Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast. I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved. But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.
Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes. The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war. Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it. This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.
There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board. In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say. Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts. They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six. In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently. In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity. Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!
Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection. Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.
I did, however, have some broader reservations. I’m not sure the final scene worked. It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes. There is a tendency to forget that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.
I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation. Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense. But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story. It did feel a little incomplete.
So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels. Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…