Cumberwatch: Parade’s End

Parade’s End is Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest televisual outing, and is being described all over as “the thinking person’s Downton Abbey“.  Julian Barnes’ spoilerific tribute to the original Ford Madox Ford novels in the Guardian makes the story seem rather more like The Forsyte Saga in its focus on the psychodrama of toxic relationships and desperate yearnings labouring along while the world sweeps with change.  Events in the novels apparently are largely described through the thoughts in characters’ heads rather than in dialogue or descriptions of actions, so Tom Stoppard must have had his work cut out adapting it for the screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher in Parade's End

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the BBC production of Parade’s End.
Photograph: Nick Briggs/BBC/Mammoth Screen

I thoroughly enjoyed the confectioner’s box of escapism that was Downton Abbey, but I’ve always been thoroughly intrigued by the novels and several different adapations of far more disturbing The Forsyte Saga.  With Cumberbatch and Stoppard on board, I can’t wait to see this, and am about to read at least the first of the four novels ASAP, mindful that Christopher Tietjens appears be a rather challenging protagonist.

It is a great audacity for a novelist to begin a long novel with a main character whom very few other characters like, let alone admire. Tietjens is socially awkward, and emotionally reticent to the point of muteness: when, in the book’s opening action, his wife Sylvia, having left him four months previously, asks to be taken back, he “seemed to have no feelings about the matter”. He is “completely without emotions that he could realize”, and “had not spoken more than twenty words about the event”. Later, he is said to have a “terrifying expressionlessness”. Men sponge off him for both ideas and money; women on the whole find him rebarbative – “his looks and his silences alarmed them”. In the course of the novel he is variously compared to a maddened horse, an ox, a swollen animal, a mad bullock, a lonely buffalo, a town bull, a raging stallion, a dying bulldog, a grey bear, a farmyard boar, a hog and finally a dejected bulldog. He is also likened to a navvy, a sweep, a stiff Dutch doll, and an immense feather mattress. He is “lumpish, clumsy”, with “immense hands”. His wife constantly imagines him constructed from meal-sacks.

After quoting that I worry that my earlier comparison to the Forsyte Saga may provoke readers to assume that Christopher Tietjens is similar in character to Soames Forsyte, when they seem to be fundamentally very different.  Although they both share a passion for tradition and orderliness which makes for a superficially stiff and awkward similarity,  their marriages seem to be almost opposites:  Soames pursued the reluctant Irene with a relentless intensity,  while Sylvia Tietjens, whom Grahame Greene  described as “surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel”, takes the initiative in seducing Christopher and then wildly resenting his reticent virtues.

Any Hoydenizens familiar with the novels already?  Will you be looking forward to the TV series?



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5 replies

  1. I think I may be shortly. I didn’t watch The Forsyte Saga, I think it coincided with small child raising and overwhelming tiredness. I shall have to read the books and get the Forsyte Saga DVDs and catch up.

  2. Maybe I’m in the wrong mood, but I was bored by that article, in fact I didn’t make it quite to the end. It reduced my interest in reading the novel or watching the show.
    It sounds so much like it is all about the ManPain!, and those inscrutable aliens, women. Sylvia is apparently Evil! and confused by how she only gets really awesome sex from Our Hero, and Valentine is even more of a cipher, apart from being the Madonna in the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that she and Sylvia represent. Excuse me if I don’t think this is going to provide me with any profound insights into actual human nature, as distinct from the Serious Novel Written By A Man version of human nature.
    Y’all are of course welcome to watch but I’m not as much of a Benedict Cumberbatch fan as some, and his tendency to ManPain! would be part of why (so he actually sounds well-cast for the part as I understand it). I look forward to hearing how wrong my impression is.

  3. In addition to Cumberbatch’s own personal ManPain! (he seems to have borrowed from Stephen Moffat the line that literary homo and heterobromances and their real-life counterparts are a threatened species, something to do with the bad feminists, no doubt), he’s also got UpperClassTwitPain like there’s no tomorrow. Prat.

  4. I read the books in my early 20s and really loved them because of strength of the writing and the (at the time) radical subject matter of a marriage breakup and Christopher’s work organising logistical support for the troops in the trenches. There are amazing descriptions of his mental state under artillery fire.
    I haven’t reread them in the past 20 years and have been meaning to but am a bit put off by the sheer emotional slog of Christopher (I remember wanting to shake him at many points) and how very toxic his relationship was with Sylvia. So yes, a lot of man pain and upper class twit pain but really well done and I’d love to see it on telly rather than Merchant Ivoried, if only to see how they handly Sylvia’s (vaguely remembered as stunning) wardrobe.

  5. ‘handle’ her wardrobe. Apologies for bad typing.

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