September 13, 2012 11:22 am Oscar Harding
You scan the TV on a Friday night and see Parade’s End pop up. Immediately, your eyes will roll, and you will tut “Oh god, not another ‘prestige’ costume drama” and switch onto Cowboy Builders. And I am one of you. I generally despise period drama, especially Downton Abbey, one of the dullest, twee and unoriginal dramas to grace Quality British Televison (Well, ITV…) in a long while. And that doesn’t mean the Beeb is innocent- in fact, they are worse. How many friggin’ Dickens adaptations are we going to get, or Victorian novels ‘sexed up’? Poor show, Auntie Beeb.
When I first head of ‘Parade’s End’, I balked. Nothing different, nothing special. But the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, a convincing feature in an issue of Empire and the appeal of a Tom Stoppard script persuaded me to give the first episode a shot.
It intrigued me enough to get into episode two, and I became hooked. It’s a brilliant miniseries, and definitely worth everyone’s time, especially if you hate period drama. Because Parade’s End is far from a period drama, rather a drama that happens to be period. Here’s why you, my fellow haters, and anyone I can tempt away from Downton, should catch the first few episodes on iPlayer in time for Episode 4 this Friday.
6. The Characters
Benedict Cumberbatch is one of Britian’s finest young actors, and in my mind his portrayal of Christopher Tietjens will always be remembered as one of his greatest performances. No bones about it, he is the focus of Parade’s End, so for a start you have a more engaging lead to invest in than some crusty of RADA alum, or mid-20’s heartthrob with a pouting air of vulnerability that drives middle-class girls wild.
Though this is in no small part thanks to the script, Cumberbatch just makes Titetjens his own, so layered and complex whilst being bland and straightforward at the same time. His evolution as a character (I won’t spoil anything…) so far has been glacial, and totally believable. I turn on the television waiting to see what dilemma he faces next, what indignity he must suffer- rather than turning on the television to see whether Viscount Crumpetcheeks really is rodgering that scullery maid whose lowly husband is about to go off to war, don’tcha know?
Both the women in his life seemed to have matured, and never seem one-dimensional, unlike many of the clichéd characters of other costume dramas- the monarch, the ever-suffering young woman, the heartbroken butler, the hen-pecked patriarch with gigantic facial hair, yadda yadda yadda… Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia, Christopher’s adulterous and petulant wife, and Adelaide Clemens’ Suffragette Valentine, Christopher’s chance at true, outspoken, simpering happiness, defy the stereotypes they could so easily fallen into with ease, and surprise us at how much the change throughout.
Cumberbatch, Hall and Clemens have one hell of a supporting cast- Rupert Everett plays Christopher’s brother, who improves as each episode progresses, Rufus Sewell is hilarious, the ever-relaible Stephen Graham and rather lovely Anne-Marie Duff make a delightful. Geoffrey Palmer is in the next episode, so you know it’s a prestige BBC drama (Easy, Geoff, I love you really…), and there are countless other recognisable and talented actors in there. And they never seem like a gimmick or the result of stunt casting *Cough*Shirley Maclaine*Cough* but are there for a reason.
Much like Thor featured three heavyweights conversing like a sold-out Shakespeare production, here we see some of our best actors, old and new, truly giving masterful performances you wouldn’t expect. Do you need more reason than that to see it. You do? Oh, alright then, read on…
Tom Stoppard is a genius, ‘nuff said. I am anticipating Anna Karenina (already a step up from the Austens and Hardys or the world because it is wirrten by a Russian, and therefore better) if it’s even a smidgen like the work he has done on Parade’s End. Though I have not read Ford Madox Ford’s original novel, I believe it is scathing and complex. So to squeeze a tetralogy of novels in 5 hours, which so far doesn’t feel rushed or cramped, is a monumental achievement.
The dialogue is delicious, and I imagine Stoppard’s hardest job was pulling it all together coherently and maintaining the spirit of Ford’s novels without losing anything important. Though I don’t know much about him, Ford Madox Ford seems a complex enough character to warrant a documentary by Alan Yentob, and the reputation of the novels precedes itself- talk about pressure! Everything feels so natural and never stiff, unlike the cardboard back-and-forth most casts have to spout in offerings from the likes of Julian Fellowes.
Visually, it’s beautiful, none more so than at the end of Episode 1 and the beginning of episode 2 (Again, I shan’t spoil it…). Like any good work of cinema, or HBO miniseries (Oh look, they co-produced this! What a co-winky-dink!), it has a distinct, rich and accomplished visual style, and beautiful palette of light and dark, bright and drab, cold and passionate. It complements the machinations of plots and journeys of its characters, rather than stand out (odd comparison, but much like Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator, where the soundtrack is part fot eh jugnle’s character, not just music put over the top of the film).
It’s certainly more attractive and more varied than the usual colour schemes we get- do the same guys work on all of them? The only period drama I can think of in recent memory that stands out in any way cinematographically is The King’s Speech. Parade’s End has reared it beautiful head and taken K…K…King George’s crown. And it’s always nice to have something pretty to look at.
At times you will lose track and yes, you do have to pay attention. Just like any good drama- you can’t just slump on the sofa with a cheap Chardonnay (yuck!) and let your eyes glaze over. And it won’t send you to sleep. It’s not Inception, but there are multiple character strands (not enough to make it all feel bloated, and not too many to distract from Tietjens), it sometimes crossed back and forth through its own timeline, and its all the more enjoyable for it. There are double-crossings and gossip that is never told the same way twice, so you need to pay attention. It’s the last thing you would expect at Downton…er, I mean, Corby Hall (That’s the Tietjens family residence up in t’North).
There is one visual signature that is recurrent throughout Parade’s End that for the life of me I can’t yet understand- not that that is a complaint. It is in the opening titles, and usually only appears when Christopher and Sylvia are conversing. It is a glass kaleidoscope. Whether it represents different people looking at the same situations in differing ways, or a divide between characters, or it is yet to be revealed to me, I do not know- or maybe I’m being really thick/ reading too much into a visual flourish.
But that’s the beauty of it all. It’s a deep show, sometimes borderline philosophical, and it makes you think- all credit to director Susanna White (director of Generation Kill- like I said, not your average period drama). Like all the great works of fiction, it leaves many things up to the individual interpretation of the audience. You don’t get that with Bleak House… unlike most period drama, it doesn’t insult your intelligence, and expects you to keep up- much like Tietjens himself.
It’s just so human. Though they are excellent, you just don’t give a damn about the production values, the attention to detail on the sets, the props, the lighting or the costume design. You care about the love triangle and what happens to them, and how they feel. The feelings are universal and conveyed on the level of us mere mortals- we aren’t looking in from the outside, we are standing right next to the characters as they experience joy, misery, love and loss. Even the starched, uppity, pompous Tietjens is relatable.
And it can sometimes be quite funny, without ever feeling forced, and without ever playing on class differences (in fact, you rarely see ‘working class’ (hate that term) people, which plays to its advantage- we focus on a sector of society, and not there reactions to other sectors). It is closer to a good, intimate drama with characters we care about, like This is England, than it is to unrelatable tripe like Larkrise to bloody Candleford.
Let’s be honest, one of the reasons period drama is generally tosh is because the upper class are boring, and we hate them now just as much as we did then (I’m no socialist, but come on, it’s always fun to have a greedy, obvious scapegoat). Ford, White, Cumberbatch and Stoppard completely understand this.
Yes, it is all about the troubles and turmoils of aristocrats with large houses, and yes, parts of it take place during the great war. But part of its appeal is that is agrees with the viewer how ridiculous it all is- both the very existence of ‘The Great War’ (nice one, Kitchener and Haig) and the stuffy conventions of a class stuck in the Edwardian era. It criticises itself, its characters actions and the events happening around them just as much as you are. How many of its ilk will do that, instead of practically ordering you sit down, shut up and watch the lives of your superiors?
If other costume dramas were like Parade’s End, which primarily is a modern, scathing dissection of how it was ‘back then’, that focused on characters and not aesthetics, then I would happily watch them as affectionately as I do this. But they don’t and despite the success of Parade’s End, I have a feeling they won’t.
So, this wonderful miniseries stands as a unique, stunning drama of its own accord, leading the pack. It engulfs you, it challenges you, and best of all it is far from easy Friday-Night viewing (why it was put in such a graveyard slot, I’ll never know). The penultimate episode isn’t far away, catch up while you can, or at least pre-order the DVD or (I am contractually obliged to add) Blu-Ray (I’m not).
Parade’s End, episode 4/5 airs this Friday on BBC2, 9PM. Downton Abbey returns at some point soon- whenever it returns is too soon…