“Sherlock” fans waiting impatiently for Benedict Cumberbatch to return to TV can tide themselves over with HBO’s miniseries “Parade’s End,” premiering in February.
The British actor has been on a roll lately, co-starring in “The Hobbit” and the upcoming “Star Trek Into Darkness,” but made time to appear via satellite from London at the Winter TCA press tour to promote his work in “Parade’s End.” The miniseries is a co-production between HBO, the BBC and Flemish network VRT and premiered on the BBC back in August to strong reviews and solid ratings.
Based on a classic series of novels by Ford Madox Ford set in the years prior to and during World War I, the story centers on Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) — a virtuous man torn between two women: his manipulative wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and kindly young suffragette Valentine (Adelaide Clemens). The five-part miniseries is written by Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) and directed by Susanna White (“Bleak House”).
Cumberbatch says the experience of making “Parade’s End” fits with the incredible run he’s been on lately. “It’s a big smile and a laugh really,” Cumberbatch says when asked to reflect on his recent opportunities. “It’s been an amazing year. It’s been fantastic because of what I’ve been asked to do. It’s a tricky thing to comment on. Embarrasment of riches is the headline on that.”
Although Tietjens and Holmes are both fiercely intelligent characters, Cumberbatch is quick to point out their differences. “I think intelligence as a braket is quite a wide one, they’re very different people,” he explains. “Christopher is a man with huge heart and empathy to all who need him. He’s a very generous big-hearted, sentimental man. He’s very sensitive in comparison to Sherlock. There’s an emotional depth or resonance that’s very different to the far more sociopathic Sherlock. But like Sherlock, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And he’s always on the side of the angels. In my opinion he’s a heroic character.”
While audiences may be lured by Cumberbatch’s role, White points out “Parade’s End” is quite unlike anything else on TV. “It’s a huge and epic piece of television, very ambitious in its scale,” she says. “It’s taking what is probably the most important series of novels about the first world war, an important modernist piece of fiction, and looks at the huge siesmic shift in society that the war represented. We see society and how those values are shattered by the war.”
Cumberbatch remembers one of the most powerful things about filming the miniseries was recreating what the soldiers endured during World War I on the sites where it happened in Flanders, Belgium. “It was very powerful thing to be there,” he recalls. “I was fortunate enough to go over there a little bit early to look around and walk through. The most amazing stories that came out of my experiences speaking to historians there.”
“It’s very strange,” he explains about actually filming the battle scenes. “You stand there and you think, ‘Well at least I’ve got the sky in common, that’s something to hold onto, they would’ve looked to the same sky.’ And when you go into the trench you’re stepping into a bit of dug earth that is the same dirt as your grave. You have a post-box narrowness in your field of vision because of the tin helmet, that blocks any kind of peripheral vision above your eyebrows. That was how they experienced death raining down on them in the most awesome way, unimaginable to us now. It was the most extraordinary hapless disgraceful waste of two generations’ worth of men. It was a very, very powerful thing to simulate and we had a fantastic set designer, the construction of the trenches was pretty authentic.”
Stoppard adds that adapting Ford’s work was “quite tricky” but also “the happiest job I’ve had in years.” He’s optimistic that audiences will respond to its unusual approach to historical drama. “We’re used to being invited to take away a quite tidy neat package which is the moral of our tale,” Stoppard observes. “The thing about ‘Parade’s End’ and indeed about the entire war, is that unlike the second world war it was not a cut and dry good and evil picture. It’s a tragedy in which all sides are culpable. [Ford] saw the moral ambiguity in everything. In other words, this show’s got a huge amount of characters and they don’t divide up into the ones you’re supposed to feel sympathy for and the ones you’re supposed to feel antipathy to.”
“It’s difficult to give this show a catchphrase or a one note headline,” Cumberbatch adds. “I would say it is an elegy to things past.”
All five episodes of “Parade’s End” will air on HBO between Feb. 26-28. Watch the BBC trailer below: