OK, hands up, who is loving Parade’s End on the BBC? Yes, that would be me, and not only because of the presence of not just the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch but, for two glorious episodes, Rufus Sewell as well. All the acting is excellent, especially Cumberbatch (as I knew he would be from the moment the casting was announced) and the luminous Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. The visuals are also superb, especially the use of Vorticist fracturing and mirroring to portray movement and multiple perspectives. But what I am really loving is how brilliantly the production is evoking all the emotions I felt when reading the books – fury at the hypocrisy of society, the humour of the golf course scene, the huge affection that Tietjens and Valentine engender, despite him being, on the surface, an extremely irritating individual, the pity and horror of Tietjen’s father’s suicide. I haven’t read the books in years, not since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on them, but it is testament to the power of both the original source and the adaptation that I am feeling such vivid sensations of recognition with every episode.
At the moment, my only quibble, and it has the potential to be quite a serious one, is with the characterization of Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens. I initially thought that it didn’t work because of the need to focus so much on Sylvia’s back story in the first half hour of the first episode, a section not lifted directly from the book’s fractured narrative. To me this was the weakest part of the production so far, although the introduction of Tietjen’s love for Michael was beautifully done. Reading an interview with the director, Susanna White, however, I have discovered that she has chosen deliberately to portray Sylvia as more vulnerable and sympathetic than in the book, a decision that I am not sure works. In the books, Sylvia is a first class bitch with no redeeming features and is recognized as such. Any inconsistencies in attitudes and behaviours can be attributed to her personality. By making her more sympathetic, White and Hall have also made Sylvia harder to understand and have undermined her ability to power the narrative. When set alongside the fabulously hypocritical and vicious Edith Duchemin (now MacMasters), she fades as a character, which makes it that much harder to understand the hold she has over both Tietjens and the rest of her male attendants. Next week, however, we have A Man Could Stand Up – where her relationship with Tietjens takes precedence over his with Valentine, so maybe my doubts will be laid to rest. I do hope so, because there are so many reasons why this is the best dramatization of British society in the First World I have ever seen, which I will be discussing in a future post.