Very occasionally a piece of television comes along that is just so perfect that it makes an indelible impression. Watched once it stays with you lingering in the memory long after other series have faded. Parade’s End is such a television show and it reaches it’s zenith with the fourth episode. With humour blacker than coal, engaging memorable performances from even the smallest players and real heartfelt emotion this episode is one of the strongest hours of television to air in years.
The action takes place entirely in Rouen where Christopher has been stationed under General Campion (Roger Allam). He spends his days avoiding death by German bombs, trying desperately to do his job despite the very best efforts of the British command who stymy him at every turn while pining for his beloved Valentine. And then just to make his life a thousand times more difficult up pops Sylvia hell bent on getting him back but accompanied by Captain Perone- the man she left Christopher for in the first place.
Humour really comes to the fore in this episode and it is very black indeed reminding me strongly of Blackadder Goes Forth as Stoppard riffs on the absolute futility of men blasting the hell out of each other and the complete and total ineptness of the British command. Christopher and Campion are trying to do their jobs as well as they can under the circumstances but command just make that next to impossible for them as illustrated by a weary Christopher’s speech about trying to requisition fire extinguishers for the camp only to be passed from pillar to post ending up right back where he started. I loved the visual of the increasingly flustered General Campion trying to give the troops a dignified send off only to keep being interrupted by a ringing phone heralding a change in orders. This is a dark episode and without Stoppard’s deft touch and ability to wring humour out of such dire circumstances it might have been a difficult episode to take.
The performances from the entire ensemble are superb. Roger Allam is rapidly reaching National Treasure status and General Campion is another exceptional performance from him. He’s a good man floundering in a sea of idiots. Permanently exasperated whether by the ineptness of his masters or the havoc wrought by those around him he’s just trying to keep his head above water.His every scene shines whether threatening to end Perone for bringing Sylvia to the camp, struggling with the ever changing transport orders, dealing with a predatory Sylvia, carrying out his inspections with an almost religious zeal and his final sequence where, all his preconceptions about the “saintly” Sylvia having been shattered he looks utterly incredulous at Christopher blethering on about his sense of “Parade” “Divorce the harlot or live with her like a man – what man wouldn’t know that?” It’s a heartrending sequence as Christopher realises that he has indeed been the fool hanging on to an outmoded sense of honour determined to spare Sylvia humiliation by not divorcing her but in doing so depriving himself unjustly of everything he’s ever wanted. His way of living really has come to an end and he doesn’t quite know how to go forward…
Other cast members also shine – I particularly liked Elliot Levey as the entertaining Colonel Levin and Tom Mison quietly shines as the smitten and cowardly Potty Perone. Patrick Kennedy as the twitchy McKechnie also makes a strong impression.
Because the action shifts to Rouen other characters very much take a back seat this week. Stephen Graham and Anne Marie Duff didn’t appear at all and Mark and Valentine, both so prominent in the previous episode rather fade into the background again as the episode focuses on resolving Christopher and Sylvia’s relationship.
Poor Christopher. It’s rather become redundant at this stage, 4 episodes in, to keep repeating the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in the role. But well, Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in the role!
He really is acting his heart out as Christopher and if there is any justice BAFTAs and Emmys will surely follow. Christopher really is clinging desperately to some semblance of self in this episode while everyone does their best to take it away from him. He’s alone in a foreign country with people dropping bombs at him at every turn. He has no support from the higher ups and even Campion declares him more trouble than his other men put together. McKechnie is openly hostile to him and Christopher tires of his twitchy behaviour and inability to set a good example to the men. His orders are countermanded by idiots who have been placed in their position by Lords who read about them in a magazine and who live thousands of miles away from the front and he has to cope with jobsworth army police enforcing trivial rules to make themselves feel better about the fact that they’re not fighting at the front.
He’s mentally and physically exhausted (needing support from characters just to be able to stand at times) and struggling to cope with the fact that decisions he makes (such as whether or not to give someone leave) can result in life or death as men (boys really, just boys) meet their end in front of his eyes. Your heart aches as he declares that he doesn’t have a friend in the world and events wear him down so much that he is reduced to privately weeping away from his men where noone can see. He wants to be happy and dreams & memories of Valentine have become his safe haven. I wanted to weep at his excitement as he thinks that Valentine is at the camp for him, running to the gate as if his life depended on it only to catch a fleeting glimpse of Sylvia as she’s leaving.
Oh Sylvia. It’s not bad enough that he has the hellish life he’s living to contend with he has to cope with Sylvia showing up at base, angering Campion and undermining him among the men who think it’s amusing that his wife has shown up to see him. Plus even worse she shows up with Perone and then further humiliates him by inviting Perone to her room – a fact which soon becomes very public indeed. But contrarily there is clearly still a part of him that misses her as illustrated by the sequence of him sneaking into her room. His face as Campion looks bewildered at his concept of parade would make the hardest of hearts weep. The very foundations of Christopher’s life are being eroded, irrevocably changing him and destroying the man he once was. It’s very difficult to watch and Cumberbatch plays him with such immense dignity.
And then there’s Sylvia. I know we’re not meant to like Sylvia. She’s the uneducated harlot (dressed appropriately throughout the episode in scarlet red) who broke poor Christopher’s heart and utterly humiliated him. You want Christopher to be happy and be to with the lovely, sweet, kindhearted, loyal Valentine who pines every moment for him.
The problem is Rebecca Hall’s performance as Sylvia is one for which the words “tour de force”, “superlative” and “exceptional” were invented. In Hall’s hands Sylvia is witty, clever, ferocious, beguiling, effervescent, sexy, self destructive, vulnerable and achingly terribly lonely. Her performance is so strong it does rather leave poor Adelaide struggling to make much of an impression. Hall’s performance is so nuanced that you can’t help but be drawn to Sylvia even when she is behaving terribly badly. Which is why you’ll find me going against the grain and waving my Team Sylvia flag.
She’s a fascinating character Sylvia. Un-emancipated, uneducated and jobless she is forced to rely on the men in her life for everything relying on her cleverness and guile to get her what she wants. Very much trapped by her pregnancy she ends up married to Christopher who you sense married out of duty rather than love. Stuck in a pleasant if not passionate marriage with a kind, good man who never calls her on her mistakes, never challenges her, never fights for her she becomes fatally bored “bolting” with Potty Perone and instantly regretting it once she realises that the reality of a torrid affair is every bit as tedious as the marriage she didn’t previously much care for.
Christopher takes her back but he never really fights for her. He never tries to make the marriage work, separate bedrooms separate lives – they are together to appease his sense of parade. Christopher is a good honourable man simply trying to do the right thing, he spends his life always trying to do the right thing by Sylvia but in doing so he absolutely smothers her. All she wants is for him to fight for her, to tell her off, insult her (interesting that she only agrees to Perone’s clumsy advances when he stands up to her) to show that she inspires passion in him and prove to her that she is who he truly wants. But if he did love her before Perone he certainly doesn’t seem to afterwards. Sylvia’s greatest tragedy is realising that she really does truly love her husband right at the moment that he is falling deeply head over heels in love with someone else.
Sylvia’s speech to Christopher in this episode had me weeping. Standing before him completely vulnerable and emotionally exposed she all but begs him to touch her.
“I broke under your forebearance, your permanent well mannered forgiveness for my doing the dirty on you…You forgave without mercy. To scream blue murder and throw me out would have been a kindness compared to 5 years under your roof banished from your comfort. Look at what you’ve bought me too. Throwing myself at you in my whore’s trosseau…”
Even when they do kiss she is the one to initiate it and then they are sadly interrupted by Perone. And when Christopher turns to her after and says he’s sorry we hear what he really means “I’m sorry I don’t love you Sylvia.” Poor Sylvia. She bought it on herself but you can’t help but feel sympathy for her.
You want Christopher to be happy and Valentine is his choice but Valentine is almost like a male fantasy of an ideal woman – a clever, blonde, radiant young woman, who cares about social issues, is incredibly sweet and kind, fiercely loyal and is a pure as the driven snow virgin to boot. By comparison Sylvia is bitterly, wretchedly human – and I love her for it.
An extraordinary hour of television.