Tom Stoppard has taken liberties with Parade’s End. Let’s hope he brings a neglected masterpiece out of obscurity
Put our greatest living dramatist into a cage with a “challenging” modernist novel and what do you get? A ding-dong scrap and a bunch of questions. Has Ford Madox Ford been “Stoppardised”? Has “justice” been done to Parade’s End? Has the BBC beaten the opposition?
The questions matter. An awful lot of licence money is riding on it. Our money. Sir Tom Stoppard’s adaptation is, one is told, the most expensive the BBC has yet gambled on. The opening episode — with its flickering moves from set to set, outside location to outside location — spared no expense. And bank-breakingly expensive action scenes in a world war are still to come.
BBC statisticians will nervously scrutinise viewing figures, particularly the slump or rise next Friday. The Ford Madox Ford Society is rejoicing that the spotlight has, at last, swung on their man. Penguin, which bought tie-in rights, will be anxiously wondering if it was wise to buy all that front-of-store space in Waterstone’s and hire Julian Barnes (a card-carrying Fordian) to introduce the volume (exquisitely well, unsurprisingly).
Stoppard is big enough an artist not to have to be faithful. We’d think less of him if he were. With Ford he has the advantage — usually denied Andrew Davies — that of the millions who watched last night, not one in a thousand, I’d guess, has read the four-parter, first published between 1924 and 1928, in its entirety. Picture Jeremy Paxman, on University Challenge, fixing his beady eye on you and asking: (1) “Christopher Tietjens saves the life of a Welsh soldier during the war. It’s his one unequivocally good act. What’s the Welsh soldier called?” (answer below for those whose fingers don’t leap to the buzzer).
Ford’s novels have never been in the “these you have loved” category. Take the slightest liberty with Pride and Prejudice and the fur-hatted and pinstriped ranks of the Janeites (who read the novels once a year with the reverence of the faithful at a madrassa) will be on you, hat pins and furled umbrellas raised. Not so with Ford.
Stoppard has used this freedom to do what he fancies with a mixture of flamboyance and tact. Ford’s Parade’s End opens with two not so young civil servants sitting in a train down to Rye for a spot of golf. Tietjens is a statistician responsible for making the British Empire, the biggest show on Earth, run smoothly. His marriage is a disaster. He doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s dull, and meant to be. In two years’ time a madman in the Balkans will fire a revolver and the whole edifice will come tumbling down. Dull no more.
Stoppard’s opening is full-on-sex, Edwardian undergarments flying, between the future Mrs Tietjens — the day before her wedding — and her drunken lover, the father of the child she’s carrying. This, however, is just cheese on the mousetrap.
I’ve tried, as a teacher, to get students interested in Ford for forty years and, believe me, some cheese is very welcome. I wish, in this respect, that I was starting my career in 2012. Now we have the perfect “Ford Madox Ford for Beginners” pack. Call it a “debaffler”. When the run is over, Penguin should pack the DVD in with its tie-in. It would be both a come-on and a kindness to readers.
Having got our attention Stoppard engages with what this perplexing novel is all about. It can be boiled down (forgive me FMF society) to two big questions. Why doesn’t Tietjens, as his friend Macmaster suggests, “divorce the bitch”? And why did so many men (an over-age Ford among them), like Tietjens (in a “reserved” occupation), willingly throw themselves into the meatgrinder that was the First World War? No thoughtful person, at least after the first casualty lists began to blacken this paper’s columns, believed it to be a worthwhile war.
One thing that sometimes puts off would-be readers is the German surname of Ford’s hero — Tietjens. Ford Madox Ford was born Ford Hermann Hueffer. Robert Graves — who wrote the finest memoir of “the Great War” (Goodbye to All That) — was born Robert von Ranke Graves. The other great multi-volume novel about the war, the “Sherston Trilogy”, was written by Siegfried Sassoon.
British Huns, all of them — at least by name. And yet all were gallant, decorated, combat soldiers for their King (he had a German name as well). Why did they fight? The answer Ford and all of them would have given is “It’s what a gentleman has to do.” Why doesn’t Tietjens divorce Sylvia, who has cuckolded him and made him the laughing stock of London? “No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.” (This, incidentally, is one of few bits of Ford dialogue Stoppard retains intact).
The man is a stuffed shirt. A hooray Henry. A snob. A racist — he complains bitterly that the pre-war Civil Service is appointing token “niggers” and “Jews”. Whatever next? Women? He doesn’t think a novel worth reading has been written since the 18th century. He prides himself on being England’s “last Tory”. But, and this is the important thing, he’s a gentleman. As such, he is England, in all its infuriating perverseness, personified.
Tietjens joins up not for the flag or because he hates Germans (he regards them as “absurd”). It’s because of what he is. He falls in love with a beautiful young suffragette and “hot pacifist”, Valentine Wannop, who stands for everything he stands against. She loves him. But he will not “make her his mistress”, because he is still married and it would be “ungentlemanly” to cheapen a woman he loves.
A word of praise here for Benedict Cumberbatch, who has had to work out how to portray someone who is in many ways so odious, so pig-headed, and yet so noble. It doesn’t help that Tietjens is not, physically, a handsome man. He has a “nose like a pallid triangle on a bladder of lard”, Ford writes, thinking of his own unimpressive conk. Benedict has, dutifully, made himself something less than the hunk of the month — for art and, I fondly hope, an Emmy award.
The last surviving serviceman to have fought in the War died last year. Britain is often slow to memorialise its “fallen” (most recently, most belatedly, and most typically those in the Second World War Bomber Command). And this country’s memorials are, typically, understated — nothing to rival the vulgar grandiosity of the Arc de Triomphe or the Brandenburg Gate.
Britain’s finest memorials are literary. And never triumphal. If one’s thinking of the “War called Great”, poets such as Owen, Sassoon, Sorley, Rosenberg and novelists such as Ford Madox Ford top the list. Stoppard, in his own inimitable and irrepressibly egotistic way, honours what the novelist was doing — brilliantly. Licence money well spent, if you ask me. Watch and (if you haven’t already) read.
John Sutherland is Emeritus Professor of English at University College London and a member of the Ford Madox Ford Society
А тут более стебное
Parades End Review in The Sunday Times
AA Gill review of Parade’s End in The Sunday Times.
Have you read Parade’s End, the omnibus of four novels written by Ford Madox Ford considered by very, very well-read people to be one of the greatest works of the 20th century? No, me neither. So you and I can come to the Tom Stoppard adaptation untroubled by bookish concerns for authenticity, all that particularly English discomfort, the intellectual anxiety that a precious and elite bit of your personal culture is being mass-produced for the proles. First thing: it looks fabulous. The settings and the costumes, the appurtenances and the mise-en-scéne are scrumptious, far less haute-Victorian and ghastly-gothic than Downton Abbey, and not National Trust Georgeitorian, but, rather, light Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, with that particular soft-shouldered ennui, all very nicely done. And then it has Rebecca Hall, who is, all on her own, effortlessly watchable, constantly believable and will continue to grow as a great, great actress for as long as she can be bothered to do it. She plays Benedict Cumberbatch’s faithless wife (who wouldn’t be?).
Cumberbatch is the first of the drama’s problems: not his performance or his ability to wear a starched collar as if to the manor born, not even his hair, which so often lets him down; but his character, a rich, cuckolded Tory statistician. Now, civil servant number-crunchers are not easy sells as TV heroes. Benedict does his best, but still, he’s a wonk. The next problem is, I suspect, due to the amount of text they’ve had to squash into the screen. I gather a lot of it is interior monologue. So it was difficult to follow, but only if you tried to follow. After a bit, I found it easier to let it catch up with me, like a gayer Game of Thrones. Stoppard has kept the scenes short and intense. A lot of them are very funny, I hope intentionally. I particularly liked a mad, pornographic professor who could only sermonise buggery and masturbation, and an amusing suffragette demo on the links that came across deliciously as a cross between GK Chesterton and Benny Hill.
Parade’s End works as a series of bright epigrams, set in delightful clothes, country and actors, and I rather love it, although I am dreading the first world war bits, having signed a solemn pledge never again to indulge winsome love affairs set against the poetic churning of the trenches. Hopefully, Cumberbatch will avoid stepping in Eddie Redmayne and returning as Clifford Chatterley.
This is a co-production with HBO, and I can’t help wondering what Americans are going to make of a self-denying, celibate, Tory logistician who corrects the Encyclopaedia Britannica over breakfast. Then again, they may take him to their Tea Party bosoms and demand he run for vice-president. All in all, this is an odd confection, as if made from the ingredients from one recipe and the method of another. The result isn’t a total success, but then it’s not altogether unpleasant.