This article titled “Rewind TV: Parade’s End; The Last Weekend; Funny Fortnight; The Queen’s Mother-in-Law – review” was written by Euan Ferguson, for The Observer on Saturday 25th August 2012 23.05 UTC
The Last Weekend (ITV1) | ITV Player
Any diehard Downton fans tuning in to BBC2 on Friday night, hoping for a fun, easy, schmaltzy, pretty, faintly rewarding hour or so, or so-so, of bodiced bitchery, and a bit of intrigue telegraphed only by railway hooters and wobbly cartoon finger-signs pointing to “the bad ‘un”, will have been royally disappointed. That’s the first piece of excellent news about Parade’s End. Saturday morning, there must have been legions of Boden-clad sandal-criminals zombieing their way round Homebase, mouths fluttering like those of guppies, still trying to work out… but who was that one? And why did the other one, the one with the hair…? And where were the cartoon fingers? Marvellous.
Second fine piece of news about it is that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the unaccountably forgotten Ford Madox Ford tetralogy – Graham Greene called it the finest novel in English to come from the Great War – is a triumph. Directed by Susanna White, subtle, sweeping, piercingly intelligent, beautifully slow-fast-slow, it’s already taking us on a magical little dance through Edwardia in those last odd little years before that war, those last fast little sunny, snobby, grateful years before the black, when some of Britain’s finest – albeit moneyed, privileged – minds wanted to unpamper themselves long enough to think deep about women, class, nation states, poverty and the very complex moral problem of the “duty of care” from rich to poor. Issues which would define the coming century, and become themselves redefined by two wars, but the guys were already on the right track.
Third, of course, is that one of these better guys, Christopher Tietjens, a brilliant Home Office statistician, a rich man, a clever man, a quiet man, a moral man, a kind man, and a cuckold – is being played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Much has been written of late about big Benny, thanks to a mad little non-row about class, but let’s leave aside the man for a moment, what a bloody actor. He marries the fat brain of Sherlock to a lead character, Tietjens, who speaks mainly with his silences. And, ah, what silences they are. As he quietly outmanoeuvres venal Home Office pocket-stuffers, quietly if enthusiastically bangs a beautiful stranger, soon to be his wife, in a bucking old Pullman carriage, quietly bites the bullet of subsequent marriage to the dementedly flighty Sylvia for form’s sake, then quietly and for ever loves the son who he knows isn’t, actually, his. We’ve seen Cumberbatch enthral before with fast-gab brilliance, but this is him simply acting with his face. I don’t know why this hasn’t struck me before, but there’s something of the Alan Rickman about him; one drowsy droop of an eyelid, one slip of the planes of his face, can convey either wry honest amusement or withering contempt. When he does speak, it’s rusting anchors in smoking brown dust, the sound of the end of a world.
And when his great chum Macmaster begins a tirade against his decision to take back wife Sylvia after such a very public cuckolding, she having raced off to Europe with a mustachioed tit, Tietjens/ Cumberbatch insists he will again do the right thing, and nor will he himself be anything but monogamous. “For a gentleman there is such a thing as… call it Parade.” And that is, of course, about to end, as he meets the feisty young suffragette Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), kind and clever and unhaughty and simply so right for him, and thus…
Or is Parade about to end? The fourth magnificence of this, quite probably the best television I’ve seen this year, is Rebecca Hall as the dreadful, haughty, flighty Sylivia. The scene in which she sloughed off said mustachioed tit in a French hotel – “Oh, Potty, I do hope you’re not going to behave badly. I miss my husband. He’s a block of wood, but it’s like being with a grown-up man, rather than trying to entertain a schoolboy. Do I… what… do I love you?” Her lower left lip performs gymnastic curls. “What… the dullness, the not speaking French, the drinking too much or too little, the being all over me… it’s all like reading a book you’ve read before.” Potty Perowne pulls out a gun. “I say, you’re not going to kill yourself, are you, Potty?” she murmurs, over her shoulder, as bothered as one might be by a faintly chafing cuff, before returning to her “shamingly” déclassé hotel notepaper to invite herself back to Christopher. Perowne crumbles, weeps. Sylvia goes home – and don’t write her off yet. There is a strength, and a real if complex love for Tietjens there, and four glorious episodes to come, and it’s all so smart and clever and sexy, and the bevelled prisms of those Edwardian mirrors are the perfect edges to refract the lies of the times.
For those, not necessarily the Downton bunnies, who miss a fine drama on a Sunday night, ITV is again here to help. Gosh, aren’t we just wonderfully served these days, not least by our actors? Rupert Penry-Jones and Shaun Evans kicked off wonderfully in The Last Weekend as two college mates who weren’t really friends, but still pretended. The pretence was horrendous: the acting, from those two and Genevieve O’Reilly and Claire Keelan as the wives, itchily good; and the class travails as unresolved as a century before. Writer Mick Ford, from the book by Blake Morrison, has given us stereotypes of complexity, which is a nice trick – they’re recognisable, yet still fascinating – and a savage undercurrent of threat. The passive-aggressive golf game between “old chums” Ollie and Ian had every twitch of the tension of an Ayckbourn endgame without the leavening humour, and this was a good thing: gripping, and I realise I am in terrible danger of saying that we’ve again got the finest TV in the world.
So thank goodness for Channel 4′s dire Funny Fortnight. I know what they’re trying to do – cram a few new pilots together over two weeks and let us make the decisions, because apparently Channel 4 doesn’t have any editors with the courage of their convictions. But, really, first mistake, calling something “Funny Fortnight” is simply begging the rejoinder: “Ahem. We’ll be the judge of that.” Which we now shall.
Best by a ridiculously long way was The Function Room, a kind of Early Doors with more surreality, and Kevin Eldon and that lovely James Fleet, and a sustainable mix of the subtle and the scatological, and many quiet laughs, and please recommission it but without the damned laughter track. Toast of Britain I wanted to like because it was co-written by Arthur Matthews, he of Father Ted, but – actually, shockingly – it was dreadful. I actually forgot how to smile. Similarly, Them from That Thing featured some grand names – Sally Phillips, Kayvan Novak, Bill Paterson, Simon Callow – but, three or four short mild-grin heigh-ho sketches aside over two whole nights, they were quite inexplicably let down by sketch-writing people who have, presumably, no ability to differentiate between what is a) funny, or b) derivative and unfunny, or c) new and unfunny. Or d), as is apparently the case within C4, to care.
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