Sir Tom Stoppard returns to the small screen with Edwardian drama

Parade's End, on the BBC, is a £13m co-production with HBO

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The Independent Culture

It is a lavish Edwardian-era drama, penned by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, which portrays the tumultuous impact on the English aristocracy of the First World War.

But Sir Tom Stoppard denies that Parade's End, his return to the small screen after more than 20 years, bears any comparison with Downton Abbey. With an A-list cast headed by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, the BBC has pitched Parade's End, a £13m co-production with HBO, as the centrepiece of its autumn drama schedule.

Stoppard, the acclaimed playwright, was lured back to television by the chance to adapt Ford Madox Ford's decade-spanning quartet of novels, which follow an English aristocrat as his concept of social order, morality and marriage is challenged in the upheaval caused by the First World War.

Stoppard said work on Parade's End actually preceded fellow Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes' hit ITV drama. "I'd already written most of it before Downton Abbey," he said. "I delivered the fifth episode in autumn 2009. Personally, I like the period, I don't think there's too much of it around."

Stoppard, 75, who won his Oscar for the Shakespeare In Love screenplay, doesn't watch Downton Abbey, or any other television drama.

The series took three years to bring to the screen because the BBC needed international backers to fund the project. An A-list cast, featuring Rebecca Hall, Rufus Sewell, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett and Anne-Marie Duff, helped sell the series to international broadcasters before shooting was completed.

Cumberbatch's Christopher Tietjens plays a brilliant statistician, who refuses to "sex up" figures in a dossier to help the government force through a bill for universal health care. He becomes entranced by a free-spirited Suffragette (Australian newcomer Adelaide Clemens) when his wife Sylvia (Hall) embarks upon a public affair.

But HBO, home of The Wire and The Sopranos, was initially unconvinced by the Sherlock star. Susanna White, the director, said: "Benedict is very much in demand now but there was a meeting where HBO said 'Who is this Benedict Cumberbatch?' We said everyone will have heard of him by the time Parade's End comes out. Now he's playing the villain in Star Trek."

Battle of the period dramas

Parade's End – BBC2

Budget £13m

Scribe Sir Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love)

Plot Aristocrat from Yorkshire ensnared in love triangle as society shaken by war

Hearthrob Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch

Socialite scandal Beautiful but wilful wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) embarks upon a affair

Downton Abbey – ITV1

Budget £8m

Scribe Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park)

Plot Travails of aristocrats and their servants as Yorkshire family tries to survive tumult of war.

Hearthrob – Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley)

Socialite scandal Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) covers up death of Turkish diplomat after late-night assignation