Years ago, noted British thespian, comedian, and author Stephen Fry was asked to judge a reading competition at Harrow School in Britain. Fry himself being in possession of one of the planets more sonorous voices, seemed a capable talent to award the Lady Bourchier Reading Prize to the student who delivered the most stirring and technically proficient pronunciations of the specified text. After the performances, Fry deliberated on the dearth of talent and awarded 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize. He doesn’t recall who took home 1st prize, but he will never forget that he awarded 2nd place to Benedict Cumberbatch. Fry now caterwauls – in jest – the mark against his judgement and only hopes the boy who received 1st prize explodes onto the scene and humiliates Cumberbatch. If he has seen ‘Parade’s End’, he now knows that even facetiously that would be a pipe dream.
The miniseries originally premiered on the BBC and was re-broadcast in the U.S. by HBO in 2012. Though ancient history as far as entertainment is concerned, the series is, to me at least, a gem buried beneath the gold and silver accolades of Cumberbatch’s career. In 2012 ‘Sherlock’ had just begun to register its seismic pulses on American radars and Smaug and Khan were yet to reach the screen in their respective vehicles. This 5-part mini-series slipped into the bank of media housed at HBO largely unnoticed. I am among those who had no idea this acting clinic even existed. Having now discovered it, I believe it needs to be reexamined for the way marker it represents in the already illustrious career of Benedict Cumberbatch.
‘Parade’s End’ is originally a tetralogy of novels written between 1924 and 1928 by Ford Maddox Ford (why, God?). It was adapted into 5-hour long episodes by Tom Stoppard and Susanna White. The series follows the life of Christopher Tiejtens (Teejens), played by Cumberbatch, from the inception to the conclusion of the first World War. Tiejtens is a wealthy country aristocrat and in line to become the “Earl of Groby” after his older brother rejects the title to live a leisurely life in London. Apart from being fabulously wealthy he is also a gifted statistician and a resolute member of the Tory party – and feels as though he were the only remaining patron of its tenets. His conservative qualities, however, do not prevent him from engaging in a scandalous tryst onboard a train with Sylvia Satterthwaite (Rebecca Hall), a young socialite with whom he happened to share a compartment (and much more besides! uh-OH!).
The high-speed coitus results in pregnancy and forces Christopher and Sylvia to marry. The marriage is unsurprisingly gelid from the vows onward. Sylvia’s frustrations and meretricious lifestyle are wholly incompatible with Christopher’s Brahmin and melancholic disposition. Infidelity follows as Syliva has flings with multiple partners, namely a man named Potty Perowne (I can’t make these names up). Christopher, while harboring no feelings resembling affection for Sylvia, fabricates a story to protect her honor and shield his young son from the truth after Sylvia runs off to France for a time with Potty. It is during this absence that Christopher meets Miss Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette advocating for women’s rights. It is, as they say, “Love at first sight.” Yet Christopher’s code of ethics will not allow him to violate the boundaries of his marriage to Sylvia, despite her truancy. At the urging of his good friend Vincnet McMaster(Stephen Graham) to divorce Sylvia, Christopher refuses, sputtering with emotional exhaustion: “For a Gentleman there is such a thing as…call it ‘Parade’.” This type of urbanity is almost wholly absent from today’s culture – and, truth be told, Christopher’s as well. His gentility and grace net him nothing but slander and public discredit as he falls on his sword to avoid humiliating a woman he practically loathes. Unsurprisingly the onset of WWI helps nothing, further fraying the emotions of all parties involved as they adopt the respective titles of: whore, cuckold and mistress. The series could easily have slipped into the category of a cloying, dusty, and irrelevant show of vanity; but instead soars and resonates cacophonously in an era redefining the values and protocols of a generation.
The strength of the series rests with the performances and the sickeningly sweet dialogue of writer, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard and series director Susanna White seem to be in perfect sync as they slope and crest emotion and setting together into a fantastic showcase for their actors. The plot unfortunately becomes a bit of a quagmire during the 3rd and 4th episodes; as the characters are separated for long periods of time due to the war. Here is where it leans most heavily on its talent. Rebecca Hall gives Sylvia a masterful and firm arc that aims to skew the audience’s perceptions and allegiances as the series grows older. It is always impressive to watch an actor with the skill required to take a loathsome character and turn them sympathetic without making them pathetic – Hall balances this task admirably and isn’t lost or trodden on by Cumberbatch. Her character, Sylvia, marks the best and worst in women of that era and class; wanton spending, no accountability, prey only to withering gossip, frivolity, detachment from reality and yet also determination, humility, and at various points, devotion.
The supporting cast bolstering the love triangle for the series is vast, with British stalwarts like Roger Allam, Miranda Richardson, Tom Mison, Rupert Sewell and Janet McTeer peppering the seasoned lot. The inestimable effects of their talent on the quality of the program can not be understated. Such vivid and distinct characters are rendered with perfect dynamics – expanding and ebbing with the demands of the script. Ancillary plots never disrupt the flow, but accentuate the themes of ambition, lust, loss, social humiliation and frustration, as well as the internal climate and perception of the women’s rights movement. Cumberbatch, however, is the cornerstone. His vocal delivery would have surely won him 1st prize from Stephen Fry if he were to hear it today. The maturity of the performance is one that would be expected from a revered and seasoned veteran like Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart or Gary Oldman; but Cumberbatch’s mastery at such a young age has drawn comparisons to icons such as Olivier and Alec Guiness. His ability to frack life from beneath what could have been a stone-faced and otherwise prosaic figure catapults him to an echelon occupied by VERY few actors today.
The maturity of the performance is one that would be expected from a revered and seasoned veteran like Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart or Gary Oldman; but Cumberbatch’s mastery at such a young age has drawn comparisons to icons such as Olivier and Alec Guiness. – Peter Craven
This is NOT ‘Downton Abbey.’ Though it is apt to draw comparisons due to the subject matter and setting, the similarities stop there. ‘Parade’s End’ is an interpersonal drama that is accentuated by the collapse of an era. Christopher Tijtens is the lone figure plugging breeches in the dam holding back a river of change, and his self-inflicted sacrifices for ideals that are no longer considered relevant, or even prudent, are the catalyst for much of the series’ drama. To me, it is the most definitive visual work on the collapse of the British aristocracy and the emotional revelations that WWI unleashed on Britain as a whole. You can find the complete series for viewing on HBONow or for sale or streaming on Amazon.