This review contains spoilers.
After its Upstairs Downstairs revival failed to set the world alight, the BBC upped its game in the search for a Downton Abbey rival, and came up with this classy, expensive, Tom Stoppard-scripted literary adaptation with which to usher in the autumn schedule.
Parade’s End is the BBC’s very own stiff-upper-lip chronicle of Edwardian Englishness, adapted from Ford Madox Ford’s quartet of novels depicting the troubled emotional life of brilliant government statistician Christopher Tietjens, “the last Tory”.
It’s worth mentioning at this stage that at no point in Parade’s End does Tietjens fall through a portal to another planet (unless you count Yorkshire), encounter an army of the undead, or get bitten by anything radioactive. So why the review on Den of Geek? Firstly, we thought it looked good, and secondly, it stars a certain Mr Cumberbatch, in whom many of you have expressed a previous interest.
Cumberbatch brings his own audience with him these days, and going by the first episode, there shouldn’t be any complaints from those quarters. “Take orf your petticoat” he instructs a sylph-like Suffragette at one point, and it’s difficult not to imagine a thousand heads on sofas around the country silently nodding in acquiescence. Yes Benedict. Anything you say Benedict.
The episode opening is efficient in its storytelling. Within minutes we’ve met Tietjens, a moralist brought up “soft”, but with something of a cad’s past behind him, duped into a hasty marriage to save the reputation of vivacious, promiscuous, and pregnant Sylvia (Rebecca Hall, as great as ever).
The couple’s chance encounter leads to a quickie in a railway carriage, followed by a quickie wedding, a son with a question mark over his parentage, and years of resentful marriage.
Cumberbatch has explained in interviews that he was attracted to the role of Tietjens because of its stark opposition to his Sherlock persona, but the difference isn’t as polar as he makes out. Tietjens is also a brilliant logical mind, given to whiling away breakfast time making in-margin corrections to Encyclopaedia Britannica entries. And while we’ve never seen Sherlock smile quite as lasciviously as Tietjens does at his future wife in that train carriage, we’ve certainly seen him tell people off in the same terse, self-possessed style as Christopher.
Rebecca Hall is great as mercurial Sylvia, and the scene of her calmly shutting down her elopement with a display of exquisite good manners whilst being held at gunpoint was a joy. Back to Christopher she went, to infuriate and be infuriated for years to come. Righto indeed.
The rest of the cast are similarly decent. Stephen Graham, in a rare non-psycho role shows off his versatility as Scottish colleague and pal to Tietjens, is joined by Anne-Marie Duff, Janet McTeer, Rupert Everett and newcomer Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop, the fresh-faced women’s rights protestor (half Carey Mulligan, half Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic), to whom Tietjens becomes drawn.
Stoppard’s script does just as good a job as you’d expect in whittling down the events of the first novel into meaningful, if not always easily acessible chunks, and Cumberbatch is just the man to convey Tietjens’ inner struggle and outer semblance of rightness, or as he would have it, the parade.
The inevitable comparisons to Downton Abbey (stirred up by a less-than tactful recent interview Cumberbatch gave on the subject of the “…atrocious” ITV drama) are proved facile by this opening episode. It’s like comparing a warm blanket to a library. One’s comforting and unchallenging, the other takes a bit of work but ultimately, is the more rewarding.
Parade’s End isn’t a soap, it’s layered, it’s learned, and in a very English way, it keeps its distance, making few allowances for an uninitiated audience.
From beginning to close in fact, Parade’s End is Englishness in excelsis. From Cumberbatch’s plummy buttoned-down emotions, to Rufus Sewell’s loopy, buggery-obsessed vicar, and those suffragettes fleeing bobbies by leaping across rivers on a golf course (surely the most English action scene on TV since the Last of the Summer Wine gang went up and down dale in a bathtub), it was gloriously, unmatchably English.
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