‘Parade’s End’: Episode 4 review

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Who’d have thought watching Benedict Cumberbatch shouting about horses and fire extinguishers would be so compelling?

In less capable hands Parade’s End could be a collapsed hot air balloon of a disaster, but once again this is another brilliant hour of TV. Shout on Cumby, shout on…

It’s 1917, so Christopher Tietjens hasn’t heard of Edwin Starr, but he’s already finding out first hand that War is good for absolutely nothing. Not for fire extinguishers, or horses, or sonnets, and especially not his love life. With determination comparable to that of the German war machine, Sylvia Tietjens pushes her way into France to see her husband, and ends up causing just as much trouble for Christopher, General Campion, and the top brass, as the dastardly Hun.

While trembling men are having bloody chunks knocked out of them, Sylvia and her ilk are engaging in civilized dinners far from the front line, where the closest thing to fighting is the bisque rippling slightly as a shell explodes miles away. The contrast is darkly comic in a Blackadder Goes Forth sort of way, as the chaos of military barking is compared to the rigid chains of gossip around the tea table.

After three episodes quietly roiling in the background The Thick of It‘s Roger Allam brings the same stormy exasperation cultivated in the DoSAC corridors to the role of General Campion. Blustering and booming like a Big Bertha gun, he actually manages the rare feat of pulling focus from Cumberbatch and Hall. There’s a touch of Blackadder‘s General Melchett to Campion, right down to the twitching moustache, and Allam throws himself into it the role. Seeing this man moulded by gunpowder and champagne becoming more irked with Sylvia Tietjens is the standout treat of the episode.

Well, it might be if Cumby didn’t later get his chest out. We hope you didn’t strike your head against a coffee table when you swooned.

Talking of beautiful shots, the move from genteel Edwardian London to war-shredded Rouen reminds you just how superb the production work is, not that you’re in danger of forgetting. Some weak CGI punctures the effect but the physical sets are immersive and hyper-detailed. Camerawork, sound, and direction all kaleidoscope together to envelope you in a dirty, scary place and the result is the feeling that a chilly November day is leaking through your TV screen.

When Parade’s End began it did so in a green and pleasant land where you could practically smell the barley and cream teas, but slowly we’ve seen the splendour of an era erode in parallel to Tietjens’ marriage.

It’s been a transition so beautifully presented that it’s annoyingly impermeable to criticism. Once again, anything less than full marks for Parade’s End would be churlish and nitpicking. Here’s hoping that the final episode will prove a fitting conclusion to an adaptation that has turned a frighteningly thick tome into what will surely rank as one of 2012’s best dramas.

Aired at 9pm on Friday 14th September 2012 on BBC Two.

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