The final episode of the BBC’s superb Parade’s End concludes with an Armistice Day celebration…
This review contains spoilers.
TV audiences have seen the barbed wire trenches and corpses of WWI recreated on screen so often that the evocation of the tragedy can lose its impact. Moustachioed officers who dine on champagne and dramatic irony, earnest privates who traipse through sepia mud wide-eyed with love for their sweethearts, the unexpected bomb blast that sends khaki-clad bodies flying… The territory is so familiar to us that regretfully, inevitably, compassion wanes.
Not so in the finale of Parade’s End, which kept its heart very much beating underneath the uniforms, not least thanks to William Ellis’ hugely affecting brief appearance as Aubrey, the reckless, traumatised Commanding Officer of “the pals”.
Ellis wasn’t the only impressive member of the supporting cast; Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett, and Anne-Marie Duff, though only on screen for moments, were also sheer class, in an adaptation that’s made good on its promise to deliver class in droves.
I’m still trying to pinpoint why the image of Christopher in the trenches, surrounded by death and damage, eating a sandwich from a china plate, evoked so much pathos in me. Perhaps it’s to do with his being a bulwark of English decorum, or maybe the bathetic incongruity of the meal and its surroundings – life, death… a sandwich. Whatever it is, I was in pieces, and as someone who giggled through War Horse, that’s saying something, even if I’m unsure exactly what.
Gladly, Miss Wannop got some more blood to her cheeks in this episode, spearheading a covert sex education programme at her school, declaring her willingness to be ruined by Christopher to her mother, then yapping at Sylvia - now an imperious and displaced Bette Davis in All About Eve figure - during that wonderful staircase confrontation. Benedict Cumberbatch looked impossibly handsome on those stairs, a slight twitch of his lip all that was needed to tell Sylvia just how serious he was about Valentine.
Yes, this week’s finale saw Sylvia beaten in her game by the Girl Scout, but not before she’d assisted the Hun in tearing up yet more of England’s green and pleasant land.
Even if you knew it was coming, the loss of the Groby cedar was still a thump to the chest. Christopher’s futile race to preserve the tree was a neat summation of his life up until that point; his struggle to conserve the past and then necessary forbearance when modernity (or more properly, his vindictive, desperate wife) obliterates it. That business with the logs won’t be soon forgotten either. Cumberbitches now have an object other than a deerstalker to tote at premieres in search of autographs.
Ever the resourceful pragmatist though, after breaking her five-year man-fast with the caddish Gerald Drake, Sylvia quickly arranged herself a new position as the future Viceroy of India’s consort, leaving - in this adaptation at least - Christopher and Valentine to their happy ending.
Even if Mrs Wannop’s Armistice Day cry of “Safe, forever” rang bittersweet with the hindsight of history, the episode signed off with an uncharacteristically celebratory air, a gift to the adaptation’s loyal audience. Officers and their girls jigged around Gray’s Inn, and as a reward for years of patience, while the remains of the Groby cedar fell to ashes in the grate, Valentine finally fell into Christopher’s arms, and into his bed.
Now, not only will there be no more parades, there will be no more Parade’s End. More’s the pity, because it’s hard to remember when we last enjoyed a drama with such wit, intelligence, and utter poise.