In 2012 Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the character of Christopher Tietjens in the five-part BBC period drama series Parade’s End, an adaptation for tv of the tetralogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford. The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, and the series was directed by Susanna White.
Set before and during World War I, the adaptation focuses on the love triangle of Anglican Christopher Tietjens, second son of the lord of the manor of Groby, Yorkshire, who is a disconsolate, Tory statistician in London, and his wife Sylvia Satterthwaite, a Catholic – which doesn’t stop her from being promiscuous, self-centered and downright evil at times. The socialite woman only married him – after a heated sex session during a train ride – to hide the fact that the child she was carrying at the time might be someone else’s – or Christopher’s. To complete it all, there’s Valentine Wannop, young and tolerant in thinking, she’s not only a suffragette, but also the daughter of a lady novelist. Valentine – in the course of the story – is very torn between her idealism and her attraction to “Chrissy”.
As the first world war causes profound change in Europe and Christopher is badly wounded in France, not only an era ends – there are no more parades – but the conflict crashes the lives of all involved, especially those of Christopher, Valentine and Sylvia as well as virtually everyone else in their elite circles. They emerge from the war to find their lives completely rearranged.
The novels by Ford Madox Ford – originally entitled Some Do not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand up and Last Post – published between 1924 and 1928 – were combined into one volume entitled Parade’s End, referring to the military term „parade“, standing for order, a life lived by regulations and discipline. The combination with the word „End“ already signals that a whole era and its value system are perishing.
Benedict Cumberbatch has said that Christopher Tietjens may probably (at the time) be the character he loved most of all those he portrayed. We see a man – described as clumsy, not good looking and socially awkward – who gives in to his very basic instincts just once, for one fleeting moment, and who is paying for it ever since. All that he stands for is crumbling around him, in his personal life, but also in the society he lives in and even in the whole world around him. In the course of meeting Valentine and a string of events following, he realizes that he has to choose between his integrity – held in very high regards up to now – and his personal quest for happiness. Christopher finally sees that his is a conflict of intelligence in a world that sees it as suspect, sees chastity as weird, sees all the values he has always lived by as old-fashioned and outdated.
The visuals in the series clearly hint at the shattering by using a lot of splintered mirrors, arranged like caleidoscopes at times, we often see the characters and their mirrored image, as if the both of them were different people. The characters are unable to see themselves even as a whole, their lives are splintered, as are their souls and they are struggling to find their way out of the maze that has been imposed on them by their upbringing, their convictions, as all of it is put into doubt by the all consuming war.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting is superb in this, he manages to keep his calm as Christopher, at least on the surface, but even so the onlooker can tell just how much he is suffering on the inside, almost breaks at the burden he inflicted on himself. There’s a palpable emotional stiffness battling with a deep, crippling vulnerability.
Also Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens as Christopher’s wife Sylvia and his (to be) love interest Valentine are doing a brilliant job in portraying the mean socialite wife and the idealistic, somewhat naive, young suffragette. There couldn’t be more contrast between them. The more Christopher is forgiving Sylvia for all that she has done to him (and still is doing), the more she hates him and does everything to hurt him. Valentine on the other hand makes him finally feel (himself) – in the true sense of the word, she supports him, even though she does not always understand his motives and intentions.
The series received widespread critical acclaim. It became BBC Two’s most watched drama since Rome aired in 2005. The miniseries received six BAFTA TV nominations, including Best Actress for Rebecca Hall, and five Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. It won Best Costume Design at the BAFTAs.
A significant part of the film was shot on location in Kent at Dorton House and additional scenes were filmed at Freemasons’ Hall in London (those who have been at Letters Live shows at Freemasons’ Hall may recognise the lavatories in one scene, part of which which were – back in 2015 – still designated as „Ladies“ before the new toilets were installed up on the first floor!) and Duncombe Park. The rest of the series was filmed in various places in Belgium, utilising television drama tax breaks, with scenes at the Western Front recreated in Flanders.
For the screenplay Stoppard made changes from the original, such as excluding most of the fourth novel, streamlining the plot to focus on the love triangle, and adding overt sex scenes. The exclusion of the fourth novel is not without precedent; it was also done in Graham Greene’s 1963 edition of Parade’s End and Ford himself sometimes referred to it as a trilogy.
My conclusion: The books are (or the book is) extremely layered with detailed descriptions of the characters’ actions, their surroundings, their thought processes, motives and motivations – with over 905 pages, it’s a long read, and – as it’s almost a century since it was written – it can be somewhat tough to stick with it. But it’s worth the time, as it is a real gem, superbly written, opening up a caleidoscope of envisioning the story. The same is true for the tv adaptation, which offers an insight at how the world – at least in the English upper class – worked back at the time. The superb acting by all, especially the three main characters Christopher, Sylvia and Valentine – Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens – makes it even more a joy to watch. If you can, watch it all in one go, and if you are so inclined, do read the novels as well.