I’m not usually a die hard fan of period dramas, or at least the kind of period drama we find endlessly appealing in this country, the kind with bonnets, gas lit lamps and horse drawn carriages. Its not because of the types of stories you see in these classical period dramas, which, after all, have the potential and flexibility of contemporary set stories, just with different props and costumes. Sure its reductive to say that’s the only difference, not taking into account social and technological changes between then and now, there and here, but, still, I stand by that. You can have period set horror, crime, romance, adventure, drama, comedy, stories of violence, of oppression, of war, of exploration, of infidelity, belief, loss, whatever.
For me, though, period dramas of the type churned out with some regularity by the beeb and ITV hold little appeal. Maybe its because the society of the times depicted itself holds little appeal. Anyway, despite all this the fact is there are some period dramas I watch, one of which I have recently, almost accidentally stumbled into. I’m talking of Parade’s End, Tom Stoppard’s (as writer) and Susanna White’s (as director) adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy novels.
The five episode mini-series is currently halfway through, with the last two episodes to promise plenty of heartache and tragedy. Fittingly the laughs and breezy introductions of the opening episode are giving way, slowly, to a growing, slow burn sense of looming disaster. Considering the series time frame centres on the horrible events of the First World War it’s perhaps unsurprising how dark the characters lives are capable of getting. The world was changing with the most painful, violent contortions imaginable, and as of the third episode, its hard to imagine all of them surviving – there’s already a bodycount – or even surviving without being entirely changed by events.
Briefly the story concerns an old fashioned conservative, an upper crust landowner called Christopher Tietjens who becomes torn between his notions of duty towards an unfaithful, bored and wonderfully complicated wife, Sylvia, and his romantic inclinations for an equally engaging woman, the suffragette Valentine Wallop.
The troubled marriage and illicit romance is the core of the series around which are spun increasingly greater themes and plots. The war is the most momentous and dramatic. The friction between those urging progressive social changes, such as the women’s suffragette movement, and those with deep traditional roots in the old order, is neatly and best framed by a line of dialogue attributed to Christopher Tietjens (played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch), wherein he talks lovingly of Groby, his ancestral estate, and the roots of the ancient tree which run beneath the house. Both cannot survive, one or the other must go. Its a sad moment, reflective of the inevitable social change contorting the world. If a new society is to be born, it can only do so by killing the old order.
Despite these great, impressive, overarching themes, the one storyline I’ve so far found most enjoyable is the gleefully scandalised behaviour favoured, almost subconsciously, by many of the supporting characters. Its a small world shown here, one where image is everything and black marks for naughty behaviour can affect your standing. Gossip and rumour, of course, are everywhere and do their own insidious damage.
Tom Stoppard writes this stuff with verve, playing up assumptions, lies and implications with a cheeky enjoyment, one shared by his universally game cast.
I have no idea how the series will end, or even how faithful all of this is to the books. I’d honestly never heard of Ford Madox Ford or Parade’s End before the first episode, but I’m looking forward to reading them.
Tom Stoppard’s name, at the moment, is on screens both small and large this month. Not only with the ongoing, excellent series, but with an inventive, bold adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina. That film, apparently, takes place extensively within an old, depressed theatre, a touch added by its director Joe Wright to set the new version apart from every other period drama out there.
Parade’s End is a hugely enjoyable series, exquisitely adapted and presented, well adapted and comfortable both with pathos and comedy. You can catch it online, and I’d recommend watching it. And maybe after that you could even read the books.