When Ford Madox Ford published No More Parades, the second of the four novels that make up Parade’s End, in 1925, he was likened to Proust and Joyce. Three years later the final instalment, Last Post, was the biggest commercial success of his career. (In 1915 The Good Soldier had brought in £67.) Ford being the man he was, though, his triumph was confused. Was Last Post part of his master plan or was it a slightly botched afterthought? Ford sometimes took the second view, which prompted Graham Greene to exclude the novel from his edition of the sequence in 1963. Then there was the question of where Parade’s End should be shelved: along with Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway? With Goodbye to All That and All Quiet on the Western Front? Or in the nook reserved for cultish para-Jamesiana like Howard Sturgis’s Belchamber? Buoyed up by these undecidables it’s stayed more or less afloat, not as visible as The Good Soldier but not as neglected as Ford’s partisans sometimes like to make out. Copies used to be quite difficult to find and Carcanet’s critical edition costs £75.80, but thanks to the five-part BBC/HBO adaptation that came to an end last month, blurry paperbacks can now be had for less than a fiver.

Ford maintained that prose ‘should give the effect of a long monologue spoken by a lover at a little distance from his mistress’s ear’. Such lines weren’t the only part of his output to be coloured by his famously well-populated love life, and Parade’s End draws heavily on his overlapping entanglements – principally those with Elsie Martindale, Violet Hunt and Stella Bowen. Ian Hamilton thought Ford’s novels ‘were too often damaged by having to serve as silvery-tongued back-ups to whatever life-muddle he happened to be engaged with’. Yet Ford’s self-exculpatory fantasies animate the sequence in a wonderfully mad way. ‘I stand for monogamy and chastity,’ Christopher Tietjens says, setting himself against the times as well as his devil-wife, Sylvia. The books are suffused with a seriously meant – if somewhat vague – neo-feudalism, partly in tribute to Ford’s friend Arthur Marwood, from whom he took Tietjens’s grand Yorkshire background, mathematical skills and habit of ‘tabulating from memory the errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’. He seamlessly added his own experiences in the trenches, but in giving Tietjens other Fordian attributes – bouncing cheques, rumours of scandalous polygamous attachments and the like – he combined his immensely subtle ‘treatment’ with a farce-like pattern in which Tietjens is repeatedly worked over, or mistaken for a blackguard, on account of his mulish rectitude.

Costume drama audiences are widely reckoned to respond to obliquity of the kind Ford specialised in as Wyndham Lewis did in 1914: ‘What balls!’ So even given the participation of Tom Stoppard, Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch, it was surprising to see a Ford adaptation given five hours on BBC2. Ford was last unloosed in this way in 1981, when Julian Mitchell adapted The Good Soldier for Granada Television. That film – starring Jeremy Brett, another Sherlock – is hard to sit through now thanks to Robin Ellis’s stagey American accent in the voiceovers. But it’s intelligently adapted and still looks pretty stylish in the way of Granada’s Brideshead Revisited, of which it was presumably sold as the highbrow counterpart. The BBC Parade’s End was initially talked up as having the same relationship to Downton Abbey, the hit Edwardian nostalgia show that exists in occult symmetry with today’s Conservative-led government. Yet there seems to have been nervousness about inviting comparisons. Susanna White, the director, rolled out a soundbite: ‘I like to think of Parade’s End as Downton Abbey meets The Wire’ – code for ‘You’re going to have to concentrate.’ The schedulers got nervous too and didn’t give it the traditional bonnet drama slot (Sunday evenings in autumn). Viewing figures weren’t spectacular.

That was a shame of sorts, because though it wasn’t exactly good, it wasn’t exactly terrible either. What’s more, it was non-terrible in unusual ways for a high-end adaptation. Unlike last year’s movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and lots of British television dramas, it didn’t coast from scene to scene on set design while doling out plot points here and there; elliptical prettiness, when deployed, at least arose from the material. Stoppard’s script, as you’d expect, had its stage-comical moments, and it encouraged a lot of sitcom hamming around the surreal figure of Breakfast Duchemin (pronounced ‘Doucheman’ in this production). There were too many smug interpolations: a visit to one of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, ladies coming and going talking of Michelangelo etc. But the script did a heroic job of sculpting followable storylines while making some of the nuances TV-comprehensible. In the largely confected Episode 2, it even threw in some time-shifts of its own. I’m not sure how well it worked as an upmarket costume drama, but as a weird amalgam of would-be modernistic gestures and posh Blackadder moments, it wasn’t the sort of thing you see every day.

Sylvia was the main stumbling block in the first couple of episodes, which added treacle to the love triangle between Tietjens, his wife and Valentine Wannop, suffragette and Latinist, who was played adequately by Adelaide Clemens. The Sylvia of the novels is a monster to whose consciousness we’re given sympathetic access; television has to settle for making her more ‘relatable’. It’s only to be expected that her rough edges would be smoothed off, and having her kill a dog, as Ford did, would obviously have been a strategic error. All the same, the writing and direction tended to overemphasise her girlishness and revel lazily in flighty hauteur, with much talk of ‘doing a beault’. For a while the character seemed merely a raucous stereotype going around ensorcelling people with her vagina, about which she delivered two unexpected speeches. But eventually Hall’s camp, Nigella Lawson-ish performance came to work to the show’s advantage, Cumberbatch’s Tietjens being passive-aggressive enough to make both characters’ sufferings seem richly deserved. Though too thin for the part, Cumberbatch projected an impressive charge of historical alienness, making Tietjens cuddlier mostly via expressive silent mouth-work. The rest of the casting was hit and miss. Roger Allam, as General Campion, was pretty funny, and so, for different reasons, was Rupert Everett in the role of a stern Yorkshireman, especially when calling cash ‘brass’.

The series came into its own in Episode 4, which corresponded closely to the action of No More Parades, played at a farcical tempo and with only a bit too much focus on competitive sonnet-writing. The script then took the Graham Greene route with regard to Last Post, ending soon after the Armistice instead of with Tietjens’s postwar life as a West Sussex furniture dealer. The only action taken over from the final novel is the felling of the Great Tree at Groby, Tietjens’s ancestral home, a symbol made even less subtle throughout the series by frequent shots of twinkling branches, accompanied by a bullying score. (Not as bullying, however, as the pizzicato stuff used to signify comic mischief.) The other major visual motif – mirrored surfaces, sometimes fractured, in honour of Fordian multiplicity – was similarly heavy-handed. As for occult resonances with the state of the nation, the script was fairly reticent about Tietjens’s Toryism, though in Episode 1 Stoppard seemed to beef up the character’s credentials as a deficit hawk. But all that was soon lost in a comforting haze of dear-old-England-gone imagery, and in the end it seemed OK to be ‘the last Tory’, more likely to give a policeman ‘a couple of quid and the price of a new pair of trousers’ – as Tietjens does in Some Do Not … – than to tell him he’s a fucking pleb.

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