For five weeks from 24 August BBC2 is doing a brave thing: serialising Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s quartet of first world war novels. Arguably the first great modernist English novel and, according to Graham Greene, the greatest novel in English to come out of that war, this £12-million project is a brave thing to do for three reasons: it is the world of Downton but not Downton. It is not what we expect of war novels. And it was written by Ford Madox Ford.
Ford Madox who? is the response that anyone writing about Ford has come to expect. He’s often confused with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, his maternal grandfather, or even with Henry (no relation). Some have heard of his best-known novel, The Good Soldier; those that have read it tend never to forget it.
Ford, who died in 1939 and who wrote Parade’s End in the 1920s after wartime service as an over-age subaltern, has never been popular. But his work has attracted many modern writers — A.S. Byatt, Colm Tóibin, Julian Barnes, Anthony Burgess — and inspired many more loyal readers. He was highly influential during the first two decades of the 20th century, one of our most original and engaging writers and an associate or friend of Conrad, James, Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Pound and many others.
Tom Stoppard had not written for the BBC since 1979 when he was approached to script Parade’s End. He found a sprawling, non-linear novel in which much of the action takes place inside the head of the main character, Christopher Tietjens. What’s more, a novel that depicts war without fighting; love and passion without explicit scenes; and the fragmentation of social structure without social comment. Most challengingly of all, perhaps, the hero almost always rolls with the punches. But within 50 pages Stoppard was hooked.
What he also found was a contemporary take on the Edwardian world, focused on an unlikely central figure who combined in himself 17th-century spirituality with the mind of an educated 18th-century gentleman. Add an errant and vengeful wife, flawed colleagues, fair-weather patrons, a priest with Tourette’s, an attractive young suffragette and the slaughterhouse of the trenches, and life was no easier for such a man then than it would be now.
The book raises, says Stoppard, some very contemporary questions, dramatising such concerns as the ethics of social responsibility, the affordability of welfare provision and the role of women. Central to it all is one of the big questions — perhaps the big question — what is the good life and how do we get to it? The result, in Stoppard’s hands, is a script that is double-edged Downton, with always more than one thing going on at a time.
Ford was unusual in being a much-married man (four wives, though only one recognised in law) who wrote perceptively about women. In playing Sylvia, Tietjens’s wife, Rebecca Hall uses her Shakespearean eloquence to bring to the part a transforming sympathy and credibility. She has many of the best lines: ‘If you had once in your life said to me, “You whore, you bitch...May you rot in hell...”you might have done something to bring us together.’ Instead of taking the easy way and simply portraying her as an adulterous harpy (though Sylvia is that too), she shows us a woman struggling with the impossibility of being married to a man who is almost wholly good — but never boring — and who doesn’t really need her.
Adelaide Clemens is Valentine, the pale and eager young suffragette who becomes (eventually) Tietjens’s mistress. This, too, is a part that could have been played two-dimensionally, with stridency-cum-sweetness, but Clemens endows Valentine with a humour, sensitivity and poise that make her a believable mate for Tietjens. It was her face that did it for Stoppard: ‘When Christopher looks up it was that face — her face — I wanted him to see,’ he says. Clemens travelled from Los Angeles at her own expense to audition; I hope they paid her back, because she’s worth every penny.
As is, unsurprisingly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Tietjens. It must have stretched him a bit to play a character who has the acerbity and quickness of his Sherlock Holmes but who has also to be shown as a man of deep passion averse to superficial display, a man of reserve, gravitas and understated wit who is put through the emotional and ethical wringer. (Cumberbatch was literally stretched, having to be padded in cheeks and abdomen for the more portly scenes.)
Approached by Stoppard before he became the star he now is, he was gripped by the book but still had to be fought for by director Susanna White in the teeth of opposition from HBO, BBC2’s partner in the project, who protested they didn’t know him. ‘You will,’ she insisted, ‘you will.’ A year later, with the success of War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, Cumberbatch had become one of the most successful actors in Britain and there was no question about casting him. White was as right about Cumberbatch as she was about the many minor and often vivid characters (110 in all) who populate the 146 sets it took to make this complex film. The result is that you wake up next day with your head buzzing with scenes and resonances.
Throughout the project there was touching enthusiasm, from top to bottom, for being true to Ford’s vision. When filming on the golf links at Rye — an important early scene in which Christopher first meets Valentine — the cast were keen to discuss their roles. Max Saunders, the world’s foremost Fordian scholar, was deep in conversation with Cumberbatch about the importance of doing gravitas with a light touch; Adelaide Clemens transformed herself from a seemingly passive listener off-set to vivid intensity in front of the camera; and Patrick Moorhouse, a retired naval commander who has made a second career from doing bit parts, took about ten minutes to become a completely convincing Edwardian golfer. And Cumberbatch found his acting skills further stretched by the demands of this ancient sport. One scene, which involved a group walking and talking, culminating in Cumberbatch tee-ing off, had to be repeatedly reshot as words and bodies and timing got muddled. Finally, everything fell into place and Cumberbatch swung his club magnificently — unfortunately forgetting to hang on to it. A shot of the valuable Edwardian golf club spiralling over the dune behind him would have made great cinema, but sadly not for this film.
‘I do write talkies,’ Tom Stoppard confessed at the press preview, explaining why there’s more dialogue in this film than most. This was no surprise. Over lunch in Rye, he had expanded to me on why he is so unapologetically script-driven. Most film scripts have relatively little dialogue, usually very short sentences. Stoppard has more not only because of his playwright background but also because of his belief that it is through words that we become most fully human, that only words can simultaneously convey the seriousness and humour of life, that it is through words that we become what we are.
The result is a masterly compression that gets in all the important themes, an intelligent rendering where the Word is accorded its rightful prominence, as we should expect when one of the greatest novels of the past century is dramatised by one of the greatest playwrights. Ford would have approved.
Alan Judd’s biography of Ford Madox Ford is published by Faber Finds. Sara Haslam’s Fragmenting Modernism: Ford Madox Ford, the Novel and the Great War is published by Manchester University Press.