All good things must come to an end. But that doesn’t mean they can’t end well. In its final episode, Parade’s End provides its hero and its audience with suffering and triumph; an hour which forms a fitting finale to what has been a sorely undervalued drama.
Like a family who own a beautiful painting but aren’t sure of the best place to hang it, the BBC have ended up not giving Parade’s End the attention it’s deserved, resulting in fewer than 2 million viewers week on week. It’s frustrating, but oddly reflective of the events onscreen.
Sylvia and the upper crust out swilling and guffawing at champagne socials while men like Christopher Tietjens are fighting without fanfare mirrors the real life fact that we the Friday night TV audience are out enjoying a carton of vodka at our local discotheque while Benedict Cumberbatch acts his muddy socks off in the trenches.
In the stumbling months of the Great War, Tietjens is dispatched to the front lines for the series’ most visually interesting episode yet. The depiction of No Man’s Land is the stuff of Wilfred Owen nightmares: a shell-blasted heath, far from the green and pleasant land Tietjens rode through with Valentine in Episode 1, and of a quality worthy of being on the big screen.
The trench-level camerawork is immersive – the view making you feel closed off, claustrophobic, but also funnelling your attention directly at everyone’s performance, flinching only at the rattle of bullets into mud. One scene in particular, showing Tietjens plodding through knee-deep filth in a frosty trench, is so arrestingly bleak that it makes you want to pull a blanket over yourself and hug your knees.
Against what you’d expect it’s not the death and damp that changes Tietjens, but rather a moment which occurs offscreen, as the ancestral tree of the Tietjens at Groby is cut down by Sylvia. It’s a hugely symbolic event and a point of catharsis for Christopher, a character who would have come across as wooden as said tree, had it not been for the deft touch of Cumberbatch.
With the destruction of the family tree, and by extension the legacy of the Tietjens name, Christopher sees no further reason to continue to parade his code of morality and honour in the faces of others. And so we find him in the welcoming bosom of Valentine Wannop. It’s an upbeat end for him – a ‘happy ever after’ that might feel forcibly twee had he not earned it fighting the Hun and his machete-mouthed wife – and you can’t help but be pleased for him. Three cheers for Tietjens indeed.
And three cheers for Parade’s End, a drama that we’ve championed unashamedly. What at first glance seemed to be an impenetrable work of high-brow self-pleasure soon revealed itself as a compelling work of character.
To look at its forbidding bulk on a bookshop shelf and then at the finished televisual product, you can’t help but be impressed at Tom Stoppard’s adaptation skills, and the talent of every single member of the cast, for bringing to life a script filled with warmth, passion, and a surprising amount of humour. Parade’s ended, but let’s hope this one isn’t forgotten come awards season.
Aired at 9pm on Friday 21st September 2012 on BBC Two.
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