Tag Archives: Parade’s End

Parade’s End, part two

It took me a while to finish all 4 of the Parade’s End novels by Ford Madox Ford.  I will say, though, that each one is shorter than the last.  It’s a bit like Michelangelo, who made the first frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling too big, and had to make them smaller and smaller as he went, to fit all of them on.

Parades End. Call Sheet # 39,40 and second unit on morning of th

Unfortunately, these books are not the perfect works of art that Michelangelo’s frescoes are.  The first two were complicated, often lacking in emotion, and frequently difficult to read.  Following the plot was a bit like being pulled along by the hand too fast to look around and see what’s going on.  If I hadn’t seen the miniseries before reading the book, I would have been even more confused.  Ford is not great at 2 very practical things that make reading easier–making it obvious 1-who is speaking, and 2-when events are taking place.  Two very easy things for writers to make clear, but when got wrong, the whole flow of narrative and the magical telepathy that reading is…just doesn’t work.  You are constantly jumping back wondering–did she say that aloud or just think it?  And…is this in the past? Did I miss something?

While I enjoyed the first two books, despite these little niggles, the second half of the tetralogy is more difficult to love. For one thing, they barely feature Christopher Tietjens, the crux of the four-novel plot.  He isn’t seen until the last few pages of The Last Post, action revolving instead around those closest to him–his brother, his wife, and his mistress.  And also, for some reason, his brother’s wife.

The third book, A Man Could Stand Up, starts with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, learning that the war is over, and learning that Christopher, her star-crossed lover, is still alive. But it shifts back in time for the second half of the book, having the reader join Christopher on the front.

Parade's End

Here is where Ford puts in some of his grimmest memories from his time in the war. He led a very similar life to Tietjens. He worked for the Propaganda office, drumming up blindly-patriotic enthusiasm for the thought of killing zee Germans. Leaving that office, he enlisted at 41 years old, and was sent to France. When you read Tietjens experiences of the unbearable and uncountable deaths around him, you just know that Ford is writing from his own experience. Here’s a passage that was particularly difficult for me to stomach, and left me with mental images I never wanted to have:

‘It was different from sleep: flatter. No doubt when the applled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs…well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that…but you collapsed inwards.  Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-gray or mud-colour. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth.’

Time shifts again, and we’re back to Armistice Day, and Christopher and Valentine want to be together. They no longer care for the formalities of propriety and avoidance of scandal that held them back before.  Though many try to talk them out of it, Valentine finally becomes his mistress.

The fourth book, The Last Post spends most of its time in the heads of Christopher’s brother, the brother’s wife, and Christopher’s wife.  We see little of Valentine and even less of Christopher.  We learn everything through hearsay, which I find really annoying.  These two characters pine for each other for nearly a decade, live through hell and find each other again. They finally can be together and…we don’t really see much of it.

Most of the last novel focuses on the future of Groby, the Tietjens’ family estate. This does make sense, as most of this series of novels is about the future of the British ruling class, rather than just being about the Tietjens. Still, it’s easier to deal with a novel when the point of it isn’t thrust in your face at the expense of aspects you’re truly interested in.

Mark Tietjens, the eldest brother, is paralyzed (though it’s unclear how much of his immobility is psychosomatic), and has no children. Therefore Christopher is the next in line to inherit Groby.  And his child the heir after him–if the boy is his child.  That question is never adequately answered, but we’re led to believe he is definitely not. And the house, the symbol of the aristocracy will be further ruined by its passing onto the illegitimate son, brought up a Catholic (a horrible thing in British opinion of the time).

Christopher is married, but not living with his wife.  Instead, he is living with Valentine, pregnant with his illegitimate child. They barely have enough money to support themselves, after Christopher’s business dealings go wrong.  Groby and all that symbolizes the old guard of British land-owning aristocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of Sylvia, Christopher’s horrid wife.  She has rented the ancestral home out to a vulgar American, who had the gall to cut down a very large and beloved tree on the property.  In short, Sylvia continues to torture Christopher however she can, even from afar.

Most of this final book is about how the world has changed, instead of how the characters have changed.  Indeed, the male characters haven’t changed that much at all.  They aren’t adapting well to this new world that has been forced upon them. Mark Tietjens has completely given up on society and refuses to speak to anyone ever again.  Christopher is trying, and largely failing, to support himself and Valentine by selling old furniture.  The women on the other hand…the women can adapt.  Valentine worries about what she’s got herself into, being a pregnant mistress to a disgraced aristocrat.  Understandable.  But she has embraced Christopher and chosen him over respectability and frigid chastity.  Sylvia proves also fairly adaptable. She feels it’s probably time to stop torturing Christopher.  To divorce him (a big change for her, as she is Catholic), and to marry the General that has always admired her and will be an easier target for her endless need to irritate.

If you’re wondering where all of this was in the miniseries–it wasn’t.  Tom Stoppard left most of it out.  The Last Post is a real controversy  among critics of Ford’s works.  Graham Greene omitted it entirely from an edition of Parade’s End that he edited.  It’s a love or hate book, the literary equivalent of cilantro.  I didn’t enjoy it.  We see Mark as a stubborn invalid, we see our bad ass suffragette, Valentine, reduced to a nervous pregnant woman, worried about money, possibly regretting her decisions.  It’s nice to know that Sylvia eventually would have given him the divorce, but nearly every other thing in the 4th novel could be left out and the character arcs would still be complete.  It’s extra stuff, it’s not needed, and it takes the place of what might be a better denouement for Christopher and Valentine.

So that left me quite disappointed.  When I watched the miniseries, I thought the ending too sharp and too quick. He comes back from war, a leader among his inferior soldiers, and shares a dance with his (implied soon-to-be) mistress.

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Now I see why it ended that way.  Everything else that Ford Madox Ford adds afterward  really isn’t about the 2 of them. It’s about England, and it loses some of its potency by focusing on the culture rather than on the people.

 

 

 

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Parade’s End, part I

parade's end bookIt’s been about a year since I watched the Parade’s End miniseries on HBO. I had never heard of Parade’s End before then, though the name Ford Madox Ford sounded familiar. Anyway, it is supposed to be one of the definitive books about World War I, probably right behind All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, that one is written from a German perspective, whereas Parade’s End is so quintessentially, entirely, inescapably British.

Parade’s End is actually a tetralogy–4 novels. To make my life easier, I’m splitting this one into two posts. This one is about the first two books in the series: Some Do Not… and No More Parades, from 1924 and 1925 respectively.

The first book opens with two men in a train-car. A brand new, gleaming, perfect train car, with two men of a class who ‘administered the world’. One of these men is Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch in the miniseries).

The reason Ford opens with this gleaming, punctual, swift train carriage is the same reason I was very interested in this book.  I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian era, which is (technically) 1837-1901, the period that Queen Victoria reigned.  For a while, nearly 15 years, the incredible success of the Victorian era spilled over into the new 20th century. England started the century at its absolute zenith. By the end of WWI, that reflected and lingering glory is mostly gone. Ford sets his novel in those last moments of England’s place as the world superpower. Just before it all falls apart.

The basic points of the story (of all 4 books), revolve around 3 characters. Christopher Tietjens is a brilliant, honorable, slightly belligerent, extremely stubborn Tory from Yorkshire.  His wife, Sylvia, is a conniving, sadistic, painfully beautiful and selfish woman, who married Christopher out of desperation (she was pregnant with another man’s son).  In the miniseries, she was played by Rebecca Hall (who looked so beautiful in it that it makes me want to throw myself out of a window):

pocket-mirror-parade-s-end-sylvia2

If the books were set in high school, Sylvia would be the Queen Bee, the Regina George. The other woman in Christopher’s life is Valentine Wannop, a bad ass suffragette.

8015647016_03c759c327_zI have already decided that this will be my Halloween costume this year, because suffragettes are my heroes, and how often in life do you get a chance to wear a sash? Valentine is innocent and young, but she’s also very strong, very smart, and incredibly capable.

First of all, I must say that Ford Madox Ford is awesome at writing female characters. He gives them the same amount of agency, of morality, of wrath, and variability, that he gives to male characters. They are not paragons or whores, they are complicated and multi-faceted, and that’s lovely to see. Especially from a book that is set 100 years ago.

But I also have to say that Ford Madox Ford is not great at creating an easy-to-read narrative. He does not hold your hand and walk you through the craggy bits of rock to get to the plot points he has scattered about. He jumps back and forth in time, from soliloquy to dialogue with very little direction for the reader. You have to pay attention and hold your end of the bargain in order to follow where he goes.  But if you can follow, you get a lot of great tidbits and aphorisms.

Remarking on the famous stiff upper lip of English people, he talks about ‘self-suppression in matters of the emotions’, how in small matters, the Englishman ‘will be impeccable and not to be moved’, but in ‘sudden confrontation of anything but physical dangers, he is apt …to go to pieces very badly.’

And Christopher Tietjens is very much the epitome of that sort of English man.  Even in his own thoughts, he is strangely blank about emotions. It is difficult for him to even think some of the horrible thoughts that come upon him, such as the fact that his son and heir is probably not his child, and that he was tricked into marrying a witch of a woman, and now his own sense of duty and honor prevent him from divorcing her.  Sylvia, being a Catholic, will definitely not be divorcing him.

Tietjens is in love with Valentine Wannop very quickly after they meet. But even though his wife has strayed from him, multiple times, he cannot bring himself to do something as dishonorable as cheat on her.  Even though most men think it normal (‘there’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have a girl…’), and the gossip mills already believe Valentine has had his child in secret. He knows Valentine loves him, and ‘his passion for her was a devouring element that covered his whole mind as the atmosphere envelops the earth’. But the two of them are too moral to begin an affair.

The one chink in that resolution is when Christopher is on leave, back from France during the beginning parts of the war. He’s about to leave again, and he does ask her to be his mistress. Ford makes a point to show how this 19th century honor falls apart relative to the awful truth of World War I. The terrible truth of the outrageous body count, the long and pointless fight on the front, and the number of soldiers returning home in pieces. But the two never get their night together.  There are some people who do that sort of thing, but these two are very clearly part of the eponymous ‘Some Do Not’.

Though the action of this tale starts before the war, and much of the action revolves around the two women who are (obviously)  not in combat, the entirety of this story is about the war.  It’s about a type of life that existed before the war–Sylvia’s type of life. Society, money, pretty gowns, shows of imperial might, often a real lack of morality…  After the war, it doesn’t exist anymore. That old way of living in the height of the English Empire has slipped away. Though many don’t realize it, it’s already gone by the time the war begins. Ford talks about this in a lot of different ways.  He has Tietjens reminisce about God, comparing him to an English landlord, ‘Benevolently awful’, and heaven is an English Sunday.

The ‘Parades’ in the title, refer to specific military drills and marches, but also to anything with former pomp and circumstance. The last generation was able to cling to tradition, ceremony, ritual.  All of that gave them an inflated sense of purpose. After World War I begins, all of that illusion is gone. There can be no real sense of importance in elaborate dinners or literary salons or royal occasions, in a world where people were blown to bits by howitzers or burned with mustard gas.  Or making it back to England, but blind or broken. That world just stops existing once it is confronted with the utter destruction of the War.

We see part of Christopher’s experience in the War during these first two novels.  Ford shows a complete chaos, organizationally. First, Tietjens is asked to manipulate statistics to show incorrect numbers of men that England was supplying to the allied front.  He refuses to do so, and resigns his place at the Statistics office. He ends up in France, in charge of sending men out to the front line.  More chaos.  He gets conflicting orders about where and when the men should go. They head out in one direction, and come back 6 hours later, because the French resistance has blown up the bridge they need to cross.  General Campion, a senior officer and Christopher’s godfather, also expounds on the chaos of the English forces. Campion proves he is not as honorable as the English like to believe they are (he ‘was not overpoweringly sentimental over the idea of the abandonment of our allies’). It better suited English interests to protect the Eastern colonies, rather than helping the French on the Western front. But if the English did abandon France and Belgium to their fate, they would run into a serious problem getting the English troops back across the channel. The French would attack them when they attempted to retreat.

Some of the best scenes of this story are the utterly ludicrous things that happen in war.  Tietjens and his fellow officers, educated in Latin and in poetry in elite schools, are ill-prepared for the realities of war.  In a moment of strange desperation, Tietjens and another officer both try to prove their intellectual worth by utilizing those skills, which are of no other use in this time and place. As Tietjens says later, ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth’. Tietjens describes himself as ‘the English public schoolboy’. And look how ill-prepared he is for life in this new world that dawned in the 20th century.

At the end of the second book of the series, Tietjens is about to head to the front lines, after his wife has come to France to embarrass and harass him. Bored with only torturing him, she also makes eyes at several other young men hovering around the army-commandeered hotel.  She comes all the way to war-torn France to see if she can make her husband grimace.  Well, she does.

The thing to understand about Sylvia is why she wants to make her husband grimace. She, not unlike Estella from Great Expectations, measures her power with men in the pain she can cause them. It is difficult to make Tietjens cringe with pain or insult, so she must resort to despicable behavior to do so. For her, it is proof that he still cares for her, if she can cause him pain. It’s not admirable or pleasant, but I think it’s fairly easy to see how a woman, brought up to be a society darling, graced with incredible beauty, might learn to interact with men this way.

So even though he is a brilliant man, with good connections and money, Christopher is off to the front to put his life at risk because of some ludicrous idea of honor. Sylvia, who really does want him to love her (and shows it in the only way she knows how), refuses to loosen her grasp on him. Valentine vows to erase him from her mind, because there is no reason to believe he will come back from the front.  And all the characters are miserable, forced by morality to do things that can only destroy them in future.  I know what happens next, because of the miniseries, but reading the books will hopefully add another layer of depth and comprehension to the story.

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.

Parade’s End Miniseries

Parade's End

The miniseries Parade’s End played on UK TV way back in August.  I have been impatiently waiting for it to come to American TV ever since.  HBO had the rights for months, but they finally decided to play the thing last week.  Instead of a weekly installment, HBO played the 5-part miniseries over three days.  I’m not certain why they decided to wait 6 months and then squeeze the miniseries into the middle of the week, but whatever. I was just happy to see it.

Parade’s End was adapted from a series of four books written by Ford Madox Ford, in the 1910s and 20s.  After seeing this miniseries, I intend to read all of the books. The characters were spectacularly well done, and I can only guess the books are very good.

I love a BBC period drama, but obviously the main draw for me in seeing this one was Benedict Cumberbatch.  He plays one of the three main characters, a man named Christopher Tietjens.

ChristopherTietjens is an incredible character.  A firm believer in the truth, in honor, in fair-play, and everything simultaneously morally righteous and annoyingly priggish. He has a habit of making corrections in the margins of his encyclopedia. His know-it-all-ness is alternately tedious (especially to his wife) and funny.  Benedict always seems to play characters smarter than everyone else in the room, and Tietjens is no exception.  Some of the best moments in the series are when he confronts and out-thinks corpulent blowhards and moronic busybodies.

He embodies everything stereotypically British–stiff upper lip (literally, Benedict barely moves his upper lip for the entire miniseries), honorable, more capable of showing affection to horses than people–but he is also a man that hearkens back to the past. He admits that he loves the idea of a more agrarian, simple society that he believes Britain embodied in the past.  He reminded me a bit of what I know of Churchill.  He clings to Tory ideals that don’t really reflect the society in which he is currently living.  He doesn’t like the changes that are coming up in society at the beginning of the 20th century.

And that is the central theme of this miniseries. The title reflects the end of the society as drama, as pomp and circumstance.  The upper classes are breaking down, the institutions of nobility, of patriarchy, and of marriage are falling apart.  All the Anglican ideals to which Tietjens adheres most fervently are disappearing from ‘modern’ society.  This is the last gasp of that Victorian culture that was so prevalent just ten-twenty years earlier.

There are two women in Christopher’s life, and neither are much like him.  His wife, Sylvia, is almost his antithesis.  She is Catholic, feisty, vapid, lascivious, and tremendously bored.  She is played by Rebecca Hall, who looks so astonishingly beautiful in this miniseries that I’m convinced she has been sent specifically to make the rest of us mortal women feel bad about ourselves.

Sylvia

It’s difficult to determine who is less pleased with this marriage, which is doomed from the start.  After a fling with Christopher while in the midst of a long affair with a married man, Sylvia discovers she is pregnant.  Not wanting to be ruined in society, she marries Christopher.  Being something of a martyr, and a truly honorable man, Christopher marries her despite knowing there is a chance the child is not his.  He resents her at the same time that he is bewitched by her appearance and her joie de vivre.  She resents him for being so (to borrow an anachronistic term from the 1950s) square, so emotionless.  She is constantly (especially in the beginning of their marriage) trying to provoke his anger and jealousy.  He never gives in to his emotions.

At first, I found Sylvia difficult to like.  She is like a petulant child, acting out in the hope of a reaction from disinterested parents.  For me, it seems obvious that people so utterly bored with life must be very boring themselves.  But as the series continues, she improves.  Her independence alone must be commended, considering when she lived and how she lived. Though she first finds Christopher a bore, it’s obvious she loves him too.  No one wants their husband’s attention that badly unless they care. No matter how misguided and immature her actions are, all she can hope is that it will provoke a reaction in her husband.  She does truly want to work it out, and I found myself sort of hoping it would.

But then there is Valentine, a young suffragette that Christopher meets. Valentine is everything that Sylvia isn’t and vice versa.  She is played by Adelaide Clemens, soon to star in the new Gatsby movie.

ValentineIn some ways, it’s strange that Christopher would be attracted to a revolutionary woman.  Women’s suffrage was a pretty revolutionary idea, and you can see clearly in the miniseries that the majority of people thought suffragettes were whores.  They were trying to undermine the status quo, and that’s never going to gain you popularity with most of society.  That Christopher, so conservative and old-fashioned, is attracted to Valentine is explainable because she is an honorable and honest person.  Unlike Sylvia, who is all about manipulation and misinformation, Valentine has the honest naiveté of every young revolutionary.  She is immediately attracted to Christopher because (in my opinion) she recognizes a similarly moral person in a vastly immoral society.

This being a British period drama, the love triangle is unconsummated for 99% of the miniseries.  This is not Team Edward vs Team Jacob.  The majority of the miniseries sees Christopher trying to repress his feelings for Valentine because he is married and despite his wife’s unfaithfulness, he refuses to break his marriage vows.  He does not even want to divorce her, because he just doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do, in any circumstance.

This love triangle is interrupted by World War One, and that event is the catalyst for all the change we witness in British society in this era.  Entire generations of men gone to war and coming back wounded physically, destroyed emotionally, or not coming back at all.  The romantic and chivalrous ideal of Victorian society cannot stand up to the reality of WWI.  Parade’s End makes this perfectly obvious.  Christopher, irritated with illogical bureaucracy, resigns his government job and enlists to fight.  In one scene, the incongruous nature of Victorian society meeting 20th-century war is highlighted particularly well.  In a fit of exhaustion, stress, and emotional trauma during an air raid, Christopher claims to be able to write a sonnet in under 3 minutes.  His education in the classics, in poetry, in languages, would have made this quite simple for him. He completes his task, and his fellow officer (a former scholar) claims to be able to translate it into Latin in under 3 minutes as well.  This is the sort of exercise their education has prepared these upper-class men to do.  So they are doing it, in the middle of war-torn France with bombs dropping all around them.  And for the most part, this was painfully true.  No one was prepared for the carnage of WWI, but I would guess the officers least of all.  Working men would have seen terrible things in the course of their much rougher lives.  Officers (whose positions were earned through social class or purchased for them) would have come from more educated, but more sheltered backgrounds.  But they were still there, in the trenches, with just as much chance of being shot or blown in half.  As with any war, the pointlessness is overwhelming, but WWI was especially pointless.

The miniseries ends with the end of the war.  Christopher makes it home, but the society he knows is largely gone.  And England did change almost entirely during those years, far more than the US did.  The upper class lifestyle of landed nobility tried to continue to hang on afterward, but things were too different and the century rolled on without them.  The miniseries did a great job illustrating the end of that era. Christopher doesn’t hold so tight to his Anglican morals when he comes back; he sees where they are useful, but he makes his own morality now.  He allows himself to fall in love with Valentine, and he lets Sylvia go.  The miniseries ends with their relationship finally being consummated, and Sylvia contemplating a divorce.

Because of the time period, there are many comparisons between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey.  I like Downton Abbey a lot, but comparing the two is ridiculous and not going to make anyone happy.  For the record, I thought Parade’s End was mature, thoughtful, subtle, and meaningful.  It was for adults; it was perhaps for the slightly disenchanted.  Downton Abbey has proved, especially with season 3, that it is more of a soap opera than anything else.  It is an exceedingly well-done soap opera, but the characters and the drama veer often into the melodramatic and the ridiculous.  Its portrayal of World War I had a high casualty rate, but barely scratched the surface of what is generally believed to be the most horrifying part of that war–the pointlessness of it.  If you really compare the two, Parade’s End is like literature, and Downton Abbey is like a very well-done glossy magazine.

Reviews have all been pretty good regarding Parade’s End. Everyone is agreed that the acting is superb and the cinematography beautiful.  I think that the accent Benedict Cumberbatch puts on, though probably very accurate to the period, might put some people off.  It sounds comical to a modern ear, and can take you out of the moment.

My real problem with the miniseries lies either in the editing or writing. I don’t know enough about how these things are made to tell you which.  There’s some sort of disconnect in what’s presented to the audience, and we don’t get the whole story.  We see snippets of larger themes and problems the characters are working through, but we don’t get the whole story.  It’s hard to understand sometimes why they are doing what they are doing.  Sylvia goes to France, to the middle of the fighting, to visit Christopher during the war.  It’s fairly obvious that she wants to win him back, and for a moment it looks like it might work.  But he is irrevocably in love with Valentine by this point, and though he and Sylvia get a moment of rekindled affection and respect, it turns to nothing.  The next time they meet, after the war, there is very little trace of it in their interaction.  Sylvia is either sick or pretending to be so; Christopher does not care.  They are back to their old interaction–she wants his attention and his outrage, he doesn’t want to show it.  There are lots of moments where the interactions don’t all add up, don’t flow in an even keel.  I imagine this is the trouble of condensing what were four books into a short miniseries, but it’s hard to tell for sure.  It was difficult to feel the emotional reward and cathartic release at the end of the miniseries because of these strange missteps sprinkled throughout.  One of the reviews I read, here, describes it really well, saying that the ‘connective tissue’ of the story is missing.  That’s exactly how I felt.  The various limbs of this story were not adequately connected.

It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always rewarding.  It was interesting and gave me a lot of things to think about.  I cannot wait to read the books, which will have the connective tissue.

Upcoming British TV

You may have noticed, if you’re one of the 3 people who regularly read this blog, that content about British TV has been lacking lately.  That’s natural, given that it is summer and there isn’t much of anything new on.  But fall is approaching fast and there are a lot of good shows coming back, and a lot of new shows that look awesome.  So here’s a primer on what to expect over the coming months on TV.

Doctor Who premiered last Saturday, and another episode was just on last night.  I have grown to really love 11, though I still prefer 10 and probably always will consider him the best Doctor ever.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, skip this bit as you are not a Whovian and won’t particularly care.

I have to say that these last two episodes have seemed rather lackluster to me.  There were some plot holes in the Asylum of the Daleks, and I saw the twist coming fairly early on.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a bit better, and I love Mr. Weasley as Rory’s dad.  Something just seems off with both episodes so far, and I can’t tell if it’s the show or it’s me.  I suspect, however, that it is not me.  They’ve jumped right in as though there’s been no gap, and I could have done with a bit of a slow submersion.  I do love Karen Gillan, though, and she has been awesome as always.  I think it’s the writing or the direction to blame, but I”m having trouble putting my finger on why or how.  It’s almost like the episodes start too quickly and keep going too quickly for you to be emotionally invested.  And then they’re over, and you still aren’t particularly invested.  It’s missing some of the emotional scenes that you find in other episodes, and so far there hasn’t been anything particularly scary.  A bunch of rusty old Daleks and Filch? After the weeping angels, it takes a lot to scare me anymore, but they’re not even trying!

So why is this on my list of what to look forward to this fall? Because it’s Doctor Who! I will continue to watch it, and hopefully it will get better.

Downton Abbey

There are two trailers out right now for the third season. This one:


And this one (which I prefer):


Maggie Smith is divine.  And Shirley MacLaine as the American grandmother? Wonderful. I cannot wait to see those two in action together.

Okay so here is the big problem with Downton Abbey, and I cannot believe that in the 21st century it has come down to this.  On ITV in the UK, it premieres this month. Next week, I believe.  When will it be on PBS? January.

January?! This is ridiculous.  Why cant the studios just get together and decide to air it at the same time? Or shortly after?  As far as I know, there is no legal way for Americans to get their hands on the show before it airs on PBS or comes out on DVD (which might happen first, to be honest).  I would honestly pay to watch it, but I don’t think there is a way to do so.  Whose idea was that? I realize that ITV can’t broadcast here, and they are a British only channel, but this is ridiculous.  I suppose now I know how it feels for Brits who want to watch the latest episodes of our shows. But honestly, there should be a way to get it through iTunes or something. I am honestly not going to wait until January. I refuse.

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And a similar thing is happening with Parade’s End.

This was actually a joint venture between BBC and HBO, which means they have equal rights to air it (in my non-expert legal opinion).  This aired during August in the UK (I only know about it because I caught the last 20 minutes of one of the episodes while I was in London).  HBO hasn’t even announced an air date for the US.  BLARGH. Why do they do this to me?

In case you haven’t heard of it either, let me describe.  This was originally four novels by Ford Maddox Ford, and has been adapted into this mini-series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.  The plot revolves around a wealthy couple, and it is set in the early 20th century, so there are naturally comparisons with Downton Abbey. The husband is sent off to fight in the trenches in WWI.  There’s a love triangle somewhere in there. I didn’t want to read much else because I don’t want to spoil the fun of actually watching it.  If that ever happens.

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So, will anything actually be on soon for us unlucky Americans?  Yes! Thank god.

   Judging by the press photos, this one is about women who ride around on bikes in matching outfits.  Okay, actually, it’s titled Call the Midwife and I am quite excited about it, despite being horrified by the idea of childbirth and by the presence of nuns.

The show centers around a group of midwives in 1950s Britain, and it was a huge hit there. Smashed all sorts of ratings records.  It even beat Downton Abbey in the ratings. So, I’m definitely going to give it a try.  It airs on PBS, starting September 30th.

Richard Hammond’s Crash Course is also returning this fall (October 15th).  It appears they have abandoned the need to associate him with vehicles, and the show has devolved into him simply encountering as many ridiculous and possibly embarrassing Americans as possible.  There is, thought, a really cute trailer.

Another one coming down the pipeline this fall:

Spies of Warsaw

This is another period piece, a WWII-era drama set in Poland (obviously). It stars David Tennant, and that’s about all I had to know before I decided to watch it.  No firm release date yet, that I can find. I believe it comes on when The Hour and other Dramaville programming returns, which would be November, I think.

So it’s set to be another year of British cultural imports.  I do want to add, however, that as much as I joke about being forced to wait for a long time to watch British shows, I am just joking. Of course I hate the waiting, and I don’t see a need for it when we’re perfectly capable of downloading everything anyway.  But as I learned on my trip to London last month, the TV in England is really terrible.  What? What am I saying?! This is a blog about British TV, among other things, so how could I be committing such blasphemy?  I never had a TV when I lived in London, so I had little experience with it.  At my hotel, though, we did have a TV. I didn’t sit down to watch it at any point, but before bed or in the morning I would switch it on, and I was shocked by what I found.  There are only 10-20 channels, and some of them are only available at certain times of the day.  They play a lot of American programming, from old episodes of sitcoms (Frasier of all things) to really terrible American movies that wouldn’t even be shown here (Bowfinger…really?).  Then there seems to be some sort of 24-hour Big Brother channel.  Mix that in with Coronation Street and East Enders, which seem to be less slick and less attractive versions of our soaps, and that’s about all of your choices. Of course, there’s always BBC news, right?  They do news incredibly well there. But, you soon realize that it runs on a 10- or 15-minute loop, especially in the morning.  It’s not fun. If I lived there, I don’t think I’d bother having a TV at all.  So when I complain about having to wait for these mini-series, I do not mean to imply that I would rather switch places with them. They have to wait a long time for our shows as well, and well, we just have a lot more options here. Plus, no TV tax here, always a bonus. So, take the complaining with a grain of salt, and everyone let’s try to be patient, and pretend we aren’t illegally downloading these things. We certainly wouldn’t do that.