Parade’s End explores the impact of the First World War, the turbulence of the period and the effect it had on society and ideas. The drama covers the moments leading up to the war, right through to its aftermath.
It has been compared to the ITV series Downton Abbey. It is, after all, another drama about class and the sense of dislocation among the ruling class in these years of unrest.
Unlike in Downton Abbey, we don’t hear much from working class characters in Parade’s End’s first episode. But their presence is emphasised in the background.
While Downton Abbey features class inequality, the lord of Downton is a paternalistic figure who looks after his staff. Parade’s End presents a more realistic account of class relations. Workers are spoken to only to be given orders, and almost with an air of contempt.
Among the characters there is a lot not to like. They speak in accents so posh that at points it’s almost a struggle to work out what they’re saying.
The main character, Christopher Tietjens, is the embodiment of a particular Toryism. He repeatedly—and bitterly—refers to his fears that he is a dying breed.
Despite displaying a mixture of dislike and a sense of a loss of power towards his wife, Sylvia, and regardless of her sexual affairs with other men, he refuses to divorce.
His commitment to chastity and monogamy are his sacred reasons for this, but he also remarks, “Only a blaggard would submit his wife to that.”
Sylvia’s character promises to be an interesting set of contradictions. She is a complete spoiled brat, manipulative and cruel. But she’s portrayed as trapped even with the life of luxury she’s had.
Tietjens marries her, pregnant, out of a stoic principle of a gentleman’s duties, what he describes as “parade”. Her affair is conducted out of spite and rebellion, rather than any feelings for the other man.
Her mother explains to the family priest, “There are times when a woman hates a man. I have walked behind a man’s back and nearly screamed with the desire to sink my nails into the veins of his neck. And Sylvia’s got it worse than I.”
Meanwhile, flashes of suffragette protests recur throughout. One main character is a bold, unapologetic suffragette activist, Valentine.
While Tietjens is a repulsive, elitist Tory, curiously, he defends the suffragettes—and strangely more out of respect than chivalry.
He challenges other Tory toffs after hearing one say, “I would have them whipped until they bled”. He even helps suffragettes escape arrest. Yet he is staunchly opposed to free medicines for the working class. He furiously insists, “It is the duty of the employers to look after their servants”.
Hopefully we’ll hear more from the workers in episodes to come. One scene suggests so. An unusual break for servant Bridget to read the paper is interrupted by Sylvia’s bell—there’s a bitter rolling of the eyes as she stomps upstairs.
It’s unclear exactly the position this programme will take, but since it highlights class tensions rather than smoothing them over, it’s worth watching to find out.
Parade’s End starts on BBC Two, 9pm, Thursday 24 August