Disclaimer: mean comments about Downton Abbey are only directed at fans that unfairly criticise Parade’s End. The rest of Downton fandom who allow people to have their own preferences are accorded this same right by the author of this post.
The genesis of this post lies in a comment made by a certain individual on the Wall of the Parade’s End Facebook page. While its author will remain unnamed, the post will be reproduced in its entirety:
‘Absolutely no match for Downton Abbey. The actors are acting as if it were still the year 2000. Doning (sic) period costumes and using today’s speech patterns, language and words that were never used in those times is off putting. Hell some of the words were never used in my childhood so why use them for the early 1900s? When I look back to the 50s people were slower than these bods let alone the type of citizens they are “trying” to portray here. Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’
Attempting to decipher many of these remarks can be migraine-inducing.
Is he talking about swearing? What does all that blabbing about the 1950s actually mean? And why does the author have such a high regard for the language used during his childhood that he’s convinced it couldn’t be used in the early 1900s? Fortunately for us, we’re not obliged to attempt to see light in the fogginess; what ultimately concerns us is the last line: ‘Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’
That got me thinking. Ever since Parade’s End was announced, the comparison with Downton Abbey has existed, which is understandable, since both shows take place in the Edwardian era. Downton had done a terrific job of robbing the period drama of the elitist mantel it sometimes carries, and many Downton fans were thrilled that a new Edwardian costume drama was coming; the combined appeal of having both Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Stoppard on board creating considerable excitement. Fans of Edwardian literature and of BBC period drama were also thrilled that Ford Madox Ford’s practically unknown masterpiece was getting such glorious treatment, and that it had been decided to adapt such a rampagingly modernist tetralogy. The first episode opened to record ratings (for BBC2), and it’s at this point that the considerable divide between reviews started. On one side, there were the Downton fans: but we can’t follow what’s going on, but it’s not in chronological order, but we don’t understand what the characters are saying. And of course, infinite variations on ‘cheap, trashy and badly done.’ On the other side, there were the Edwardian literature and period drama fans: the series gets the same brilliant modernist treatment as the books; it’s unashamedly intellectual, with complex characters, and bursting with symbolism and subtlety. Episode two arrived, ratings dropped. From that point on, it became acceptable for Downton fans to sling mud unashamedly, some of it very funny and done in the spirit of good fun (there was one terrific meme circulating featuring a confused Dowager Countess and the caption ‘What is a Parade’s End?’). With the might of ratings and of majority opinion behind them, they were met (and are still met) with very little opposition. Parade’s End fans usually ignored them, or felt indignation and simply kept their mouths shut. Let me explain why. Parade’s End fans are literature fans and period drama fans. They’re intellectuals. They’re used to being called elitist snobs; they’re tired of it; so why entertain it again?
Attempting to explain the merits of Parade’s End to a Downton fan is exhausting and often hurtful. People hear the word ‘intellectual’ or ‘literary’ and a snide comment like ‘Well then I understand why you would like it’ (that once happened to me) is sure to follow. Well, this particular Parade’s End fan was on Facebook, lazily browsing all the glowing comments and praises of all the other intelligent people who love the show in the one environment designed for us to be able to sing its praises unmolested, and the delightful comment cited above popped up. And something snapped.
My fellow intellectuals, I regret that today, I do not possess your self-control or your admirable ability to ignore this idiotic comment and the millions of idiotic people who share similar views. So today, just once, I am hitting back, I’m fulfilling people’s prejudices, and I don’t care if people call me a snob or a nerd or any of the usual ignorant, hurtful things they say.
Parade’s End wipes the floor with Downton Abbey. Once the excellent first series of Downton ended, there seems to have been some kind of agreement between the show’s producers that ‘Okay. We know we’ve got a money maker here. So we can compromise on quality.’ And boy, did they. Overnight, Downton changed from a soaring period drama into a soap opera with pretty costumes. The terribly-written script released an epidemic of ridiculous plots (i.e. Patrick Crawley escapes drowning on the Titanic, loses his memory, acquires a Canadian accent and reappears in the middle of the First World War with his head covered in bandages and Edith is the only one who believes him and oh no one else does and he leaves and she’s so sad and oh!) and positively alarming changes in character (i.e. Lord Grantham and his sort-of affair with that stupid housemaid, something that is so out of character that it would have been laughed out of production had it been proposed by a novice screenwriter). It’s always the same empty-headed nonsense: Thomas and O’Brien plotting to take somebody down; Mr. Bates wrongfully accused of murder, chucked in jail, getting the death penalty, not getting the death penalty; some nasty guy disguised as Iain Glen threatening to publish Mary’s secret in his newspaper (gasp!) and Matthew and Mary dancing around each other like a pair of schizophrenic canaries, of course with a charming and totally innocent Lavinia threatening their happiness. It sounds like an episode of Days of Our Lives! This goes round and round in a whirlwind of appalling script and mediocre acting (and of course, of pretty costumes), with only Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery saving us from the complete collapse of our mental faculties after watching only one episode.
In comparison, Parade’s End is War and Peace, but with one notable difference. Parade’s End can actually compete with War and Peace. It can compete with any of the world’s great classics. Unlike Downton, it doesn’t give us a cute, idealised version of old England, the version that Downton manages to deliver even at the height of the War. Parade’s End gives us old England at its most excruciating and its most cruel. The pretty costumes and the gorgeous drawing rooms hide the blackest human depression and most brutal acts of evil and human selfishness. People are strangled alive by social convention that no one seems to like, but that everyone clings to, because embracing the new would be too frightening. People choose to suffer out of a sense of duty. Its protagonist, brilliant statistician Christopher Tietjens, is rigorously committed to this old world sense of duty, which he calls ‘Parade.’ Married to Sylvia, a scathingly evil woman (yes, evil) who trapped him into marriage through a child who may not be his in the first place, he gladly endures all the misery of being bound to an intelligent but utterly uneducated woman with whom he has nothing in common and who seems determined to hurt him as much as possible for ‘tormenting her’ with his honourable behavior.
Where honour is concerned (well, perhaps where all things are concerned), Christopher is stubborn as a mule, refusing the entreaties of his friends that he divorce Sylvia after she runs away to France with another man, declaring that ‘only a blackguard would subject his wife to that.’ He even conceals her infidelity from the general public by saying she’s gone to Germany to nurse her mother at a spa. At all costs, even that of his own happiness, he is determined to act in a way that he considers decent and gentlemanly: ‘For a gentleman there is such a thing as…call it Parade.’ Christopher’s sense of honour and duty is rendered all the more excruciating when he literally runs into (well, almost literally runs into) a young suffragette on a golf course who has been demonstrating with a friend, and helps them to escape by chucking a bag of golf clubs between a policeman’s ankles. Some investigation, and fate, reveals her to be Valentine Wannop, the daughter of old Tietjens family friend Professor Wannop. A superbly well-read and brilliant Latinist, Valentine is Christopher’s perfect intellectual match, and they fall in love in an extremely intellectual, almost spiritual way. Christopher’s own honour and loyalty to a woman who hates him keep them apart, Valentine loving him all the more for his scruples. Christopher begins to see the world around him in an increasingly critical way, despairing at the way honour, goodness and service to one’s people have been swept under the carpet in the name of incompetent bureaucracy and money. At one point, Valentine even accuses him of hating England, to which he replies, ‘Don’t believe that. I love every field and hedgerow. The land is England, and once, it was the foundation of order. Before money took over and handed the country over to the swindlers and schemers; the Toryism of the pig’s trough.’ He resigns his post and leaves for the trenches, where he is met with even more misery, lack of organization and a mental hysteria that routinely possesses him, causing a split in his consciousness that almost drives him mad. In Christopher’s struggle, both in his personal life and in the psychological terror and madness of the War, is embodied the madness of the age: what do duty and honour matter when men devote years and years to murdering each other in the most horrible ways for the most horrendous reasons; what exactly is it that all these people with their own lives and loves die for; what are the true consequences of our actions; how far do they reach out, and above all, what is life, war, dying, madness, all for, and why do we continue when we don’t even know? All the sense and reason is drained out of the world, so why have any other goal than to simply love someone and hope you don’t get shot?
Tom Stoppard’s twenty year labour of love on the script of Parade’s End captures Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy in all its glorious complexity, and flawlessly conveys the highly psychological, internalized worlds of the characters and how they relate to the outside by maintaining Ford’s flexible modernist chronology, as well as his heady, striking and sometimes incomprehensible imagery. He has a deep understanding of the characters and of their motivations, and he uses those motivations to guide us through their development with as much mastery as Ford himself, only enlightening us of certain facts of plot or chronology as far as Ford himself enlightens us in the books. The star-studded cast is laden with career-defining, deep method acting performances of unimaginable complexity from Benedict Cumberbatch (Christopher), Rebecca Hall (Sylvia) and Adelaide Clemens (Valentine), the chemistry between the three set at perfect pitch. The psychological nature of many of the scenes is evoked through gorgeous cinematography heavily influenced by early twentieth century art, particularly Picasso, giving the entire series an unashamedly artistic, intellectual atmosphere. Parade’s End is a perfectly-made, flawless masterpiece, and people who don’t see that are idiots.
Here’s the truth of the matter. Parade’s End is for people who possess a brain. Downton Abbey is for those who do not. The latter is for people who only need to see a cute girl, or some beautiful dresses, or a big English country house, to think they’re dealing with a masterpiece of human accomplishment. In their tiny, badly-read, usually brainless, uneducated lives, it may very well be. Following Downton is not challenging or interesting. It doesn’t require any thinking or engagement from its audience: what happens in each episode is shoved down your throats like chocolate ice cream down the throat of a five year old. Watching Parade’s End requires the audience to think. It requires the audience to engage with what they’re seeing. When you watch it, there is a lot to think about, because there’s a lot to take in and a lot to admire. There’s a script you actually need to pay attention to in order to know what’s going on. You need to pay attention to the out-of-sequence chronology because the meaning of certain events being out of sequence may pop up later. If you don’t possess a brain, you can’t do it. If you’re just plain thick, you can’t do it. This may indeed be disconcerting for you. So change channels and move on. Why lambast a series and throw endless, completely unjustified criticism at it just because you don’t understand it? This insecurity would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. The inability to provide concrete, detailed criticism of a series doesn’t make it bad television. It doesn’t give you the right to have a bad opinion of it. It doesn’t give you the right to have any opinion of it. All it does is make you look indescribably stupid. I don’t care if loads of people do the same thing. Ten million stupid, wrong people are still stupid and wrong.
So. Parade’s End isn’t cheap, trashy and very badly done. It is a masterpiece. It is approximately 10 million times better than Downton Abbey. And the somewhat hellish criticism of it by Downton fans is unjustified, unjustifiable, laughable and rather like E.L. James telling Margaret Atwood she sucks.