An interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Christopher Tietjens, in Sir Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Parade’s End for BBC Two.
Says Benedict: “Parade’s End is an elegy to the death throes of the Edwardian upper classes seen through the paradigm of a love triangle between Christopher, Sylvia Satterthwaite, his wife, and a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop. It takes place over a 10 year span before, during and after the First World War. The action moves from Groby in Yorkshire, the Tietjens family seat, to the corridors of power in Whitehall, the drawing rooms of high society and then from Rye to Germany and the trenches of Belgium. It is about a rapidly changing world being overtaken by politics and a war that in its appalling leadership sent eight million to their deaths and precipitated the end of Empire.
“Through the four books of Ford Maddox Ford’s masterpiece there is a shift from romanticism to modernism. The novel is full of daring departures from linear timelines, streams of consciousness, sudden changes of points of view and other trademarks of the modernist novel. Despite some wonderful set pieces and dialogue it’s a daunting task for a dramatist. Thankfully, Sir Tom Stoppard is our greatest living dramatist and as such has performed the miraculous task of preserving the best of Ford whilst folding in his own unmistakable flare and with extraordinary ingenuity has made a fluid linear narrative out of Ford’s verbose prose style. It’s a wonderful marriage of style, wit, heart and intelligence between the two writers and it was a privilege to try to do justice to the character of Christopher, aided by a fine cast and lead by the brilliant director Susanna White.
“I have such a huge affection for Christopher, more so than almost any other character I’ve ever played. I sympathise with his care, sense of duty and virtue, his intelligence in the face of hypocritical, self serving mediocrity, his appreciation of quality and his love for his country. He mourns a way of life that is being eroded by money, schemers and politicians, ineffectual military boobies and the carelessness of man’s industrialised progress. He is a noble if accidental hero fighting for relevance, a man out of time who is struggling with political and economic injustice. That’s what makes him relevant in what could be dismissed as ‘merely another Toff in a period drama’.
“The extraordinary relationship he has with his damaged, bored, dangerously privileged wife, Sylvia, is a very familiar tale of two people who intentionally or otherwise destroy each other by loving each other in the wrong way; he with a kindness and propriety which infuriates and drives her to the opposite extreme. The sexual chemistry between them and the deep mutual respect and love leads them both to hope for the ability to change each other and it is this that results in the destruction of their marriage. Christopher then meets Valentine, an extraordinary young kindred spirit and intellect who provokes him into ‘gathering his thoughts’ and who fells him like a lightning bolt with her boyish beauty and pluck. He is unable to do anything about his attraction to her because of his adherence to the principle of what he calls ‘Parade’ – the principle he expects of a man in a family of standing. But his propriety backfires, as does his attempt to right any wrongs and in combination with the enemies he makes (some of whom are Sylvia’s lovers) results in him facing the reality that he is living by ‘an outmoded code of conduct’. The tragic results of which make him a fool. He’s bankrupted, his disgraced name attached to rumours of affairs and illegitimate children with Valentine bring about his father’s death. He’s without the bed or company of Sylvia and facing certain death on the western front. His decision to fight in the trenches comes from a need to will his bulk into standing up honestly in front of the guns rather than massaging the books and figures to justify all the stupidities of war that his hypocritical yes men masters at Whitehall wish him to do. He’s a superior brain but an inferior soldier and having already been severely concussed on his first outing by a shell he begins to lose his intellect. He really is a tragic figure but he does find redemption in becoming an accidental hero at the front and taking Valentine as his lover if not his wife and finally severing ties with Sylvia by letting her keep Groby and Michael, her son. The ‘parade’ he lives his life by ends at the same time as the parade to disband the surviving volunteers ends the First World War.
Benedict continues: “On a domestic drama level it’s cosmetically about a failed relationship; two people who love each other but want utterly different things from each other and end up destroying each other in the process. Christopher is killing Sylvia through kindness and tolerance, she is killing him through extravagance, infidelity and bad behaviour. What makes him heroic is the idea that he stands for what he believes in with utter transparency and to hell with the consequences of living by what he believes.
“And yet it’s such an ever changing world that he ends up being foolish in a lot of situations, reduced to being a comic butt of circumstance. He is buffeted in every single direction by a changing world, which he sometimes stubbornly refuses to adapt to but sometimes just can’t understand. He doesn’t want to understand because it’s so divorced from the pragmatism of who he is and what he’s about, which is honour, serving above and below, being loyal to the past and doing your duty.”
And Benedict is confident the drama has huge resonance for a modern audience:
“We’re living through a time where we are fighting wars fostered by politics, admittedly not on the same scale as the First World War, but with equally tragic realities for our soldiers and their families. We are living in a world where financial and political bonds in Europe are just falling apart, we’re living in time of political hypocrisy and there aren’t that many really good people and Christopher is just that: a good man.
“His care for his country, his past his family, Michael, Sylvia, Macmaster, Groby, the land and the great cedar tree, horses and his men on the front line all lead me to love this fat, baggy bolster of a blockhead with all my heart. It’s what distinguishes him from being ‘yet another toff’ to being quietly but truly heroic. His virtue and diligence but also the fights and principles he stands for are in many ways modern and thoroughly relevant to today, which again salvage him and the drama from being a nostalgia piece. His concern for the environment, the structure of a family, the corrupting elements of money and politics and our move away from a sustainable society into a consumer society of short term interest are all contemporary issues. Maybe they have been since the industrial revolution but we are a century on since his time and we are still fighting wars, raping the planet, living fractured family lives and living with the consequences ever more potently.
“By accident this is the second project I did last his year which has a grand metaphor and is really saying we are now going to reap what we have sown. Frankenstein was all about the idea that through electricity and the destruction of night, man creating light and darkness, we took on god like powers and then abused them like gods and we are only men. That a story about man making a man in his own image. The inversion of natural order. And whether you have belief in religion or not it’s more about the fact that we’ve taken our resources well beyond their capability to sustain the development that our excursions into technology have needed. I think both of them are warnings. If Parade’s End is more in line with man destroying man in all out war.
Talking of his co-star Rebecca Hall, who plays Christopher’s wife, Benedict explains: “Rebecca is extraordinary as Sylvia. I have never worked opposite an actress who has such an extraordinary command of her character. She hits the ground running, every single time. There is a lot of Christopher that listens and watches and is an audience to it because he would rather die than be a book that you can read. He is the opposite of Sylvia. She describes him as an infuriating lump, a block of wood, which makes her incandescent with rage. So there is an awful lot which required me to be a still, observing eye in her storm which was hard because it was so mesmerising to watch. I often fell into the trap of being her primary audience and friend, going ‘wow’!
“For a bored, over privileged lady from family Sylvia becomes wild and destructive in her near bi-polarity. She would probably be labelled in the post Freudian era as a manic depressive but here she’s talked of as someone ‘pulling the strings of the shower bath’ ie dousing those in her company with the cold water shock and provocation of her behaviour. And while all of her incredibly self centred, monstrous behaviour is wildly entertaining it could make for unlikeable character in the wrong hands. But Rebecca has pulled off the trick of creating someone who behaves in extremes but is so deeply drawn and profoundly in love with her husband (as he is with her) that you have sympathy for her in equal measure to her ‘victims’ for want of a better word. I mean, it’s almost an impossible task, only to be marred, I suppose by my character being heroic, because he does so little in some senses, but is heroic. And so, between the two of them, it is a tragedy. They do love each other. We have known each other for a long time, Rebecca and I, we have been friends for 10 years, which did help an awful lot. And, just having such a good and trusted friend on set every day is another reason to pinch yourself that your being payed to do this!”
And about Adelaide Clemens, who plays Valentine Wannop, Benedict adds: “Adelaide is extraordinary well cast. She has, both in her personality and as an actress, an ethereal quality and sort of a dream like beauty, she is extraordinary in this. She couldn’t be more right, there is something very innocent and fresh and incredibly pure, and physically she has that boyish beauty, which is so close to the Ford’s descriptions of her. After meeting her at her audition, it was a no brainier for me. She just was Valentine.
While Sylvia is a very modern woman almost of the Jazz age, Bright Young Things inter-war set, determined to party and dance and be a social terrorist self destructing in the process of her amoral behaviour, Valentine represents the burgeoning social revolution of woman gaining a political voice. She is also a pacifist and as well as being highly politicised she represents the future for Christopher, the chance for his renewal and healing as a damaged soul who knows and has seen and been through too much in the trenches.”
Benedict had never worked with Sir Tom Stoppard, who adapted Parade’s End for television, and first met him on the set of War Horse.
“On the set Tom kept on looking at me sideways and he said to me ‘You’ve had such a wonderful, extraordinary year Benedict’. It was lovely but there was something slightly odd about the conversation and what he confessed to me later was that it was agony for him because all he could see was Christopher Tietjens and he wanted to offer me the role there and then as he had thought of me two years before.
“Then Tom came to have a cup of tea with me at the National Theatre when I was doing Frankenstein and he said he couldn’t get me and Rebecca out of his head. The weird thing is I couldn’t get past certain things; Christopher is a big man, a big Yorkshire man. I was really distracted by that at first. I didn’t understand what a Yorkshire ‘gentleman’ was. And I knew, coming straight from Sherlock, I couldn’t eat myself into the role – not within space of a week!
“So it was very hard to begin with. I was quite nervous around Tom because he had such high expectations of me. He had imagined me playing this role, imagined some performance of mine as this character and I hadn’t yet. I was wary about superficial detail playing that class of man; I couldn’t see the beauty in the details, the full richness of the world. I didn’t know where to place his voice, how to express heaviness but not wanting to make him dull. I really was at sea and then I saw other people around me just having fun with it and Tom’s scripts always tempt you into humour… shades of tragedy or great, great comedy and I thought I can enjoy this but at the same time there has to be something of Christopher that is a still fulcrum, a centre point when everything else is going insane because he is observing this.
“In a way, the role for me is a blank canvas, not like playing Stephen in Birdsong or Count Almasy in The English Patient or other well known literary wartime romantic leads. I didn’t know the books before but it’s one of the greatest series of books I think people haven’t read. I’m still re-reading it now, still obsessed with it. It’s hard to let it go. And it is brilliant to see the details of what Tom’s done every single time you turn the page. Tom’s had to extrapolate reported action, make it into live drama and has done that effortlessly and beautifully and maintained some of the best dialogue. He is very unselfish about it, yet still keeping it a very Stoppardian script.
“The first three books are extraordinary pieces of literature. They’re not easy; you can’t just sit through them. There are not as many streams of consciousness as in Joyce, not so confusing and subjective but he experiments with all of that – they were friends, Joyce and Ford. I think there’s a lot of influence of what the war did to them in those artistic movements; modernism came out of it because of everything being in the balance. You could be having a conversation with a friend in the trenches and the next second that person would explode into a crimson shower of blood. Just blown into atoms by the burning hot noise and chaos of an exploding shell.
“When life and landscape can transform through such a terrifying, mechanised war, culture never really recovered so you get Vorticism, Cubism and in literature you get modernist novels which are a much more fractured, less linear, unsentimental experience. Also like Nabakov and Stoppard, Ford Madox Ford is not native English. English is a second language and there is beautiful resonance and avoidance of cliché because everything is so thoroughly and originally thought out. It all seems freshly minted. I quote the book all the time.”
Benedict was deeply affected by the images of war on the frontline, both in the novel and during filming in Belgium.
“We visited Ypres and that whole part of Western Front and I thought I’m seeing something universal. I can now imagine seeing, as a soldier in trenches, the vastness of the sky, because the land is so flat so unvaried. Then when I got into the trench that we created for Parade’s End with one of those tin hats on, I realised you’re standing basically in a grave, a six foot hole, you’re that near to death anyway. Everything above you is exploding and anything over the edge is death. With the tin trench helmet on you hardly see any sky. It becomes as thin as a letterbox and what sky there is just exploding. It is quite extraordinary. Just the hardship of it all, the clutter of being a soldier; big woollen coats that kept you warm if it was dry and cold but boil you in any sun and just weighed you down if it was wet and cold. The practicality of just moving around was hard enough and you’re supposed to be a fighting machine, keep charge of a company in a rat run. Let alone the daily routine of keeping order, making sure men’s kit is clean, maintaining sanitation and a working order to people’s lives in that ridiculous landscape but to actually have to fight… I can’t tell you how it brought that home. Just getting up the side of the trenches is hard but going up a ladder knowing you are walking into gunfire goes against every instinct of what it is to be a human being or feel alive. I think they must have had a lot of rum.”
And one series of events rippled with the emotional weight of the experience.
“There was one ghostly incident I encountered. I felt like I was carrying an awful lot of stuff around when I was in Flanders and I think that was partly due to tapping into it and trying to understand the fear, the loss and the horror of war, the sheer power of the disruption.
“I was next to someone, they woke up and asked me a question and when I answered they screamed and said they had seen me sat up on edge of my bed but when I spoke they saw I was lying down next to them. They looked back and the figure turned round and half its face was missing and it was in a First World War uniform. It was a clear image then dissolved into light. I believe in energy and carrying things around but I’m not sure.
“Then two days later, back in Belgium filming a scene where someone was being exploded over the top of me, bounced off me and fell to the ground – a German soldier with half his face missing. An odd correlation.”