Ever since Downton Abbey became a massive worldwide hit it seems that broadcasters are desperately searching for other dramas set around the 1910s which would be great ratings winners. Already this year we’ve had the adaptation of one of my favourite book’s Birdsong, which I was underwhelmed by, as well of course of Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ disastrous Titanic series. As the Americans also love a bit of Downton, as is evidenced by it cleaning up at the recent Emmy nominations, HBO have got in on the act teaming up with the BBC to produce Parade’s End an adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford’s quartet of novels and starring another American favourite in Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch.
We start in the early part of the second decade of the 20th century where we meet statistician and the so-called ‘cleverest man in London’ Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) who is about to be married to the philandering socialite Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). It is mentioned early on that the child that Sylvia is carrying, and later gives birth to, probably isn’t Christopher’s but her countless attempts to make him jealous have little impact which frustrates her even more. Sylvia and Christopher’s married life doesn’t seem great as he spends his mornings correcting the Encyclopaedia Britannica while she complains about being bored eventually demonstrating this fact by sporadically smashing expensive-looking crockery in the couple’s drawing room. Sylvia finally has enough and moves away with her lover Potty (Tom Mison) with Christopher deciding to give up the marital home and takes his son Michael to live with his sister while he moves back into a dingy flat in which he seems much more comfortable.
This being a period drama we also get some historical context as the politicians who play golf with Christopher and his colleague McMaster (Stephen Graham) are constantly attacking them in several clichéd ‘Votes for Women’ scenes which for me seemed like they came straight out of Mary Poppins. Christopher is intrigued by one of the suffragettes, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), helping her and her friend to escape over the golf course before later getting stuck on a fog-filled road with her with the two almost sharing an illicit kiss. At the same time though Sylvia is once again bored and returns with the hope of getting her husband back which may well happen as Christopher appears to be the kind of character who doesn’t particularly want to rock the boat.
It took me a while to get into Parade’s End as I initially got the impression that this was HBO does Downton Abbey especially when we got a nipple in the third minute of the first episode so much so that I thought this would be all top hats and tits. It also took me a while to settle into the plot as there were a few flashbacks to show the start of the relationship between Christopher and Sylvia before their wedding which was a disastrous affair. Thankfully about half way in I started to really enjoy it especially the amount of humour on display from Sylvia’s pithy putdowns to full on slapstick as a parson falls of his bicycle after being disturbed by a bolding horse. The best scene for me though definitely has to be a breakfast gathering in which we meet a lot of the supporting characters including Valentine’s flighty novelist mother (Miranda Richardson), the pale and wan Rev Ducheim (Rufus Sewell) and his very nervous wife (Anne-Marie Duff) who may well start up a relationship with McMaster. It is this range of colourful supporting characters that really lifts Parade’s End into something more than a Downton rip-off although there was a needless scene in the servant’s quarters of the Tietjens household which seemed like it could’ve come straight from the ITV drama.
As far as the performances go Cumberbatch is brilliant doing his best uptight and reserved Edwardian gent as he plays a character that has more of a head for figures than he does for women. Fans of Sherlock may be taken aback by the fact that Cumberbatch plays it fairly detatched meaning it’s hard to feel anything for Tietjens until his wife leaves him. Cumberbatch is most comfortable when he has someone to banter with, see Martin Freeman in Sherlock, whether that be his snide remarks to Rebecca Hall or his work-related chats with Stephen Graham to me he feels a lot more relaxed in these scenes than he does playing the romantic lead opposite Adelaide Clemens in the closing scenes of the episode. For me though the tour de force performance comes from hall as a woman who wants more from her life than being a wife and mother and is constantly bored by her surroundings whether it be at home with her husband or on the run with her lover. Sylvia isn’t a likeable character, even her family find it hard to deal with her at times, but Hall is able to make you relate to this woman who hasn’t really found a man she can settle down with despite being married. The supporting cast all do well with Richardson, Sewell, Duff, Graham, Roger Allam and Rupert Everett all stealing certain scenes in which they appear and all of whom I hope make more of an impact in the rest of the series.
As you can imagine with an American co-production it seems a lot of money has been spent on the costumes and sets to give Parade’s End as much period detail as humanly possible. Every scene looks so well-crafted at times I feel that more work has gone into that than the script however with Tom Stoppard adapting the books the screenplay isn’t really an issue here. After an opening that I found hard to connect with, Parade’s End turned into something that I feel can more than compete with Downton Abbey as it has arguably a better ensemble cast and characters that have a bit of bite as well as getting the mix of drama and humour dead on. I’m not quite sure how the Americans will take this but I for one really enjoyed Parade’s End, especially the latter half of the episode, and am looking forward to watching the other four episodes in the series.
Contributed by Matt Donnelly Follow Matt on Twitter