A Love Triangle Unraveling Against the Backdrop of Societal Upheaval: ‘Parade’s End’

[15 April 2013]

By Lynnette Porter

Contributing Editor

Songwriters Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager once assured us that “Everything old is new again.” Those lyrics certainly apply to Parade’s End, which is once again in vogue.

The Ford Madox Ford tetralogy, published in the ‘20s, has been described as one of the best novels of the 20th century. Thus, it’s not terribly surprising that the man often called Britain’s greatest playwright, Tom Stoppard, adapted Parade’s End as a five-part miniseries shown on the BBC in August-September 2012 and on HBO in February 2013. The most recent version plays up the love triangle among Christopher Tietjens, his wife Sylvia, and the young woman everyone assumes is Christopher’s mistress, Valentine Wannop.

Likely because of this adaptation, featuring an attractive cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens) exploring backstory and new scenes written by Stoppard, the BBC has just released a two-disc DVD set of the original three-part 1964 television adaptation. It, perhaps surprisingly, is a more coherent telling of Ford’s original tale and can provide the missing plot pieces for audiences who might not have understood the puzzling nuances of the BBC-HBO collaboration. Audiences familiar with the novel or the Stoppard-scripted adaptation inevitably will compare either with the 1964 miniseries, which is famous for providing Judi Dench with a standout role as the teenaged Valentine.

Ford’s story—a hefty 900 pages of small print in the single-volume edition—is difficult to pare into a few hours of television, and scriptwriters John Hopkins and Stoppard chose different approaches to summarize and dramatize the novel. In three scripts produced as part of the Theatre 625 anthology television series, Hopkins emphasizes World War I and its haunting impact on Christopher Tietjens, a man so conservative that even he describes his politics as last having relevance in the 18th century. Tietjens is a brilliant aristocrat who, when war comes, chooses to head for the front lines rather than remain within the safety of a government advisory post. On the battlefield he uses his analytical skills to supply and maneuver troops, along the way gaining the trust and respect of his fellow soldiers. While near the battlefront, he also organizes his thoughts about his demanding socialite wife and, should he return from war, his future with her and with Valentine, the suffragette who has won his affection.

The DVD set follows the structure of Ford’s novels. Each approximately 90-minute episode is titled after a book in the tetralogy:  “Some Do Not”, “No More Parades”, and “A Man Could Stand Up”. (Ford’s finalé covering the aftermath of war, “The Final Post”, is left out, and both televised adaptations conclude with the armistice celebrations described in “A Man Could Stand Up”.)

Like the novel and the 1964 adaptation, the latest version reveals the societal changes produced by the First World War, a time heralding “no more parades” of either soldiers or strict social expectations. The BBC-HBO collaboration, however, resulted in a series of scenes that, although often visually beautiful, provide mere glimpses of the conflicts assailing Tietjens. This miniseries may have made Parade’s End “new again”, but the 1964 adaptation excels at exploring Tietjens’ mental state and illustrating why he believes that, for himself, there can be no more “parades” of class manners that hide the turmoil concealed behind closed doors.

The 1964 version may be “old” in its storytelling technology—black-and-white scenes, most filmed in a studio, with only drawings or photographs used to indicate battles or crowd celebrations—but it allows characters more time to explain their feelings and, as a result, makes their complex relationships with one another more easily understood. Theatre 625 lived up to its name and broadcast a series of televised plays, a decidedly different style for audiences accustomed to a “show” as well as “tell” method of television storytelling.

Today’s audiences expect a story to be expanded beyond the studio to filming locations that will make the period settings seem current and real. Therefore, the 2012 adaptation appropriately “shows” more than “tells”. Viewers see, for example, the Tietjens’ family home at Groby or voyeuristically watch Christopher and Sylvia’s sexual adventures on a train or Valentine’s long-awaited love scene. The lower-budget, studio-bound 1964 adaptation, in contrast, “tells” (sometimes aided by brief wartime flashback scenes) of the horrors of battle; it highlights the rampant gossip surrounding Christopher, Sylvia, and Valentine that threatens their social survival and clarifies Valentine’s steadfast love for Christopher. Although far less beautifully filmed, the older, dialogue-heavy adaptation of Parade’s End effectively presents a gripping character study of a love triangle unraveling against the backdrop of societal upheaval.

“Christopher Tietjens will never change,” Dench’s Valentine affirms during the third episode, even when she is confronted with a man possibly driven mad by the war. Ford’s portrait of a conservative man living during a time at odds with his beliefs allows the character little opportunity for real change, despite his relationship with forward-thinking Valentine. The difference between television adaptations is greatest in the scriptwriters’ and actors’ interpretations of Tietjens. Instead of the romanticized version, well played by Cumberbatch, that indicates post-war Christopher may indeed be open to change, Ronald Hines (Elizabeth R, Not in Front of the Children) harshly illustrates the toll of war on Christopher’s psyche.

Tietjens berates himself for attempting to save a soldier, only for the man to be further wounded during the rescue. He recalls the hardships endured on the front lines; at one point he tells Valentine that he must talk about everything he has held inside for two years. He becomes more clearly martyred by his wife’s interference in his military career. Tietjens does not change his principles, but he can no longer completely control his thoughts. The Great War is the focal point of this Parade’s End, and the greatest casualty is Tietjens’ mind.

Whereas Hines is always believable as Christopher, Jeanne Moody’s Sylvia often seems over-the-top crazier than her husband, even at his maddest. Of course, nearly half a century later, evaluating a performance by current audience expectations is not completely fair. Moody’s acting follows the televised play style popular in the early 1960s, and her reactions, which would be ideal for the stage, are frequently too large or loud for the intimacy of a close-up shot. Moody’s Sylvia may seem too much of a stereotypical villain for audiences more accustomed to subtlety in television acting.

The star of this adaptation is Dench, and fans who have not had the opportunity to see her early roles should watch Parade’s End just for her performance. She convincingly plays the wide-eyed suffragette who falls in love with the highly restrained Tietjens. Valentine knows exactly what her emotion-based decision means for her future and willingly agrees to become a mistress. Whereas the 2012 adaptation suggests that Valentine and Christopher may have a more conventional (i.e., someday married) happy ending and “shows” rather than “tells” details about the intimacy of their reunion, the chaste 1964 adaptation provides no such easy conclusion. Dench’s Valentine has a grown-up understanding that, by choosing Christopher, she embarks on a very difficult path. There may be “no more parades” of class expectations, but that does not translate into a classless society where an unmarried woman, living openly with her lover, will be embraced by anyone but him.

As is typical of productions retrieved, decades after broadcast, from a studio vault for DVD release, this set has no extras. The first disc contains two episodes, with the remaining installment on the second disc. Nevertheless, this set is well worth watching, especially for Parade’s End fans, audiences who want to know the rest of the story, or film fans of Judi Dench (most recently in Skyfall and J. Edgar) who want to see this enduring, engaging star near the beginning of her career. The 1964 adaptation may indeed be old by television standards, but it presents an intriguing interpretation that offers new insights into Ford’s classic story.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/170383-parades-end/