After doing that exhaustive review of Parade’s End, I finally watched the BBC series, which is up on NetFlix now. So, how does it hold up? Pretty good, I thought — in fact, I liked it better than the books except for one thing: the final volume, Last Post, was left out. Now I know that certain critics and Graham Greene believe that Ford should have quit with a trilogy, but as I mentioned before, I think the guy was looking to do a Galsworthy/Forsyte Saga kind of deal, maybe looking to spin this sucker out right into the 1940s (when he died). Anyhow, of all the characters in the book, I liked Marie Léonie the best and she didn’t even get a line in the TV series.
But otherwise I liked the way Stoppard trimmed the work down to an essential narrative which was presented in chronological order. There was a nod to certain repeated phrases (which provide a sort of continuity in the book), Christopher is not compared to a meal-sack, but his opinions are, and we have Sylvia pulling the shower bath strings several times. There are no long sections about birds and flowers but we do have Christopher going on about how he loves England, which serves something of the same purpose. So far, so good.
Certain scenes did not work as well as they should have — the Duchemin breakfast, where Cumberpatch is given some awkward lines to make certain everyone knows that Reverend Duchemin’s servant is a professional boxer, who subdues the Reverend in a most obvious fashion, not the discreet jab to the kidneys that is in the book — but I’m not going to dwell on them.The big question is, how well are these characters depicted? Let me jump out of order here, past the leads, to Anne-Marie Duff who plays Edith Duchemin: she is perfect. First, she looks right, like Elizabeth Siddal would have if she had lived another decade or two. Her costumes, too, are wonderfully pre-Raphaelite gone to seed. I was convinced.
I was already prepared for Christopher/Cumberpatch not to be the fat Yorkshireman portrayed in the novels, so wasn’t too shocked. Still, I wish Benny had a few more pounds on him. The entire Yorkshire connection is pretty well missing — we have Groby and Groby Great Tree and all, but none of the regional flavor. Imagine, for a moment, Christopher played by whatever actor you might prefer as Inspector Dalziel, Warren Clarke in his younger days, for instance.
Cumberpatch was given more opportunity to emote than Ford gives Christopher in the novels — he cries, I think three times, in the TV play, but only once in the novel (when the horse is going to the knacker’s, something not underlined by Stoppard). By and large, Cumberpatch and Stoppard give some life to this rigid, self-destructive character but leave enough of the original that at one point, my wife (who is not a fan of martyrdom) muttered “Bring out the cross and nails, already.”
Sylvia is a huge problem. Her behavior in the novels is borderline-psychotic, Stoppard tones her down to simple borderline-personality disorder, which is easier to digest. And, in the book and the TV series both, there are moments when you sympathize with her wish to crack Christopher’s composure. In the series’ beginning, Sylvia is ravishing — there is a scene where she rises from the bath and Christopher, poor jerk, cannot look at her body — but as the story progresses, Sylvia becomes less beautiful. Her mouth seems to get larger and larger and her teeth more prominent. In the confrontation scene with Valentine, Rebecca Hall is wearing really red thick lipstick that traces a mouth half again as large as at the series’ beginning. She is monstrous, then, especially when compared with perky, pretty Valentine.Valentine only develops depth in the fourth Parade’s End novel, so Stoppard has to work a bit to make her more than just a pretty face. He emphasizes her physicality — Valentine is seen running a number of times — and that is right in line with the book, but lacks the punchline of Last Post when Valentine’s body fails her. Still, what can you say against Adelaide Clemens, who is a really delightful little cupcake and perfect for the girl that Christopher says would make “a cracking little mistress”? Stoppard gives her some lines when the confrontation with Sylvia occurs. Valentine gets right in Sylvia’s face and tells her off and even old meal-sack Christopher smiles. (You could have done that, too, Chrissie, you gormless jerk.)
MacMaster was played well by Stephen Graham, but I wish Stoppard had gone a little deeper into his friendship with Christopher. In the book, MacMaster is explicitly compared to a pet dog, all panting admiration for Christopher, who accepts his fawning attitude as the due of a gentleman. But this brings us into the tricky realm of the way Christopher sees other people — Scots like MacMaster and Edith Duchemin are barely all right, unlike Jews who are totally unacceptable. There is only one reference to anti-Semitic attitudes in the BBC play and it is rather veiled; in the novels, anti-Semitism is rampant, constant, and I can understand why Stoppard did not want to go there. Which brings us to the larger question of how well Stoppard presents the collapse of the English system that had prevailed since the Glorious Revolution. (Do you think it an accident that the Tietjens family comes over with William of Orange? I don’t.)
The two young men, Tietjens and MacMaster, are presented at the beginning of Parade’s End as exemplars of a class that rules half the world; at the end of the tetralogy, Christopher is peddling pieces of England to Americans. The important historic shift, in Ford’s work, is in the concept of a certain kind of upper class and what being a gentleman means. This is something missed in Stoppard’s version. If Parade’s End is about historic change — which was Ford’s intention — then we should have seen more of it. Instead, Stoppard brings us some symbology about Groby Great Tree and that must make do. (To do him justice, Stoppard does have changes in sexual matters — Sylvia with a douche bag, Valentine discovering a Marie Stopes marriage manual, but even Ford has Edith Duchemin cursing MacMaster for not using a rubber. And, I give Stoppard credit for bringing in Father Consett’s execution, one of several references Ford made to Ireland, though neither he nor Ford properly link that to Sylvia’s state of mind.)But, what the BBC version does give us at the end is Christopher nuzzling Valentine’s naked breasts, which is far more satisfying than the non-embraces that repeatedly come up in the books. If you are going to tease the reader, then you need to come through at the end. Stoppard understands this, Ford, not so much.
Tl;dr: Swell romance with just enough gratuitous nudity, but the novel is a different story.