After only two episodes Parade’s End looks set to be one of the critical hits of 2012. Despite the fact that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel lost almost a million viewers last Friday, with many tempted from BBC Two to Channel Four by Paralympic fever, this is a drama that has unquestionably grabbed the attention of the public consciousness, resulting in some of BBC Two’s most impressive figures in years. The media remain fascinated by the big issues this story confronts, too. In a week in which David Cameron appears to have shifted his cabinet to the right of the political spectrum, columnists and commentators have analysed the conservatism of hit dramas such as Parade’s End and Downton Abbey. An argument could be made that the public’s interest has waned, as evidenced by the drop in viewers, but who actually watches great telly when they’re supposed to anymore?
Episode 2 begins with the death of Christopher Tietjens’ mother and a reunion between him and his irrepressible wife, Sylvia. It is up to Sylvia to break the news to Tietjens, who has not heard because he has journeyed to Europe to take Sylvia back. Immense credit must continue to go to both Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Iron Man 3) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who maintain their remarkable performances from Episode 1. In the early scenes here they display their characters’ complexity and emotional range with deft subtlety and skill.
Tietjens is stunned by grief, but only for an instant before the shutters of respectability come crashing down. Sylvia momentarily revels in the power she has over the news, before genuinely feeling her husband’s pain and then hating him for not wanting her comfort. She cruelly suggests that her recent affair, and the shame it brought on the family, killed off her mother-in-law. Tietjens resolves not to be provoked by her attention seeking brutality however, and simply replies that his mother died due to her ill health. Sylvia responds by throwing her expensive looking pocket mirror out of the carriage. Tietjens stops the driver and fetches it from the undergrowth.
We already know from Episode 1 that Sylvia can be restless, cunning and malicious, but could it be that her harsh behaviour in this case is in fact an act of love, designed to occupy Tietjens and distract him from his grief? There are certainly numerous glimmers of her affection for him throughout this episode, along with her strange ways of expressing it to spite his coldness. In the first episode she confessed that Tietjens made all other men boring for her, and it appears to drive her to the point of insanity that her feminine charms can beguile all of them but him. When Tietjens cannot look at his naked wife in this episode, despite her best attempts, her pride seems permanently wounded.
Serena Davies is right to write in The Telegraph that this is Sylvia’s episode. Much of the narrative is from her defeated perspective, as Tietjens simply gets on with his life at the department of statistics, predicting a European war in 1914, and resenting his masters for repeatedly asking for fabricated sums. Tietjens was the centre of attention in Episode 1 but here we see his brilliance by proxy. Sylvia takes herself off to a convent to prove she can be chaste if she wants to and plot a way back into her husband’s trust. Meanwhile Tietjens’ friend Vincent Macmaster, played by Stephen Graham (Pirates of the Caribbean, This is England), continues his affair with the mad vicar’s wife and hosts regular parties every Friday for creative, arty types, all of whom are ignorant and unconcerned by the prospect of war. Politicians and the ruling classes are too busy moaning about the suffragettes, and the suffragettes themselves, such as Tietjens’ love interest Valentine Wannop, are too busy protesting for the vote.
This is an episode that really makes use of its ensemble cast and we get an excellent sense of the times. Tietjens seems to be placed on the periphery, in more ways than one, as he watches the world slide towards a war he is sure will happen, and he also observes his friends and acquaintances conducting lives and loves he does not permit himself to pursue. The episode culminates with his decision to quit his influential position in favour of joining up to fight. He is guided in this by an archaic and surely out of touch sense of duty, which he fails to explain to both Sylvia and Valentine in a way that they can understand. Again this adaptation shows itself to have bags more depth than Downton Abbey and the like by embracing the nuanced modernism of the novel. Tietjens is presented as both brave, bold and brilliant for being different to the rest, but also as rather repugnant for not staying in a position of power to do more good, choosing to act on a misguided set of old, chivalrous values instead.
Of course the real question of the series remains whether Tietjens will permit himself to follow his heart. Episode 2 ends with a conversation between Valentine and Tietjens, three years on from their almost-kiss. Tietjens talks of the respect they share, or he hopes they share, and he can’t bring himself to use a more emotive word. She is simultaneously baffled and entranced by him. She cannot understand his decision to go to war and she is struggling with her own naivety, exposed earlier in the episode by an abortion scandal. And yet she knows he is a good man, the best she’s ever known. She’d love him to abandon his respectability for her.
In Episode 3 Tietjens goes to war, allowing the gorgeous visuals of this adaptation to play out on yet another canvas and Cumberbatch’s delicious aristocratic drool plenty of scope for heartbreaking, poetic speeches about the battlefield…
This episode of Parade’s End is now available on BBC iPlayer.