Monday, 17 September 2012

Parade's End. The guns of the Great War drowned out by rustling CVs.

I don't know who this is but her face
came up when I googled Genoa Cake
I bought a piece of Genoa cake at a cafe in Guildford Railway station last month. Experiencing a traditional Northern Italian delicacy that had been processed through a nostalgia for  British transport infrastructure was, near as dammit, like watching the BBC's adaptation of Parade's End written by Tom Stoppard. Rich, odd, synthetic, not unpleasant and multi-layered; a hint of something from another era, processed and artificially preserved. The Genoa Cake fromGuildford Station reminded me of an era when British trains were nationalised, of sponge fingers, which are made in the same way as Genoa Cake, of visiting Genoa, of Dundee cake (another world cake option offered by British station cafes) and even (in a tumble of cake and railway memories) of visiting Dundee.

In turn, Parade's End reminded me distantly of avariciously reading Tom Stoppard in Margate Library as a teenager, of reading Parade's End in my 30s, of watching BBC costume dramas, of trying to avoid BBC dramas and of the many depictions of the first World War in print and film. All these references were constantly competing in a violently distracting way. And just as the cake was a combination of many loveable things strained through the many demands and limitations of a national rail network, Parade's End, for all its nourishing and distinguished components, feels like a mixture of everything I love, shat through the BBC.
You might have seen us in Tom's 'End'.  We were very good.

The pleasure of watching the beautifully considered storyline of Ford Madox Ford, who himself had served on the front line and lived through the breaking down of the old class order and the first light of the modern world, was dimmed by the cacophony of BBC departments vying for attention. Every shot of  Tietjens and Wannop wandering down a country lane was drowned out by the frenetic updating of CVs in the hedgerows. The hair department with its precisely researched wartime hair, the costume department with its weekends spent poring over wartime uniforms, the casting department straining to contain themselves until the camera cut so they could refer to 'Ben' being such inspired casting, so born for this role,  the title sequence with its arch triangular motif of mirrors. All were designed in competition with one another with an eye to the next job. The production was not for the reviewers, let alone the public. It was for the next job. For the 'Oh you did Parades' or 'Oh, you did 'End'. Or 'Oh you did Tom's thing.'  'I couldn't watch it myself, but you've got the job.'

The sheer Tom Stoppardliness of the dialogue was breathtaking. The plot, the era, the great war itself could have been designed for Tom to step up and do his thing. Blood has been shed so that this landmark production could be aired. Vistas of trenches and elegantly spaced denuded trees were lit by an arcing flare went straight on the showreels of D.O.P.s, flare designers and all others concerned, generating low, air conditioned coos of joy in the grading suites of Soho. Even the schedulers and the programme commissioners can dine out on these five slight episodes. The legendary triples are downed to stentorian proclamations as to the difficulty of condensing four novels into five portions. 

It is well directed, well acted, well designed, well written. But these things don't act alone.You don't watch The Godfather and squeal at how Maurice has done a marvelous job in aging-down that violin-case, because its production design renders the era subservient to to the characters. The dialogue in Treme or the BBC's own 1995 Pride and Prejudice is subservient to both the plot an characters. In Parade's End, the plot and characters serve the genius of the writer, creating a thin layer of stage buffoonery over them all. 'Oh Tom, you've contracted four chapters of the novel into a chambermaid scolding a pie-man. Marvelous!'

And he does, you know. But to use rare writing talent in this way is to miss somewhat the dramatic potential of the era. (Don't even start me on Downton Abbey.) Everything that's was once great about the BBC and that's perfect about Tom Stoppard, that's perfectly cast about Benedict Cumberbatch and that's brilliant about Betty in the wartime props department is right there on screen, yelling at you for approval. That's why there's no point dragging it out for more than five episodes. The abbreviation of the plot into scenes of intense brevity made the experience of watching it sometimes exhilarating, like Tom and Jerry. But everything that is stirring and soulful about the subject of the Great War, of the loss of a way of life, of the skylarks and the old pals, is buried under a deluge of flatulent BBC whizz-bangs. Five episodes are enough because this isn't a TV drama, it's a showreel, the real audience for which is not interested in anything but the credits at Parade's End's end.

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