Friday, BBC Two
Christopher Tietjens, the hero of Parade’s End, is difficult to like. His wife, Sylvia, finds it impossible. The cleverest young man in London, up and coming and already above himself in Whitehall’s department of statistics, he is a know-all who for recreation pens corrections to the Encyclopaedia Britannia in its margins. He foresees the flaws in the welfare state, knows how much liquorice to feed a horse and can confidently inform his friend, Macmaster, the author of a slim treatise on Rossetti, that his hero’s poetry is congealed bacon. Only his emotions does he leave un-annotated. For guidance on his conduct he relies instead on his knowledge of society mores. A London cuckold, for instance, looks impudent if he lives in anything grander than a flat.
For a cuckold he is. As he tells Macmaster in one of his very few, and typically terse, intimacies, Sylvia has “bitched” him. Having tricked him into marrying him while pregnant with another’s child (the poor thing is only ever called “the child”), she then runs off with another lover only to tire of him and decide she will return to Tietjens, provided she can bring her maid — “there being no one else,” she explains pointedly, “I can bear to have with me when I retire for the night”.
So why should we care about these snobs or Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s long-forgotten novel sequence? Well, for a start there is Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens. Cumberbatch brings humour and an awkward, adolescent vulnerability to everything he does. To purloin Tietjens’s word, Rebecca Hall is also rather “glorious” as the attention-seeking, sexually voracious Sylvia. Poor her: Tietjens doesn’t even look up when she throws crockery at him.
How could we not care to follow a story as brightly animated as this? Stoppard has delved into Ford’s massively verbose narrative and picked out all the plums of dialogue, placing many of them in different characters’ mouths while making loyal nods to Ford’s fractured time scheme. Above all, he finds the books funny. The scene in which Tietjens and Macmaster (Stephen Graham) visit a deranged vicar (a whey-faced Rufus Sewell) who accuses the Rossetti-fancier of self abuse is as hilarious as the Gielgud-Irons encounters inBrideshead Revisited.
The director, Susanna White, opens with a shot from above a chandelier looking down on a boudoir decorated like a wedding cake, but she never allows herself to fall in love with the Edwardian style, breaking up the architectural vistas with Futurist shots of train wheels, dividing her screen kaleidoscopically. When, finally, Tietjens falls in love, with the suffragette Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens in pristine contrast to the exotic Hall), it is against a simplifying backdrop of white mist.
This is not Downton with a degree. It is Granada’s Brideshead in all its satirical, romantic glory revisited. People won’t watch. They want Merton and Hislop on Friday nights. But what do people know?