Tom Sutcliffe: Unpalatable truths revealed in the real story of an officer and a gentleman


Readers of fiction, Howard Jacobson argued at a literary symposium recently, ought to be able to withstand the “expression of an ugly point of view”.

Three cheers to that, and to his insistence that the creation of sympathetic characters was no business of the serious novelist, however distressing some readers seem to find any other kind. It’s one of the thrills of fiction that it can confront us with characters and psychologies that we might actually choose to avoid in life. How else is sympathy to be enlarged, after all, than by enduring contact with the unsympathetic? Jacobson also warned against the danger of liberal self-censorship: “You have to be able to say of the novel that it has free rein – it can go anywhere,” he argued. And again, three cheers to that. So it was slightly uncomfortable for me to read his remarks having just committed – in my own head, at least – exactly the solecisms and naiveties of reading that he was censuring. It happened to me while reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

Ford’s hero Christopher Tietjens is not a sympathetic character, on the face of it, particularly to a reader of liberal sensitivities. He’s testy, superior, contemptuous of modernity and women’s rights. That’s the point, of course. Ford is addressing the death of a specific High Tory notion of Englishness, as its values collide with the catastrophe of the First World War and all that followed. Christopher is a dinosaur, though he’s a quixotically heroic one. He’d rather go extinct than evolve, and his inflexible values are in many ways admirable. But he’s also an instinctive anti-Semite. If a Jew cheats you, he’s reported as thinking at one point, “you did not feel the same humiliation as you did if you were swindled by a man of your own race and station. In the one case it was only what was to be expected, in the other you were faced with the fact that your own tradition had broken down.” And however hard you try, it’s hard not to flinch from that.

I don’t know for certain that such details have been airbrushed from Tom Stoppard’s television adaptation, but I doubt you’ll see them for several reasons. The first is that in a novel over 800 pages long Christopher’s disobliging references to Jews would barely fill out a page. And these are not Ford’s prejudices, an integral part of the novel’s vision. They are Christopher’s, an inherited and unquestioned Edwardian verity, as obvious to him as his understanding that you shouldn’t wear evening dress to dinner on Sunday. The second is that anti-Semitism has a special status as a prejudice now.

Somehow you can read Christopher’s arguments against votes for women without the same foil-on-filling jolt that his remarks about Jews delivers. They’re both vintage costumes of mind, authentically represented. But you can’t imagine trying both on for size with the same equanimity. It’s the difference (entirely ahistorically, as   far as Ford is concerned) between wearing tweed plus-fours and an SS uniform.

The third reason, though, is because television audiences are already much further along the road that Jacobson fears literary readers have started down. For Benedict Cumberbatch  to say such things would, I’m guessing, make it all but impossible for an audience  to treat him as the hero of this story, and relatively straightforward heroism is what we demand of our lead characters on screen. They can be flawed, of course, but their flaws have to be sanctioned flaws, and this one simply isn’t licensed anymore.

Television is the poorer for it, I think – less sophisticated, less enabled to present history and humans in all their complexity. In truth, Parade’s End wouldn’t be a hugely different novel without those awkward passages, should some future publisher surreptitiously excise them. But we’d be lesser readers if we didn’t have to absorb and think about them.

Not blown away by Tempest tricks

The programme for Adrian Noble’s new production of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal in Bath contains an essay about stage effects, from Pepper’s ghost to recent developments in CGI projection.

I liked reading it but I’m not sure it was wise to include it . Primed for flying faeries, spectral apparitions and inexplicable marvels, you get one of those device-bearing productions that makes it a point of pride to show how every trick is done. Nothing wrong with that at all -. But I still found myself thinking nostalgically of the Almeida production in which Ariel sank into an onstage pond and then reappeared bone dry from the wings. Now that was rough magic.

Some unwanted exposure

The recent debate about the offensiveness of some Edinburgh stand-up reminded me of a car-crash moment I encountered on the Fringe this year. A female comic, desperately trying to establish rapport with the audience, chucklingly asked whether anyone present had ever been flashed – the prelude, I think she hoped, to a hilarious exploration of shared willy-waving experiences.

Just one woman raised her hand to reveal that it had happened to her when she was a child, on her own in a wood near her home. The tremor in her voice made it clear that the trauma had not faded. It was a challenge to comic invention that I’m afraid the performer failed miserably – though her stammering confusion at this moment captured the mood of the room perfectly 

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