I thought it wouldn’t end. I thought I would have to still be watching this series when I was 90, dribbling into my barley soup, watching whether the strangely chinless Cumberbunch would get his schoolmistress girlfriend at last, watching whilst Sir Peter Hall’s daughter continued to terrorise Benny Cumberbunch into bizarre sexual submissiveness over a stately home’s billiards table. The only other parade I’d seen before this one was the one they do at 6.20 nightly at Disneyworld and which is followed by a light show and children vomiting from eating too many ice creams. I would have preferred that to this. I would have preferred anything to this.
In the last month, the writer Sir Tom Stoppard, has had four new parts added to his name by Deed Poll. Every time his name is mentioned in print or in film relating to Parade’s Bend his name is “Sir Tom Stoppard EnglandsGreatestLivingPlaywright”, in case we mistake him for England’s greatest plumber or England’s worst midwife. During BBC promos for Parade’s Bend he grew another name “Sir Tom Stoppard UndoubtedlyEngland’sGreatestLivingPlaywright”, you know – just in case we needed convincing. Presumably next time Heartbreak House is on stage it will be by “Bernard Shaw England’sGreatestDeadestPlaywright”, or not, because of course, Shaw was from Ireland. Sir Tom Stoppard should actually be TheFormerCzechoslavakia’sGreatestLivingPlaywright if we’re splitting nationalist hairs. But we’re not. We are being made to sit in front of “The Thinking Woman’s Downton” on BBC2 for five Friday nights and watch this pile of crap, the entire series of Parade’s End, which I prefer to call “There’s Seven Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back, Sir Tom”.
It started well enough. Brave, noble and sentimental Torytastic Christopher is forced into a shotgun marriage, where the bullet is unlikely to have been fired by his pistol, by a pantomime villainess hussy in 1911. The historical facts for the summer of 1911 (Lloyd George requesting 400 new Liberal peers etc) were hammered home with such violence and frequency it was almost the equivalent of the cast marching across the shot with large neon signs saying “It’s June 1911, peasants”. It was quite fun for the first thirty minutes. But it was like copying a recipe note-from-note from the lovely Nigella. In goes the savoy cabbage, the garlic-infused oil and the necessary organic extras but something in the end result is wrong. And try as you might you can’t work out what the wrongness really is. Well, Parade’s End was a bit like that. A well-made but ultimately disastrous beouf bourgignon, a bad Eggs Benedict Cumberbatch.
The terrifying, posh, crypto-Catholic slattern wife Sylvia was played by Rebecca Hall and mostly she was very good but sometimes her performance was pitched wrong. It was as if the method advised a slow roast at 140 degrees for four hours and instead she was rammed in at 220 degrees for a 45 minute boil-off. I wonder if she was the character chosen to desperately inject some energy into the thing. I spent the first three episodes trying to work out whether she was being directed badly, or whether she was acting badly. Rebecca Hall is usually a very strong, watchable actress who throws frequent “convincers” around for her character. This is the diamond standard for an actor – that we are lulled into a sense of belief in what they say by a steadfast succession of performance “convincers”. Rebecca Hall has always been a magnificent convincer. But in Parade’s End her performance was out of context and her characterization remained unresolved. Is it the adaptation or the novel itself that makes Sylvia Edwardian literature’s answer to Cruella de Vil? Having not read the novel (and frankly after this am not inspired to) I couldn’t be sure, but the script had certainly done a disservice to Hall’s technical ability.
I wondered if the producer was trying to kill her career with one, great, Edwardian stroke. I wonder if that bit where she stood at the top of the stairs in the fifth episode pretending she had a great big ball of cancer about her so Benny Cumberbund wouldn’t then sleep with the schoolma’am while a nation hollered at the television “Go on, throw yourself down the stairs, DIE you oafish cow DIE” was what Sir Tom StoppardEngland’sGreatestLiving Playwright intended.
The camera had served to make this attractive and seductive looking actress just look plain with a really big mouth. The critics, however, saw it differently, because this is BBC2’s high drama offering of the series and only a prole would fail to be enhanced by its lush langourousness, right? The critics wet their pants over PE but their excitement was a little overwrought. You know damn well that if there had been a Poliakoff in the offering the same week they’d have been wetting their critical pants over that instead.
I’ve no doubt that Sir Tom Stoppard is a great playwright, but his adaptation of another man’s work stuck in the throat like an underdone steamed pudding. The editors really screwed up the pace of the thing. Each episode was only one hour but felt like about five and a half. A dramatic scene should be measured, but never mannered. Parade’s End was strangulated by it’s own heightened manner, and occasionally upstaged by its majesterial location filming. Cumberbatch went a long way to pulling it back to some kind of reality, with his performance of unrealised passion and unexpressed emotion which was pitched quite beautifully, but even he looked like a man being made to row upstream against an oncoming tide of crapness. The love interest, Miss Wannop, who I thought due to Cumberbatch’s over-stiff upper lip, was called Miss Wallop for the first three episodes, was miscast and struggled to negotiate her way through 1911 with a haircut from 1928. The problem is that heavy art does not good art make. And, by the way, what family produces one son who looks dashing like Rupert Everett and then another son with the disgruntled cabbage patch doll face of Cumberbatch? You’d presume there’d been a mix-up in the delivery room, wouldn’t you?
The problem here is that far too frequently pedantic and over-indulgent film-making is misdiagnosed as good drama. There are characteristics – often arbitarily connected ones – that make up the bonafide British BBC drama. Among them are: long, lingering location shots, period dress, a buttoned up, distinctly English central character, a whimsical and slightly child-like love interest, all of which comes from a novel that is both big and old (so it must be good), you can also add in a dash of provincial humour and some horses. And voila – a nostalgic and slow-moving piece which I feel asleep three times whilst watching. Eventually, I stopped caring whether Cumberbund and Wallop were ever going to get it on, so obsessed was I with attempting to jam knitting needles in my ears every time Anne Marie Duff spoke in a hysterical Glaswegian accent. The pace was all off. The camera frequently cut to reactions that should have been shown three seconds earlier. Someone tried to include a funny scene about a telephone at some point. Then there was another scene when we were all encouraged to laugh whilst Rupert Everett said some naughty words. Eventually the whole series got wedged in First World War quagmire, appeared to unceremoniously sink in the mud, and left only Roger Allam’s false moustache floating on top of it like a beleagured and embittered flag of surrender.
Only the last episode dragged PE out from the muddy quagmire of ponderousness. As the war ended, a sense of energy infused the piece and it became distinctly more watchable, but it’s a shame that some of our greatest actors weren’t given slightly more to work with. The difficulty with PE is it doesn’t seem that much actually, you know, HAPPENS. I wonder if only in England, the great book’s subject matter, would a work in which so little happens pass muster. After watching Parade’s End it makes everyone on Strictly Come Dancing look as if they are on crack and having the most amazing, glittering exciting time. Which they probably are.
I know what you’re thinking of course : “Two weeks of television reviews?? I thought she was supposed to be a city chronicler? What is she – housebound?!” Well, yes, I am. But this evening I’m off to a panel conversation at The Bishopsgate Institute on the 1980s featuring Robert Elms and Gary “I was sponsored by Silvrikin Hairspray” Kemp talking about 1980s music and military fashions which I shall comment on next week. So there.
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