Grace Dent on Television: Parade's End, BBC2
This is some of the best Sunday night TV I've ever seen – pity it's shown on Fridays
Parade's End, I believe, is one of the finest things the BBC has ever made. Shower it with Baftas and Emmys.
Push it proudly in the world's face and say, “This is us.” This doesn't explain why, ratings-wise, it's currently playing only to me and the continuity announcer – who could well be filling in a Sudoku – on Friday nights on BBC2. Friday nights? Well, I ask you. Gross idiocy on the part of the BBC, which placed a wildly cerebral period drama chock-full of British thespian hierarchy raining down dry bons mots on a Friday night. A scarecrow with one boiled egg for an eye could see Parade's End is Sunday night, BBC1, 9pm, damp hair from a bath, comfy clothes, surrounded by Sunday supplements, mugs of tea and a half-hearted supper of cheese and crackers as one over-ate at lunchtime, type of TV. It's Downton Abbey with a massive, complex brain. It's Benedict Cumberbatch, Geoffrey Palmer, Rufus Sewell, Stephen Graham and Rupert Everett bumbling about in top hats being hit on by sexually-emancipated Suffragettes and blasted at by the Hun. It's Miranda Richardson and Rebecca Hall and Anne-Marie Duff in hats and hobble skirts conducting oddly saucy affairs of the heart.
It's Cumberbatch playing Christopher Tietjens in a huge, perplexing love triangle being jolly confused about it and staring into thin air for hours. Oh, the staring. Not since BBC1's Birdsong have posh, emotionally numb people been filmed staring until their retinas become crispy while a viola plays a lot of minor chords to denote the unbearable state of being. I lap this sort of TV up. Give me buckets of the wondrous Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) storming through drawing rooms full of startled maids shouting: “I will be in my room praying for death… or at least packing for it!” Or clandestine moments of wild and morally louche, Edwardian sex in private railway carriages or cartfulls of big-hatted busy-bodies passing by manor houses “for tea” but really intent on causing mischief with tittle-tattle. Sylvia Tietjens, incidentally, is one of the greatest roles ever written for women. The fact it took a man to do this while Austen or Bronte's heroines are blithering irritants in bonnets fainting at the sight of light drizzle, I shall sulkily draw a veil over.
Sylvia is glamorous, dark-humoured, razor-witted, self-serving and due to her gender has been denied education or a job. All Sylvia's surplus energy is channelled into acts of light-evil, caustic demolition and pig-headed glee. In the first episode, – which you missed as you were in the pub, or perhaps you have a partner who threatens to put his head under the grill whenever a period drama starts so you have to watch Mrs. Brown's Boys or Russell Howard's Good News, instead (poor you) – Sylvia absconds from her dull husband Chrissy (Cumberbatch) with a stalwart lover, but then after a short sojourn of wild sex changes her mind. As Sylvia's lover waves a gun in her face threatening to kill her, a smile plays about her mouth as she bitches idly about the shaming quality of hotel notepaper she's forced to write her “Please have me back” letter on. So sublimely disrespectful, I inwardly quack at the mere memory. While Chrissy Tietjens is crucified permanently by convention and Edwardian expectation, his wife's sense of duty to “how things should be” is like fleeting fog. Sylvia takes infuriating to an art form. And in Parade's End, where the throwaway tale of someone dropping a glove in the street, repeated at 10 tea-parties, can become the scandal of the summer (a lot of these characters really need a good slap), Sylvia's the scandalous gift that keeps on giving. Novelist Tom Stoppard's wholly non-macho approach to war is fascinating. We feel World War One approaching but instead of being thrown into the bloodshed, we hang back in polite society watching the women, the objectors, the skivers and the politically corrupt. Parade's End is an earnest look at the end of a British era, still pinned in place by rules of behaviour and a sense of staying proper, before war swept aside etiquette and slaughtered all in its path. I love the representation of the first Suffragettes, fighting for some level of equality, but wholly befuddled by what to do with their new freedom. Stoppard's heroines fight for sexual freedom and then find it makes them mistresses, when it's always better, when all's said and done, to be the actual wife.
Not that Sylvia finds marriage much fun “Higher than the beasts, lower than the angels: stuck between the two in our idiots' Eden,” she tells her husband. “God, I'm so bored of it all. Guarding or granting permission to a temple no decent butcher would give to his offal tray, I'd rather be a cow in a field.” Simply beautiful. But you're not watching it are you? Poor Benedict Cumberbatch BAFTA-ing himself into an early Starlight Retirement Home on BBC2 for you all, but it's Friday and you're too tired by life to bother. Shame on you Great Britain. Shame on you.
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