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This is the arresting opening to the BBC’s latest period drama, Parade’s End.
It boasts two sex scenes in the first six minutes. The second features the show’s stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, breathlessly panting and grappling at one another Karen Millen Outlet through illicit sexual congress in a railway carriage. A scene in a later episode shows a naked Hall smoking in the bath.
TVbosses were so desperate for Rebecca Hall to play the part of cruel socialite Sylvia that Cheap Karen Millen they organised filming for the BBC2 drama around her Hollywood schedule
Downton Abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham would be appalled - never dreaming of such lewdness. But the BBC hopes that Parade’s End will soon be beating Downton Karen Millen Sale in the battle for ratings and critical plaudits. Cumberbatch has already launched an attack on ITV’s hit costume drama, denouncing it as ‘sentimental’, ‘cliched’ and ‘atrocious’.
Outraged Downton devotees are now labelling the actor ‘Cumberbitch’ but its Karen Millen Dresses creator, Julian Fellowes, appears to be talking down the furore, claiming: ‘I am quite sure what Ben said has been taken out of context.’
Like Downton, Parade’s End opens in 1912 and unravels the tangled love lives Karen Millen Outlet of the English upper-classes in the run-up to the First World War. It soon makes Fellowes’s version of Edwardian life - in which a Turkish gentleman has died in Lady Mary’s bed after making love with her and Lady Sybil has run off with a chauffeur - look positively prim and proper. TV insiders have already dubbed the BBC production ‘Downton for grown-ups’.
‘I like the idea of it being called an adult drama,’ says Susanna White, director of the new five-part series. ‘The two shows are very different animals and although they may appear to have the same spots, they don’t.
‘The only similarity is the period in which they are set and the fact that they are both about a load of toffs.
‘Downton is just a lovely thing to curl up in front of with a glass of wine but ours is the opposite. I like to think of Parade’s End as Downton Abbey meets The Wire,’ she adds, referring to the gritty American crime series.More...'I nearly pulled out. I didn't want to be a Batman and Robin sidekick': Plan B joins Ray Winstone in the big-screen remake of The Sweeney'I had a rich husband, beautiful children, a fabulous career. But I was doomed to a life of self-destruction': Tessa Dahl on how she rebuilt her troubled lifeHow I learned not to panic in the thick of it: Comedy actress Rebecca Front on conquering anxiety
The £12 million production - one of the most expensive dramas ever commissioned by the BBC - was adapted from acclaimed modernist writer Ford Madox Ford’s series of four novels also called Parade’s End.
In contrast to Downton Abbey, which many viewers feel at times descends into soap opera, the BBC drama could not be more highbrow. ‘Ford Madox Ford tracks the shifting moods of the nation, from chauvinistic pre-war Edwardian complacency to post-war exhaustion,’ says Professor of Literature John Sutherland at University College London. ‘It was a big subject. For those inspired to pick up Penguin’s tie-in edition of Parade’s End be warned: it’s 856 pages. At two minutes a page . . . well, you can do the maths.’
Adapted by playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, Parade’s End was filmed across 150 sets and boasts a cast that also includes Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett and Anne-Marie Duff.
The lavish drama, which makes its BBC2 debut on Friday, tells the story of wealthy statistician Christopher Tietjens, played by Sherlock star Cumberbatch, and his unhappy marriage to Sylvia, played by rising star Rebecca Hall.
She is a cruel but beautiful socialite who is carrying a baby that may or may not be his. As Christopher’s world falls apart, he is given new hope by the love of a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop, played by newcomer Adelaide Clemens.
Cumberbatch plays wealthy statistician Christopher Tietjens, whose world falls apart
While you might assume that Sir Tom has injected all the racy excitement into the story, in fact, Ford Madox Ford’s original text is shot through with passion.
‘The BBC has sexed things up a little because Ford didn’t do overt sex scenes,’ says Alan Judd, a biographer of the author, who has seen the first episode. ‘But it is in keeping with the novel in the sense that in those days you closed the bedroom door.’
The action is very much based on Ford’s own life. Born in 1873, he eloped with his childhood sweetheart, Elsie Martindale, at the age of 20. Ford was to remain married to Elsie for the rest of his life - despite the fact that he had an affair with her sister, Mary. By the time he was 35, Ford had left his wife for the author Violet Hunt but Elsie refused to grant him a divorce.
Violet was a decade older than Ford and sexually confident - her past lovers included H. G. Wells and Somerset Maugham. Ford’s biographers have often suggested that the sexual allure of Sylvia in Parade’s End was based on Violet’s. Ford may not have included a naked bath scene, but he depicted Sylvia seducing Christopher in a railway carriage.
Together for approaching a decade, just like Christopher and Sylvia, the ultimate crisis between Ford and Violet came when he went off to fight in the First World War. Violet felt he had deserted her and was desperate to win him back - like Sylvia, she complained publicly about his behaviour, wrote histrionic letters and set detectives on him.
Also like Sylvia, Violet was driven almost insane by the woman who replaced her in Ford’s affections, the young artist Stella Bowen, who inspired the character of Valentine Wannop.
Where the TV series really diverges from the book is not in its attitude to sex but in the story’s emotional bias.
Novelist Graham Greene described Parade’s End as ‘the terrifying story of a good man tortured, pursued, driven into revolt, and ruined as far as the world is concerned by the clever devices of a jealous and lying wife’.
Stoppard, however, recalibrates the emotional currents of Ford’s story - to make Sylvia sympathetic. TV bosses were so keen to get Hall for the role of Sylvia that they agreed to fit most of the shoot around a seven-week break in her Hollywood schedule.
They believe the actress, who is currently filming Iron Man 3, has managed to portray Sylvia as a ‘desperate and fragile’ woman rather than a two-dimensional ‘bitch’.
Sylvia tricks Christopher into marrying her by pretending he made her pregnant, she ‘upstages the corpse’ at his mother’s funeral by parading about in the latest fashions and she abandons Christopher - and her young son - to have a four-month affair with a man called ‘Potty’ Perowne. But Stoppard appears to argue she does it because she is violently in love with her husband and cannot get his attention. ‘Sylvia is completely trapped when she becomes pregnant and she has got no option but to get a husband,’ says White.
‘She is someone who needs a lot of emotional support and love but unfortunately Christopher is not in any sense a new man.’
David Parfitt, who produced the drama, believes that it’s vital that viewers end up ‘falling for’ Sylvia.
‘She is an unsympathetic character who you end up loving because you begin to feel for her,’ he says. ‘I don’t think there are many actresses who carry off what Rebecca does because what she does to Christopher at the beginning is unforgivable.’
For all the challenges that faced the screenwriter, actors and producers of Parade’s End, the triumph is that the author’s classic has finally reached the screen. Devotees of Ford Madox Ford include Booker Prize-winners Julian Barnes and A. S. Byatt, bestselling crime writer Ruth Rendell and actor Bill Nighy.
For the BBC, the adaptation represents a huge financial gamble and a great deal is resting on its success - the chance to once again claim the laurels of top broadcaster of costume drama.
Will viewers be seduced by sexy Sylvia? Or will they rush back into the comforting arms of Lord Grantham - who would never allow such steamy shenanigans to take place under his roof?
Rachel Johnson's verdict: I was hooked. But there can be only be one winner in the 'Phwoar War'
Already it’s been called ‘Downton for adults’ and Parade’s End is very adult indeed.
Benedict Cumberbatch makes a very good Christopher Tietjens, a man of principle and rigour who excitingly works for the Imperial Department of Statistics, with Rebecca Hall as his wife. Hall’s Sylvia is a ‘damn fine piece’ who’s already pregnant, possibly by her lover, a duffer with a droopy moustache called ‘Potty’ Perowne.
If this sounds silly, it isn’t. There is a seriously talkie script, based on a tetralogy by Ford Madox Ford, and adapted by Tom Stoppard.
So it’s unlike Downton Abbey, where the actors spent most of their time semaphoring to each other silently over teapots: Lady Mary’s mooncalfing at Matthew Crawley, the Earl’s goggling at the post, Bates’s smouldering at Anna like a vulture with a secret sorrow.
The BBC is putting its landaus on ITV’s lawn here: Parade’s End is lavish, beautifully shot, crisply directed, and even covers some of the same period as Downton - we have the Great War, suffragettes, stately homes and side-saddled strumpets.
So which one will win the ‘Phwoar Wars’ of the autumn TV schedules?
Mmm. Downton was sexy because there was hardly any sex at all, just non-stop, girly romance. Julian Fellowes broke this house rule only twice.
Firstly, when Lady Mary fell for the handsome Turk, the doomed Mr Pamuk, who died on the job in her bed; and second, the ill-judged scene about the wedding night of a naked Bates and his bride Anna, of which the least said the better.
So Downton used the cheap trick of avoiding adult sex almost entirely, and this failure to consummate kept the whole family riveted to the series for months.
I remind you that we all spent 16 precious hours of our short lives watching a deliciously cartoonish costume drama in which the two main characters - Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley - failed to get it on at all until the Christmas special (episode 16, 67 minutes long) when their lips finally met.
In contrast, three minutes into Parade’s End, Sylvia has been ravished on the floor by her lover Potty (‘The French understand these things,’ she gasps), and 11 minutes in, there’s a flashback when she is seen straddling her future husband in a railway carriage.
Ten minutes into the next episode, Sylvia has completely disrobed and is reclining in the bath with a cheroot. Her husband enters, only to flinch when he sees his wife’s nakedness. ‘Sorry - I - er,’ he stutters, turning away, which makes Sylvia so cross she gets herself to a nunnery.
In Downton, there is no sex, let alone nakedness (Bates doesn’t count), which is a tremendous plus. Nudity on the small screen is like the Third Rail: if a director touches it, the contact can electrocute the whole series.
Having said that, the sex in Parade’s End is tasteful and period-appropriate (so far as I know), and the nudity, like Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess, never, ever goes downstairs.
I was hooked by episode two. Sylvia has stopped having sex with everyone, and is spending a lot of time on her knees (praying). Meanwhile, Tietjens, who has decided to serve his country, is struggling with his feelings for a young suffragette.
It’s as if after two hours Tom Stoppard has put the fleshly Rebecca Hall away, in favour of turbid glances, unrequited passion, high-necked blouses, and almost continuous trembling on the part of all the main characters, even the beardy Scots.
Parade’s End, then. It’s twice as grown up and three times as brainy as Downton - but probably only half as much fun.
Parade’s End is on BBC2 on Friday at 9pm.