Parade’s End (BBC) starring Benedict Cumberbatch – Review

Parade’s End, the anti-period drama period drama

Parade’s End inevitably draws comparisons with Downton Abbey, being set in the early 1900s and focussed upon class and love, but the comparison quickly dies. Instead, it is a sort of Downton Abbey for people who think Downton is quaint, fussy and melodramatic. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock fame) who plays the lead Christopher Tietjens, called Downton Abbey ‘fucking atrocious’ in an interview with Reader’s Digest, though later he withdrew the comment, explaining it away as a joke; it’s a point though, and one I personally agree with. While Downton Abbey is inoffensive, quite the parade of upper class niceties, frocks and tweed, Parade’s End has been condemned as being too clever, its target audience being consciously for those too high-minded to indulge in watching the upper classes at play in the big house. This is television’s downfall, that anything less than mindless escapism is damned as inaccessible – why do we continue to insist that ‘art’ be more simple? That is to say, I have nothing against escapism, but surely that’s not all there should be time for in the schedules.

The ‘big house’ is a looming absence in Parade’s End, and when Groby House does appear it functions to remind us about what is wrong with the relationships (the Tietjens don’t live there as a family) and acts as an ironic bartering commodity for socialite Silvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) with her husband. In a word, Parade’s End is not Downtown. Tietjens, like his father, is ever so fond of Groby’s cedar tree upon which hangs all sorts of nostalgic nick-knacks; she threatens to have it chopped. Tietjens’ refusal to let go of this is also his refusal to let go of old Britain, his life is dictated by duty and honour; the last of the Edwardians in a world run amuck (to understate) by the First World War. This is the end of the parade; of a Britain dictated by the rules and decorum of the pre-war glory days and the series, says Cumberbatch, is an ‘elegy to a dying era’. Tietjens’ nearly-almost fling with suffragist (would people kindly stop calling her a suffragette; she’s a pacifist) Miss Wannop (say it aloud – yes it definitely sounds like Wallop, and if you decide to catch-up on iPlayer you will never now hear anything else – she’s played by Aussie actress Clemens Adelaide) posed against Mrs Tietjens’ initial infidelities and growing sweetness for her husband is the central storyline. Ultimately, I would say, that’s not too complicated. He’s in love with the girl, dutiful to the wife and actually we the audience rather like both women so it’s a hard one to predict.

The director Susanna White, who is campaigning against the gender stereotypes that still pervade the industry, has talked about her influences from Vorticism, mirror shots splitting apart faces into triangles to impart memories, in reference to the cubist art of the same period (Wyndham Lewis, Picasso et. al) and the original novel by Ford Madox Ford, critically acclaimed though barely ever read, is undeniably a difficult narrative, moving between points of view and points in time in a typically modernist, fractured manner. What the novel and the TV show both draw to our attention is that the experience of modern man, of alienation and dread and a fractured sense of existence, began well before the Great War; the characters and their response to the ending of the boom time are identifiable with as we today emerge from economic crisis and the indulgence of the early noughties. The misuse of statistics, political hypocrisy and pointless bureaucracy also touch-home, and Tietjens’ upstanding reproach of the system for honourable values I find touching. Perhaps the drop in viewing figures is because the series is not quite escapist enough for Friday night viewers, Downton too suffered a reduction in viewing figures as it began to deal with the First World War. If pretty dresses and petty gossip are your cup of tea, I recommend Strictly Come Dancing; if it must be period drama and you need a weekly fix of diamonds and relationship intrigue, then Series 3 of Downton Abbey – well, you’re already watching;  if you’re not phased by a little complexity of plot, intelligent comedy and genuinely insightful period drama, then Parade’s End is a triumph.

Downton Abbey, A Parade of Posh Frocks