Benedict Cumberbatch and Adelaide Clemens star as the love-struck leads in the TV adaptation of the novel Parade’s End.SUSANNA White, producer of Generation Kill, and Sir Tom Stoppard, author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, make a most unlikely partnership.
And yet in fusing the two together the last thing you would expect them to deliver is a period drama such as Parade’s End.
Adapted from the novel by Ford Madox Ford, it is a sweeping period saga, spanning seven bodice-ripping, war-torn years from 1912 to 1918, with a flashback to 1908 thrown in for good measure.
Think Downton Abbey with the fate of the free world at stake.
While the narrative is propelled by the events of the First World War, Parade’s End is more of a bitter-sweet love story focusing on the world of the aristocratic Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch).
He is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), while being drawn to a woman he quickly realises he is deeply in love with, the outspoken, system-bucking Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens).
White describes Ford Madox Ford’s original novel as a natural for screen adaptation because of its extremely visual style. ”His grandfather was Ford Madox Brown the painter, and he was married to two painters, so he is very visual as a writer,” she says.
”He was a modernist, he edited Conrad and he knew Joyce, he knew Virginia Woolf. He was very stimulated by that whole modernist world. And the more I read, the more I started to see all these painting references in his work. That’s very much the look we’ve gone for with the television adaptation.”
Enter Sir Tom Stoppard, who was asked to write the adaptation by Damien Timmer, whose production company Mammoth Screen made the series. Timmer paired Stoppard with White, whose credits include the edgy HBO war drama Generation Kill.
”The responsibility is directing a huge piece of work by Tom,” White says, smiling. ”He’s one of the world’s greatest writers. But you can’t think too much about that or you’ll go mad. So you just get on with it.”
It’s an unlikely partnership, she admits, but one that has been a thrilling ride. ”What always attracts me to a piece of work is storytelling, and I love Tom’s voice, in his plays, and in Shakespeare in Love,” she says.
”People find me unusual because I like having a writer on my set. I would be silly not to have Tom on my set, because he’s a tremendous resource.”
And what a set it is. Borrekens Castle is standing in for the Tietjens family home. It sits in the middle of a dense woodland just north-east of the small Belgian town of Vorselaar.
The five-hour series was filmed at several locations in Britain including the Kent and North Yorkshire countryside, and in several locations in Belgium, notably Aalter, Nieuwpoort and Veurne.
White, who is producing and directing the series for the BBC, HBO and a third co-production partner, the Belgian network VRT, says the length and intensity of the location filming was difficult.
”For the first time I walked onto a set I’d never seen before because we literally had a ticking clock,” she says. ”I had to hold my nerve and remember I have a great team around me.”
The scale is epic. Particularly because part of the story is shaped by the events of the First World War. But White doesn’t define Parade’s End as a war drama. Far from it. She sees it as a love story.
”I think Tom has filleted this very complicated novel and at the heart of our piece of work is a love triangle, and I think a changing portrait of Britain, with all these women trapped in their gilded cages at the beginning.
”In the 10-year span of Parade’s End we see [that] the world changes and all the values that Christopher stood for are blown apart by the events of the war, just as people were physically blown apart by mechanised war. In that sense, the war serves as something of a catalyst, for the changing of people and the changing of the values of society.”
In the middle of this set we find Clemens, the 22-year-old Australian actor who was plucked from the crowd to bring Valentine to life. Clemens secured the role after being told the producers wanted an English actor. ”In the end I sent an email and I said I can’t put this to rest, can I have 15 minutes of your time; 15 minutes became three and a half hours and here I am,” she says.
Clemens is best known to Australian audiences as Harper in John Edwards’ critically acclaimed pay TV drama Love My Way. She says the apprenticeship served her well. ”The John Edwards dramas have such an authenticity to them, the characters are so multifaceted, and they’re these kind of very everyday scenarios that are so real they’re overwhelming,” she says.
”That experience, those actors, they all swept me off my feet. I feel the exact way being here with Benedict [Cumberbatch], Rebecca Hall, Stephen Graham and Anne-Marie Duff. It’s amazing.”
Clemens describes Valentine as a woman ahead of her time. ”She has incredible morals, but she’s seen the world, she’s been into London, been a part of the suffragette movement.”
In a sense, she is destined to become Christopher’s mistress, but Clemens loved the moral absolutism of the relationship. ”They’ve done nothing to damage Sylvia and Christopher’s relationship. If they could turn off the switch and not be in love that would be great, but they can’t.”
It isn’t long before Clemens is called back to filming, and the master himself appears – Sir Tom Stoppard, playwright and great thinker, an unlikely presence on a TV set, largely because he seems so serious.
He agreed to take on Parade’s End because he loved the book. ”But it’s more than a war story,” Stoppard says. ”And it’s more than a love story. It’s about the loss of idealism, about life in the upper echelon of London society but most of all it’s about the individuals, all of whom are interesting in different ways.”
Stoppard wrote his adaptation by hand, trying to assemble a story told (in the novel) out of linear sequence into one that made chronological sense. ”I don’t think you should begin until you are saturated and immersed in it and reading it isn’t quite enough,” he says. ”It’s built like a Russian doll.”
This is his first live TV set and he seems rather pleased with the experience. Very often, he says, he is surprised when an actor interprets a line in an unexpected way. ”It makes me feel like I have a very conventional mind.”
Sir Tom Stoppard, television producer? ”This is not typical,” he insists. ”I have never ever been to a set in my life. It’s ruining my life. I am supposed to be writing a play because I haven’t written one in a while,” he says, laughing. ”What am I doing here?”
Parade’s End premieres on Wednesday at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.
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