On the night before her wedding, in a sumptuous Parisian hotel suite, a beautiful bride-to-be with tumbling red hair opens the door to her lover. Although he is not the man she is to marry in the morning, they kiss passionately, before he rips off her clothes and ravishes her on the carpet.
This is the arresting opening to the BBC’s latest period drama, Parade’s End.
Downton Abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham would be appalled – never dreaming of such lewdness. But the BBC hopes that Parade’s End will soon be beating Downton in the battle for ratings and critical plaudits.
Cumberbatch has already launched an attack on ITV’s hit costume drama, denouncing it as ‘sentimental’, ‘cliched’ and ‘atrocious’.
Outraged Downton devotees are now labelling the actor ‘Cumberbitch’ but its creator, Julian Fellowes, appears to be talking down the furore, claiming: ‘I am quite sure what Ben said has been taken out of context.’
Like Downton, Parade’s End opens in 1912 and unravels the tangled love lives of the English upper-classes in the run-up to the First World War. It soon makes Fellowes’s version of Edwardian life – in which a Turkish gentleman has died in Lady Mary’s bed after making love with her and Lady Sybil has run off with a chauffeur – look positively prim and proper. TV insiders have already dubbed the BBC production ‘Downton for grown-ups’.
‘I like the idea of it being called an adult drama,’ says Susanna White, director of the new five-part series. ‘The two shows are very different animals and although they may appear to have the same spots, they don’t.
‘The only similarity is the period in which they are set and the fact that they are both about a load of toffs.
‘Downton is just a lovely thing to curl up in front of with a glass of wine but ours is the opposite. I like to think of Parade’s End as Downton Abbey meets The Wire,’ she adds, referring to the gritty American crime series.
The £12 million production – one of the most expensive dramas ever commissioned by the BBC – was adapted from acclaimed modernist writer Ford Madox Ford’s series of four novels also called Parade’s End.
In contrast to Downton Abbey, which many viewers feel at times descends into soap opera, the BBC drama could not be more highbrow. ‘Ford Madox Ford tracks the shifting moods of the nation, from chauvinistic pre-war Edwardian complacency to post-war exhaustion,’ says Professor of Literature John Sutherland at University College London. ‘It was a big subject. For those inspired to pick up Penguin’s tie-in edition of Parade’s End be warned: it’s 856 pages. At two minutes a page . . . well, you can do the maths.’
Adapted by playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, Parade’s End was filmed across 150 sets and boasts a cast that also includes Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett and Anne-Marie Duff.