Parade’s End was one of the most moving and accomplished pieces of television Jennie Pritchard has ever watched; full to the brim of Britain’s finest acting talent and adapted from one of the finest English novels ever written. So why did no one watch it?
As a £12 million co-production between the BBC and HBO, there was a considerable amount of pressure to get it right. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the complicated private-life of an upper-class government statistician in the dying days of the Edwardian empire could not be dull and frightfully sober. And so Stoppard presented us with a script throbbing with the pulse, wit and energy of Ford’s original novel.
The deliciously ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch starred as Christopher Tietjens, ‘the last Tory’; a man eternally encumbered by his own sense of morality and manners. Christopher’s wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) is a character so rich and engaging she makes you want to storm about in vintage fur, making similarly melodramatic exclamations such as: “I will be in my room praying for death, or at least packing for it”.
Oh the sexual frustration; Sylvia practically simmers with it. To say the plot revolves around a love triangle between Christopher, Sylvia, and Suffragette Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens) does not do justice to the complex and intelligent storylines which intertwine into this luxurious narrative. Ford’s characters are perceptively crafted: subtle and satisfying.
This is perhaps a factor which convinced viewers to switch off. The first episode garnered over three million viewers but by episode two, ratings rapidly began to dwindle. Criticism entailed that the storyline was too complicated to bother, and back went the masses to Downton Abbey, a rather depressing thought indeed.
Then there was the fact that Parade’s End seemed to flounder in a Friday night spot and would have been better suited to Sunday Night indulgence in a gravy-induced stupor, mid-week pick-me-up at a push. Competition in the field is currently high, and it showed.
Nevertheless, the martyrs among us who did sacrifice our Friday evenings to the fine figure of humanity that is Benedict Cumberbatch were treated to an hilarious, pertinent and heartbreaking account of an era lost to time; of a man clinging onto a slipping age with his fingertips.
Ford’s tetralogy is witnessing a well-deserved revival, also now released as a collection by BBC Books. Cumberbatch, Hall and Clemens stare painstakingly from the front cover. If there is any justice in the world this diamond of a series will be bombarded with BAFTAs and Emmys and held aloft as a pinnacle of what British television can be. With the slot for Friday night viewing now again free, by God will we need it.