So, Parade’s End has now ended.
I have a love-hate relationship with BBC: love it for all it does, hate it for how little it does. Five episodes? That’s it? I could clearly see there was material enough for a whole season of drama. This is worse than Sherlock!
The first episode I skipped altogether at first, thinking “not another Edwardian drama… haven’t we got quite enough of that?” I was drawn to it, eventually, by Benedict Cumberbatch – nothing that man does is ever wrong – and the script writer, Tom Stoppard, of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame. The combination of two promised the entertainment would be of the more cerebral sort. And I was not disappointed.
I approached it with a fresh, clear mind, not having any idea what to expect. Not only I wasn’t aware this was going to turn into a war drama, rather than a simply period one – I didn’t even know it was an adaptation of a famous series of books. I suppose, for the first time, I shared the experience of people watching The Lord of the Rings without having read the books. Except, you know, with actual proper script, direction and good actors.
I don’t know if the adaptation was true to form and spirit of the novels. It certainly seemed to skip a lot of it. The shadows of what I assume must be the overarching great and complex plot of the original books, glimpsed often through the adaptation. There were so many characters and side-stories that, reportedly, some of the public used to more simpler fare complained to the BBC about the drama being “too complicated”. It did, at times, feel like the entirety of Game of Thrones squeezed into five one-hour long episodes. Interesting and entertaining of their own accord as they were, the side-shows must have stepped back into the shadows and thankfully by the episode Three we heard very little of all the MacMasters and mad priests and governmental schemes. There was only ever one thing we wanted the drama to focus on: the love triangle between Christopher Tietjens, his wife, and the girl everyone but him called his mistress.
So, I started watching the series for Cumberbatch, but I stayed for Rebecca Hall. Her Sylvia was by far the most compelling and three-dimensional woman ever to grace the TV screens, as far as I’m concerned. Far from the “unfaithful harlot” she seemed – and wanted herself to be seen – Sylvia was a bundle of complexities. Her relationship with Tietjens was as dark and deep as the ocean, and for all her outward exuberance, she never really pronounced what it was that she felt for him. But it was easy to see what attracted the two people to each other in the first place: from Rebecca Hall’s first appearance on the screen, you feel sorry for all the men who desired her, but could never be a match for her intelligence. Only Christopher has the brains and moral spine enough to stand against her. Sylvia is right now vying for the first place as my favourite female character in the history of television.
I didn’t care much for Valentine at first – not knowing she was actually going to become the love interest, I was ready to dismiss her as one of the side-shows distractions of the first episode. She doesn’t show up much later, either, and when she does, she has a tendency to be on the whiny side. She’s not match for Sylvia, that’s for sure; but oh, how she had grown on me! By the fourth episode I had no idea who to root for, and by the fifth I was with her all the way. Adelaide Clemens has come a long way from her action TV origins, and she has a bright future as the sort of “clever man’s Renee Zellweger”, provided she continues to be cast in things as well done as this one.
The complexity of its characters is what makes this show so stand apart from others. There are no cliches left upturned. The mark of its brilliance is the ability to make even a World War I behind-the-lines general into a sympathetic, well-meaning character, a sort of “anti-Melchett”. But it’s not just a topsy-turvy world where the harlots (olde-worldy for “sluts”) turn out the most faithful and the suffragettes the most delicate. Rather, it is a representation of the so-called “real life” as it is, with all of its many facets and shades.
Perhaps Christopher Tietjens himself starts out as the least multi-faceted of all characters: an old Tory, too smart and too moral for a world where neither of these is an asset, “the toryism of the pig’s trough”; a cliché in a top hat. But this is exactly why he is the main hero: he must grow up. It’s interesting to note that Cumberbatch is the only one having a real character development here: with everyone else, we just see their many layers being revealed as the story goes. Both Sylvia and Valentine are already living in the Twentieth Century, if in different parts of it. For Tietjens, all his layers have to grow on him from nothing, to match the changing, increasingly confusing future.
I could say more, for there is much more to say. I haven’t even mentioned the war itself: just when you thought there could be no new way to portray the life in the trenches, Parade’s End comes as fresh as if you’ve never even heard the words “shell-shock” and “no-man’s land”. I haven’t mentioned the lavish production values, which show London turn over the period of several years from being inhabited only by top-hatted men in horse-driven carriages to these same men donning bowler hats and driving around in automobiles. I haven’t mentioned the sonnets and Latin hexameters. You have to discover all this by yourself.
If you ever get a chance, do watch this drama: it’s truly exceptional. A frightfully well written piece and played brilliantly by all; and it made me speak Edwardian for a week – by God!