Just finished watching the uneven, enjoyable and often rather brilliant Parade’s End, the latest big-budget costume drama from the BBC, which is adapted from a series of Ford Madox Ford books which no-one has read. It was a nice big, sumptuous production with two of Britain’s most celebrated mouth-actors (Rebecca Hall’s curled lip and Benedict Cumberbatch’s downturned grimace), focusing on that period where a buckling society, faced with the violence of the first world war, finally became Modern.
Cumberbatch, as Christopher Tietjens – a noble, repressed Tory – is the last in the Parade; the last man to whom High Toryism means loyalty, fidelity and permanence, and Hall is his flighty, rather magnificent wife, whose machinations debase his reputation and chip away at his resolve. He stands resolute, absorbing her disgrace, and even resisting love, which arrives in the form of Valentine Wannop, a (disappointingly wet) Suffragette. In the end it’s neither his wife nor his love which dismantles his attachment to the past, but the War – which is of course the great, monstrous wave which sweeps everything away and heralds the arrival of the real 20th Century.
I loved this five-parter, but it was an odd affair. Part society satire, part love story, part treatise on tradition and modernity, and most powerfully a violent war-time farce, it is a drama where the tone ricochets from scene to scene, setting to setting, episode to episode. It has little of the elegance or method of Victorian drama, but showing as it does a period of enormous upheaval, that’s perhaps appropriate.
And the whole thing is carried beautifully by the cast right up until the final episode, which somehow just fails in its final third to voice the transformation effected upon Christopher, or rather to pinpoint with sufficient specificity just what frees him to evolve his principles. I wanted more on the destructive but transformative power of the war, of the levelling and the loosening of society which it provoked. In the end Parade’s End ended as a love story might – movingly, with some success; but shy of the revelation which Tom Stoppard’s script seemed to be building towards.
Still, really enjoyed it. A joyful reminder of how great the BBC is.