Parade’s End is HBO’s answer to Downton Abbey
Series about aristocrats during First World War debuts Feb. 26, starring Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock and Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The veiled lives of the British ruling class are examined against the backdrop of the First World War. And there is plenty of scandal.
Sound familiar? For those suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal now that Season 3 has wrapped, HBO is presenting Parade’s End, a five-episode BBC co-production that premieres Feb. 26.
PBS has had a major hit with Downton Abbey and HBO is all too aware that the public broadcaster is eating its lunch when it comes to British society drama. But then again, who would have thought British period television would be competing with CSI: New York for audience share?
There are some major differences of course. While Downton and Parade’s End happen at the turn of the century and span roughly the same time period, Parade is much more cinematic and sweeping in scope.
It’s based on English writer Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the lives of the ruling class during the First World War.
Originally published as four separate novels, it has been hailed as one of the great works of British literature by fans including Graham Greene and W.H. Auden.
Parade’s End stars the ridiculously square-jawed British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, War Horse) as Christopher Tietjens, an aristocrat trapped in a marriage to an unfaithful wife and an unexpected romance with a suffragette.
Like all great British soaps, it centres on class and morality. But Parade’s End works best as a dissertation on the erosion of the Edwardian ideal, as Tietjens’ outmoded sense of morality loses ground to a more pragmatic and cruel world.
Cumberbatch’s deep basso and trembling stiff upper lip are worthy of an Emmy in itself, as he alternates from a cartoonishly proper English gentleman to something more vulnerable and human as he struggles with honour, duty and self.
The standout though is Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who plays his callous wife Sylvia with complete, scene-stealing abandon.
It’s hard not to compare this production with Downton Abbey. I found myself missing the marvellous interplay and clash of class between servant and master that makes Downton so compelling. There is far less of an Upstairs, Downstairs vibe to Parade’s End, a look at the society who decided when the trains would run, not the serfs who were shovelling the coal. But the serfs are frequently more interesting, especially when they’re usurping the master.
But bringing a 900-page series of novels to the screen was undoubtedly challenging.
And it took Britain’s (arguably) greatest living playwright, Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), to tackle the job, especially since author Ford was rather fond of turgid prose.
“He had a passion deep and boundless like the sea . . . a thing the thought of which made your bowels turn,” is the way author Ford describes Tietjens’ developing love.
Focusing the sweeping plot lines was likely also problematic, since some of the scenes feel rushed and choppy as if Stoppard needed to get to the next tangent. The first three episodes are almost entirely devoted to the first book, leaving the last two episodes to tie up the knots.
Still, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, Parade’s End is likely worthy of space on your PVR.