Parade's End: smitten by Benedict Cumberbatch's amazing mouth

Rachel Cooke reviews Tom Stoppard's adaptation of the novels by Ford Madox Ford.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade's End: the heart of the drama.

People say that Ford Madox Ford is now more studied than read – and who am I to disagree? On the other hand, a friend of mine once asked my husband to remove himself from his dining table when they disagreed about the relative merits of Ford’s 1915 novel, The Good Soldier (and having written that sentence, I will now remove myself directly to Pseuds Corner).

The old boy does have his fans. Tom Stoppard, who has adapted the four-novel cycle Parade’s End for the BBC, has said that it took him only 200 pages to grasp that it was a masterpiece. Not that this stopped him being scared of it. “You have to trot to keep up,” he said recently. “Often you don’t know where you are in the time schemes and you’re off balance about whether you’re sympathising with a character or not.”

Will the series lead to a sales spike for Ford? I doubt it. Parade’s End (Fridays, 9pm) feels unexpectedly weightless on screen. Difficult books – by which I mean those that nod approvingly in the general direction of modernism – tend to be too light on plot for television. The necessity for concision, moreover, means that what is rich on the page sometimes seems only baffling when it tumbles from the mouths of actors. Not the best advertisement, then. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful. For all that I share the suspicion that the BBC will pull pretty much anything off the shelf if it will get actors into spats and plus fours, long gloves and fox furs (how the success of ITV’s awful Downton Abbey – so wet, you could shoot snipe off it – must rankle), I can’t help but love it for going with this one. What other TV company in the world would commission an adaptation of Ford, trail it halfway to death, feed stories about it even to the Sun and screen it at 9pm on a Friday night? Answer: there is none.

“For a gentleman,” says Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) to his friend Mac - master (Stephen Graham), “there is something . . . Call it a parade.” Macmaster has just asked him if he will take back his horrid, unfaithful wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and what Tietjens means is that for men of his class, appearance is all. However, this parade will shortly cease to matter. The war is coming. Even now, change is in the air.

By the end of part one, Tietjens – a Tory Yorkshire squire – was in love with a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens) and she with him. While Sylvia thinks of her husband as an emotionless plank, Valentine sees him as noble and true. After all, when she ruined his game of golf by shouting “Votes for women” – one of the more pathetic suffragette “outrages”, one feels – he helped her evade the copper his friends had called.

Actually, this was pretty much all that happened in episode one. Then again, no one, least of all me, is watching Parade’s End for its action. We are tuning in for the silly names – Sylvia has a lover called Potty Perowne – and for the cut-glass vowels. “Ripping!” people say, when they are happy. When they’re unhappy, as Tietjens is when his wife decides to return to him, they says things like: “I shan’t keep a house; anything beyond a flat looks like impudence in a man who can’t keep his wife.”

And we’re watching for the performances, which are mostly great (though the jury’s still out on Hall). Cumberbatch, in particular, is brilliant, which is helpful, since he is the heart of this. The things he can do with his mouth are quite amazing; it seems almost to inflate with emotion, sometimes with the result that he looks like an exotic fish. He has given Tietjens a voice with a “shush” in it – Winston Churchill-lite – and it is perfect. The viewer roots for him instinctively.

I can’t say too much, yet, about Stoppard’s adaptation – only time will tell – but it is already clear that he has resisted the temptation, what with the trenches on the horizon, only to deliver mud and solemnity. There is wit here and breezy lust. When Sylvia told her mother of the “sex vapour” emanating from her set “like the steam coming off the water in the crocodile house at the zoo”, I felt suddenly less at sea. The next few Friday nights, I thought, just might be rather fun.