensity to perfection in a cameo role that is all too short.
In a scene with his Bishop. and another member of the cloth where they are sipping tea in his study and discussing the merits of ‘restrictive female undergarments being mentioned in the Parish magazine’, he and Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By) as the Bishop, prove to be great foils for each other.
Christopher has to step in and come to Scotland and escort her home to help out his friend, only starting more rumours about her being his mistress when they are ‘seen’ together.
Anne-Marie Duff plays Edith, who is also for a time a delightfully dotty friend of Valentine. All goes well until she is faced with taking her friend into the all-new fashionable bohemian style of world that she wants to inhabit with Vincent, especially when he becomes her husband.
It is then that her previously charming vulnerability fades and she reveals a streak of coldness, one that we can only feel glad that we will never have to encounter.
Miranda Richardson plays Mrs Wannop, Valentine’s mother who is a novelist. Valentine is working on a daily basis as her mother’s assistant, proving her skills on that new fangled machine, the typewriter.
We learn that she is one of the few authors of the time, who does not have her English corrected by Christopher in the margins of her books. High praise indeed, especially for those who constantly struggle with the vagaries of the English language. She brings the frailty and the strengths of her character to life exceedingly well. There are some scenes with Valentine and her mother arguing with Valentine’s extreme activist brother Edward, which are particularly disturbing. His is quite a manic character.
Opposition to war at the time was a serious activity of young and impressionable people, who if they didn’t join in were arrested and incarcerated for the duration of the war. They also became outcasts in a society that judged them very harshly for standing up for what they believed in at a time when others were giving service and self-sacrificing for the greater good.
Critics in England lapped up this show when it first aired. It is the most expensive British costume drama on television made in recent years. It is lavish, crisp and full of delicious dialogue, a moving account of society during a time of great and monumental change.
It is a very different to the other British drama doing well, Downton Abbey, which so many people would want to compare it with simply because it’s set in the same elegant era.
However Parade’s End stands alone as a period piece about the past that provides yet another opportunity for us to understand the evolution of our society, its cultural development and why we had to have a sexual revolution.
It’s also an exposé about how damaging people can be when they spread rumour and innuendo without any proof and just for gossip’s sake, without any thought for the possible outcomes of their actions.
This series showcases a wonderful array of acting talent and will no doubt, stir up a great deal of heated debate about pandering to a particular point of view, without taking others of the time into account.
Christopher’s wife Sylvia cannot come to terms at all with his sacrifices on her behalf and how he holds himself back from having an affair with the love of his life, not to heap injury on their marriage.
His very goodness causes her deep unhappiness because it is something she can never achieve.
This is a story you may be tempted to think is meant to stir up what is the best in us all. That is simply not the case. In the end it will more than likely bring out the beast inside, the one we really do not want to face.
An interview with actor Benedict Cumberbatch revealed his own sentiments about the refinement of a character he said that he enjoyed playing
‘I have such a huge affection for Christopher, more so than almost any other character I’ve ever played. I sympathise with his care, sense of duty and virtue, his intelligence in the face of hypocritical, self serving mediocrity, his appreciation of quality and his love for his country. He mourns a way of life that is being eroded by money, schemers and politicians, ineffectual military boobies and the carelessness of man’s industrialised progress. He is a noble if accidental hero fighting for relevance, a man out of time who is struggling with political and economic injustice. That’s what makes him relevant in what could be dismissed as ‘merely another Toff in a period drama’.**
Parade’s End is a subtly drawn drama about societal and cultural elitism, an artful drawing of a complex main character who’s sometimes deeply complacent, at other times arrogant; a man at war with himself, one who is ‘of his time’ and ‘for his time’.
Cumberbatch’s delivery of wordy monologues are done with such ease, his characterisation of Christopher Tietjens making us believe that he is entirely real and that we are all merely voyeurs in time.
Christopher Tietjens is not one who will, or can survive the uncertainties of the future, unless he compromises both his values and his principles.
Will he make the sacrifice as the series progresses? And if he does will it have been worth the waiting for in the end?
The society of his time were very unforgiving and if you fell from grace they were pretty harsh at meting out cruel punishment. This is a program to be savoured.
A warning now – this is not really a happy ever after story, it’s far too real for that.
A Novel by Ford Madox Ford
Adapted for Television by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Susanna White
A Five Episode Series
Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens
Rebecca Hall as Sylvia Tietjens
Stephen Graham as Vincent MacMaster
Rupert Everett as Mark Tietjens
Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop
Anne-Marie Duff as Edith Duchemin
Miranda Richardson as Mrs Wannop
Rufus Sewell as Reverend Duchemin
Geoffrey Palmer as Bishop
Freddie Fox as Edward Wannop
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012
*Ford Madox Ford – Parade’s End ** Press Release BBC 2