A Hearty Salute To ‘Parade’s End’ And HBO
One of the more interesting rivalries in television has been between HBO and PBS, two broadcasters that aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath, despite their very different commitments to quality television.
But the two have owned the miniseries-movie Emmy with “Masterpiece” winning two years ago with, ta da, “Downton Abbey” (which is now in the regular series category). My vote this year would go to another ode to Anglophilia, HBO’s “Parade’s End,” which begins Tuesday night.
Anglophilia? Maybe not. Ford Madox Ford, the author, could be described as a self-hating Englishman for all the fun he had with stiff upper lips. Yet part of him deeply admired his strange protagonist Christopher Tietjens, perhaps the last man standing in the England of World War I concerned with doing the right thing. He’s certainly the last man standing in “Parade’s End” who’s concerned with doing the right thing. (We’ll get to the women shortly.)
That contrast is what makes Ford’s epic four books that comprise “Parade’s End” such an important addition to the 20th century novel. If it ruthlessly portrays the Tory world that Tietjens is trying to uphold, it even more devastatingly predicts the empty materialism that would follow in its wake. Tietjens and his wife are the forerunners of George Smiley and his unfaithful Ann. I doubt that John le Carré would disagree.
But what of the HBO-BBC miniseries? I spent much of the first part of the series wondering what made HBO want to film it and what made playwright Tom Stoppard want to write it. As cerebral as it is, it’s not what you’d call riveting drama and there’s very little melodrama that kept “Downton Abbey” suffused in crowd-pleasing soap. Stylistically, it belongs to the world of “Masterpiece” more than HBO, though there are flashes of bare breasts later in the series.
HBO, however, has its own admirable history of parnerships with British television and movies, notably the Winston Churchill biopics and “The Special Relationship,” about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But given that “Parade’s End” doesn’t have any Churchillian or Clintonian name attached to it, HBO certainly deserves credit for going the extra mile for five hours, Tuesday through Thursday.
The stars are well-known to fans of British drama – Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens and Rebecca Hall as his wife, Sylvia. Cumberbatch is a great actor, even better as “Sherlock” than his buddy, Jonny Lee Miller. (Cumberbatch very entertainingly said that that “Parade’s End” was much better than that other “Masterpiece” series, “Downton Abbey,” which he accurately described as “sentimental, clichéd and atrocious.” I’m not being completely accurate in quoting him as there was an adjective in front of atrocious.)
Cumberbatch kind of overdoes the marbles in his mouth at the outset of the series, though part of the fun in the series is watching those marbles slowly dissolve. It isn’t Hall who dissolves them, though she gives Sylvia more complexity than even Ford does. She is emblematic of the coming English superficiality. But with help, no doubt, from Stoppard and director Susanna White (“Generation Kill”), Hall brings an incredible amount of compassion to Sylvia’s portrayal. Tietjens is so closed down that who could blame her for being a bored, frustrated, mad housewife. There are so few life-affirming options left to her that you can hardly blame her for her affairs. When Tietjens priggishly turns away from her naked body it’s obvious that there’s as much wrong with him, psychologically, as with her.
But not morally. And Sylvia realizes there’s something so admirable about his having a moral center when everyone else has lost theirs that she loves him as much as she hates him. It’s left to the young suffragette, Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), to slowly restore him to life both before and after his horrific experiences at the front.
It will be a life without illusions, though. “No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me anymore. Not for the nation. Not for the world, I daresay. There will be no more parades.”
These aren’t easy thoughts to visualize and one really does have to have a patience for chamber TV, if there’s such a genre. White brings more life to the outdoor scenes, which is part of the point. The interiors define the claustrophobia killing the British soul. The exteriors, not including the war scenes, offer release.
Stoppard does a great job staying true to Ford’s vision of the first three books. “The Last Post” is something of an experimental postscript. All credit to HBO for partnering with the BBC for “Parade’s End” and out-masterpiecing “Masterpiece.”