“Parade’s End”: HBO miniseries showcases World War I’s effect on British society

Parade’s End airs over three nights on HBO, Feb. 26-28.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in HBO's "Parade's End"Parade’s End
Part 1: Feb. 26, 9pm
Part 2: Feb. 26, 10:05pm
Part 3: Feb. 27, 9pm
Part 4: Feb. 28, 10:05pm
Part 5: Feb. 28, 9pm

What is it that’s so fascinating about pre-World War I Britain?

Perhaps it’s the florid costumes, such pleasing reminders of a bygone era. Or the delicious accents, delivered through stiff upper lips bearing exquisite emotional repression. Then there’s the poignancy of seeing one way of life, so stately and mannered, being rudely and completely demolished by war and social change, giving way to the modern world.

Whatever it is that has captivated audiences of PBS’ runaway hit Downton Abbey is also likely to draw eyes to Parade’s End. The five-hour miniseries airs over three nights and follows the complex love triangle between rigidly traditional military officer Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock), his socialite wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall, The Town), and young suffragette Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens). It was hugely successful when it aired in the U.K. last summer, leading to a resurgence of interest in the source material, a much-revered but rarely read 1920s quartet of novels by Ford Madox Ford.

Boasting a script by Shakespeare in Love scribe Tom Stoppard, Parade’s End also features several well-respected actors contributing memorable work in smaller roles, among them Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, Janet McTeer and Roger Allam.

It’s a handsome, ambitious project to be sure — including 110 speaking parts, according to director Susanna White. But the veteran director, who also helmed miniseries such as Bleak House and Generation Kill, says it was a rare treat to have access to a work of literature that, despite being nearly 90 years old, had not placed much of a foothold in people’s imaginations.

“The book … has really been forgotten,” White says. “I’ve got an English degree, and I certainly never studied it when I was at university — yet you have people like Graham Greene saying it was one of the greatest novels about the First World War ever written. What was exciting was to rediscover it and see what really thrilled people about it.”

It certainly wasn’t the simplicity that drew readers. White readily admits the books are demanding, likening them to “reading James Joyce,” but she says there is also a definite modernistic approach at work that is irresistible.

“Here was someone who was looking at the way the First World War really changed society, and blew everything up and nothing landed in the way it had before,” she says of Ford. “What Tom [Stoppard] did so brilliantly was to straighten out the narrative and make it work as its own thing, as a piece of television. A piece of television that still makes demands on the viewers, but you have to be honest, is a lot easier to follow than the novels are.”

What thrilled Hall about the story, besides getting the chance to play a “glorious” villain in Sylvia, was how Parade’s End gives the appearance of being another cozy costume drama, a la Upstairs, Downstairs, but delivers something else entirely.

“This is a vision of Edwardian England that we’re not familiar with,” says Hall, who will be burning up screens this summer in Iron Man 3, “where people behave really irrationally and cover it up in the guise of it being the proper way to be, where people are always on the brink of hysteria, where absurdism is just around the corner, where authority becomes preposterous, where everything is literally on the brink. It’s literally about to be exploded by World War I, and never exist the same way again.”

Clemens gained a unique appreciation for this perspective, having shuffled back and forth from shooting Parade’s End to the set of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

“In just a space of 10 years, women’s behavior and what was acceptable had completely changed,” Clemens says. “That really shows you what a war does. It shook up the whole world.”

The presence of the red-hot Cumberbatch will no doubt be a huge draw. The future Star Trek villain is as buttoned-down as Tietjens as he was free-spirited in Sherlock, and star power aside, White says he was the perfect actor for the job.

“If you look at the word count for Christopher, it’s relatively small given how much he is in the piece,” she says, “so we had to have someone who could do a very difficult thing, which was play a man who’s emotionally repressed yet make the viewer fall in love with him. To me, there was a tiny handful of actors who’d be capable of that, and we were incredibly lucky to get Benedict. … He plays all the repression but behind his eyes you see this incredible emotion.”

Photo: Credit: Nick Briggs/HBO