söndag 10 mars 2013

Could it be I'm not high-brow enough for Parade's End?

I'm hesitating about raining on Parade's End. I've watched two episodes and have not become enamoured with it, but I realise that this may, just possibly, have something to do with me rather than with any real flaws in the series.

I was wrong to assess Parade's End as a trying-to-catch-the-Downton-crowd project. Not that I ever thought it would be anything like Downton: the Beeb bragged so much about its braininess and classiness, it was pretty clear we would not be seeing heroes bounding out of wheelchairs in this drama any time soon. The script is by Tom Stoppard, which means the chances that any character would get away with using clichés like "revenge is sweet" in full earnest are nil (Mr Bates, in case you were wondering). I did think, though - or hope at least - that there would be enough epic period drama to reconcile the Downton crowd, of which I'm one, to the relentless high-browness of it all. Maybe Parade's End would be the new Bridehead Revisited, and relate to Downton the same way Jane Austen does to Georgette Heyer. Two completely different things when it comes to quality and ambition, yet if you like the one you will probably like the other.

But Parade's End has practically no costume drama vibes at all. Yes, its hero is upper-class and heir to an estate and consequently the costumes and scenery on show are exquisite enough. But they are inconsequential. The theme of the story is the hero's honourable but hidebound world-view and how it clashes with the changes taking place in early 20th-century England. Not surprisingly, you feel the realities of World War One are going to depress him a lot. But Tietjens, the hero, isn't some dim-but-nice lordling stopping his ears to what is going on around him (if he had been, I might actually have liked him better). He is very bright and well-read - something of a genius, we're meant to believe. He is fond of arguing that everything has been goint to pot since the end of the 18th century. What we've got on our hands here is a more-Burkian-than-Burke, pre-Peel, pre-Disraeli - in fact, pre-everything - conservative. It's not a question of "we have to do the decent thing, what, what" either. Tietjens doesn't found his world-view on sentiment. He thinks rejecting the Enlightenment and the changes brought about by the French Revolution makes sense.

Needless to say, I find him a bore of the first order. I may not be a barricade-stormer, but nor am I prepared to grant for a second that we would have been better off without the French Revolution and its ideas. It was the bourgeois revolution, all right, and I'm a member of the bourgeoisie. Worryingly, though, I wonder if it's supposed to matter whether we like Tietjens or not. The two women in his life - nervy socialite wife Sylvia and luminous suffragette Valentine - are richly characterised and extremely well acted by Rebecca Hall and Adelaide Clemens respectively. But otherwise, the characters are thin, and I believe consciously so. This is not the kind of drama where we are supposed to care overmuch about plot and character: instead, we should care about language and ideas. After all, the novel Parade's End is written by the Modernist author Ford Madox Ford. And though apparently dab hands at poetry, Modernists are not known for their epic story-telling.

It's embarrassing when you watch something high-brow and don't much fancy it. Of course, there is always the option of dismissing it as pretentious and the Emperor's new clothes. But what if it isn't? What if you're just too much of a simple soul to enjoy it? This is the uneasy suspicion I have about Parade's End. Of course Tom Stoppard writes beautifully, but language and ideas are simply not primarily what I watch a TV series for. It's depressing, because I suspect like many fans of middle-brow drama I'd like to think that I'm quite brainy and sophisticated enough to enjoy something really high-brow when it comes along. I'm just not too snobbish to enjoy a good yarn as well, even if it happens to be a bit soapy. Dramas like Parade's End - and The Lost Prince, which I tried and gave up on some weeks back force me to consider if soapy yarns aren't in fact my natural habitat, and whether I may be just as hopelessly middle-brow as I'm middle-class.

At the same time - are plot and characters really so unimportant? They were important enough for Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and George Eliot. I should try watching The Hollow Crown soon to cheer me up, but if I don't like that either, then I suppose I can never lay claim to being a first-rate culture vulture.