Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars in Parade’s End as Christopher Tietjens, the last of the old Tories, describes Downton as “comfortable Sunday-night viewing, but a period soap opera, rather than being true to an era”. Contrast that, he says, with Parade’s End: “You rarely see a piece about this class of people that is this accurate, this funny, pointed but also three-dimensional. We’re not serving purposes to make some clichéd comment about, ‘Oh, isn’t it awful the way there’s this upstairs-downstairs divide.’ It’s a little bit more sophisticated.
You probably noted the whiff of disdain there, one that is rather apt for the period, in fact. Parade’s End seems almost to be taunting Downton with its credentials. Where ITV has Julian Fellowes as its writer, the BBC will raise you Tom Stoppard. Where ITV has the American public-service broadcaster WGBH as a production partner, the BBC has joined forces with HBO….
If Downton Abbey is essentially a dressed-up soap, Parade’s End is borderline donnish in its complexity. You can start with the source material — Ford’s novels are not exactly airport reads. This is a television series drawn from a stack of experimental modernist doorstops. The adaptation follows the source material in spirit, but not chronology. This is because, at times, there is no chronology….