A discussion of the art of transporting the viewer back in time, as opposed to a colloquium on courses.
Of course I enjoy period dramas. I am a walking cliché, and get antsy in any building sans panelling.
I was in the Royal Geographic Society halls this week and, panelled to perfection, it made me wish I were interested in, let alone capable of, a life tracking down squid in far off lands, simply so I could hang out there. I would even do the paperwork, although we all know how that would end. Best, I think, on the squid requisition squad.
I recently went to the preview screening of ITV1s ‘The Scapegoat’, a retelling of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. The retelling walks a fair way from the original, which is set in 1940s France, and focuses on the Resistance movement. This story, conversely, focuses on a British household in the very early 50s. Far prettier.
Filmed at Knebworth house, every shot is shiveringly gorgeous, and the frame almost quails under the volume of deep-green walls, wide gravel drives, and the heartening and thematically crucial appearance of a ping pong table in the hall.
There (the house, not the ping pong table, keep up), amid deep sexual currents, lies a chilling and beautifully poised story. There is even a wedged-in sub-plot about a dead lesbian love interest called Alice, because, dontchaknow, Du Maurier was a bisexual and a woman’s sexuality is unfailingly her most fascinating trait. Actually, the storyline is charming, at least until the dead lesbian becomes the victim of a jealous rape, and her glassware-designing days are tragically cut short.
Two men, identical but strangers, meet in a bar. They drink together. One steals the life of the other, and disappears. So the one who is left (plucky Johnny) enters this other man’s life with aplomb, goes about setting it back onto morally sensible tracks, and in the process, spoiler alert, roasts his doppelganger in the furnace of his failing glassworks factory. Nothing but jolly fun.
It is a silly romp, with good turns from everybody, including the raven-esque and physically hypnotic Andrew Scott, king of the deranged stare.
Parade’s End, on the other hand, is SERIOUS. How do we know it is SERIOUS? Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, its adapted from a tetralogy none of us have ever read (and which is non-linear to boot, the hallmark of SERIOUSNESS). The Guardian has got its knickers editorially twisted (quite rightly) pointing out that this is an incredibly, mind-bendingly Tory adaptation of a book which fundamentally critiques Edwardian Toryism, and everyone and his aunt has reviewed it. It is full of SERIOUS actors, and is shot on a budget which has ‘fuck me, that’s a lot of money’ written all over it.
It is sublime. Of course, you can barely hear any of them, but I have reluctantly inherited the habit of watching things with subtitles these days, and what’s audibility in the face of so many charming bevelled vowels?
Benedict Cumberbatch is outrageously good in it, whatever you may think of him, and seems the natural heir to Rickman in the tradition of staying still and silent and communicating an entire world’s worth. Note especially, moving scenes between him and various horses. I am also keen on any socially awkward statistician, so his character is the pinnacle of eligible masculinity as far as my poor heart is concerned. Cheek padding and all.
Rebecca Hall is a divine study of despair and venom, caught between shutting up and screaming at all times. She is a study of female existence which still holds a hot, uncomfortable resonance.
It is overblown and self-congratulatory, but it is also ruthlessly good, ruthlessly beautiful, and full of elegant performances.
Go and watch them, please.