We have, understandably, become a bit familiar with the fragile decadence, pomp and ceremony of the Edwardian era. Downton Abbey long sated the national appetite for costume drama, and we duly gorged on the carcass of carefully enunciated accents, stiff attire and over-the-top formalities. It appealed, perhaps, to a certain lost sense of what it meant to be 'English'. Now, having devoured the main course, we turn, like some bloated Edwardian gent, to the next: Parade's End. Can we stomach another serving?
Of course, like Downton, we once again have the accents (and doubtless debate will grumble on about whether Cumberbatch has mastered his or not); once again there is the careful attention to dress and formalities. But unlike the fast-flowing luster of the Downton stream, there is real depth to Parade's End.
Indeed it's a different beast altogether, something which is clear from the outset. The novel, written by Ford Madox Ford, and adapted for screen by Tom Stoppard, is a great work of modernism. To its credit, the BBC production has embraced the idea rather than shied away from its complexities. Visually, for example, it has laced what could have descended into 'English-rural idyll porn' with hints of vorticism and abstraction, as well as the exhilaration, noise and speed of technology. In doing so, it highlights the relevance of the period in a way Downton couldn't: we are witnessing a period of tremendous technological upheaval, scientific discovery and the collapse of seemingly impermeable institutions.
The adaptation weaves in some wonderful imagery. Madox Ford's interest in colour is teased out in several scenes. His description of the Yorkshire mist, for example, is not a flat one of various shades of grey, but a rippling description of 'bars of purple; of red; or orange; delicate reflections: dark blue shadows from the upper sky...'
Parade's End also addresses the fallacy of presenting Edwardian England as a 'golden era' frozen in time; a last 'huzzah' for the old days before the oncoming war. It highlights that modernity was not simply forged from the slaughter of the Somme, but that deep undercurrents were already at work in England. Indeed as the historian Phillip Blom has highlighted in his excellent book The Vertigo Years, underneath the pomp and ceremony, Europe was already deeply unsettled during the period. New technologies and scientific developments were progressing apace and more subtly, but no less importantly, new ideas linked to psychology, the self and the role of women were undermining a crumbling façade of imperial order. Indeed Cumberbatch perfectly brings out the self-doubt and emasculation of Tietjens, and the ruling class more generally.
It's interesting, amidst all this, that it's the distant old Tory Tietjens, who is at the centre of things. He is oddly enough more aware of the constant change around him than his colleagues. For him the 'world' had already ended long-ago, with the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the undermining of that rural pastoral that is smeared by the soot of modernity. Yet the increasing pace of that change – in the form of women's votes, collapsing morals and social order – seems to focus itself particularly on this time. Far from simply being an easy jaunt into a mystical past then, Parade's End feels like a strong reminder of the lessons we can learn from the period.