Last week the BC Forum team attended the 3 day international Parade's End conference, held at the University of London's Senate House (my old student stomping ground!) Hosted by the Ford Madox Ford Society, the event was attended by lecturers, students, visiting professors and fans of Ford from around the world.
On the first evening of the conference, the FMFS arranged a special Q&A to tie-in with the recent BBC/Mammoth Screen adaptation, with Parade's End director Susanna White its special guest.
We started off by seeing a clip from episode 1 - the seminal scene where Christopher and Valentine are lost in the mist.
Susanna kicked off by explaining how she became aware of the project. Having not read the four novels previously, she was pretty much blown away by the double combination of Tom Stoppard's unputdownable scripts, and the lure of working with Sir Tom himself.
The first question concerned that 'lost in the mist' scene.The questioner wanted to know if the colour of the horse was important. Susanna said that the choice of a grey horse was very deliberate and that she wanted the whole scene to be shades of white and grey - she also said that, unlike 'Some Do Not', Tom wanted the focus of the accident with Campion's car to be the crisis going on in Christopher's head head rather than the sad demise of the horse. Susanna also confirmed that 2 horses were used in the scene - one to trot serenely and look beautiful and romantic, and the other to 'rear up at the drop of a hat'.
Susanna talked about the difficulties presented by shooting out of sequence. The Duchemin breakfast scene was day 2 of the whole shoot - Adelaide was still working hard with the voice coach, actors still needed to be cast, and at that point they were 'particularly obsessed with Benedict's hair' which had been one colour on Sherlock and needed to be blonde with white streaks for PE. The cart that is visible at the start of the breakfast scene was brown - with Susanna realising on the evening of day 1 that it in order to fit in with the grey and white tonal palette of the later lost in the mist scene, the cart would need to be repainted. The cart was still covered in wet paint as the scene was being shot on the morning of day 2...
The next question was about how much of Tom Stoppard's original scripts made it to screen. Susanna said that a great deal of it did (as can be seen in the recently published Faber edition) and that any omissions were largely as a result of the need to squeeze stuff into the BBC hour.
Susanna talked about the inspiration of the original novels as being particularly important for the 'sexual tension' between Christopher and Valentine during the lost in the mist scene, and for ensuring that the English countryside looked right - with hedgerows being a particular obsession. She also said that Benedict went around set 'clutching the Penguin edition like the Bible' and that he referred to it a lot throughout the shoot.
The next question was on casting. Christopher was the hardest part to cast. Christopher is taciturn and doesn't show his emotions much - and yet an actor had to be found whom the audience would care about for five hours. Susanna felt that there were only a 'tiny handful' of actors who could do this - and that they were incredibly lucky to get Benedict.
While Tom and Susanna were in total agreement on Christopher and Sylvia, General Campion was more problematic. Tom had wanted Campion to be tall and thin, but the right actor could not be found. Susanna, however, loved Roger Allam and thought he would be perfect for the part. Susanna said that, like Tom's initial dismay on seeing that the wood panelling in Christopher's Gray's Inn rooms was oak rather than white, he came round eventually and it was 'all fine'.
Susanna also talked about the difficulty of finding actors who could not only make the dialogue look effortless but could also give it the understanding that was necessary. For that reason they ended up with a lot of Shakespearean actors or people who had previously appeared in Tom's plays.
Prof Max Saunders (Ford Madox Ford's chief biographer and probably the man who knows more about Ford than anyone else on the planet!) then recalled a trip to see Benedict filming on the golf course at Rye. He said that he had felt 'tremendously reassured' by watching Benedict's performance and that Benedict had showed himself fully capable of doing what is one of the hardest thing for anyone playing Tietjens to get right - namely 'projecting thoughtfulness'. Prof Saunders said that watching Benedict staring thoughtfully into the middle distance, he did actually believe that Christopher was stood there working through mathematical equations in his head.
We then returned to the casting theme - and in particular how physically different Benedict is to the Tietjens of Ford's tetralogy. The questioner queried whether the team did try to find an actor who had more physical similarities with the original Christopher. Susanna confirmed that they did indeed look at more obviously 'bolstered' actors, but, in the end, they decided to go for the person who would best tease out the 'inner life of Christopher' and bring his intelligence to the fore. So they went with the 'spirit of Christopher' rather than the literal description.
The next questioner wanted to know if it was true that Benedict 'bulked up' for the role. Susanna explained that filming started just 10 days after Benedict finished on Sherlock and that he 'immediately started eating a lot of donuts'. However bulking up sufficiently would clearly be an impossible feat in 10 days, and even more so as they filmed out of sequence and it would have been impossible to maintain any kind of continuity. So he 'ate donuts for 10 days and then maintained a steady weight'. As we know, they settled on cheek plumpers and some of Ben's costumes were plumped out a bit.
Susanna then spoke a bit about the challenge of keeping so many key characters in viewers' minds even when they were off-screen for long lengths of time - for example Edith and MacMaster. She explained the use of graphs which chart the characters' emotional journeys - something she had found of value in previous shoots and particularly because when there is so much shooting out of sequence. However with 110 speaking parts this meant an awful lot of charts! So the actors were required to do a lot of the homework themselves - Susanna said that Benedict and Rebecca were brilliant at doing this, with Benedict 'usually several steps ahead' of anyone else.
There was also the need to explain to the actors how their characters had got to various positions in their 'off screen time'. For example why Edith became more bitter and ambitious at the end of the war, and why Rupert Everett wasn't automatically inheriting Groby.
The inevitable scheduling question arose. Susanna mused that she thought they were 'quite well protected' in the friday night slot. There had been all the comparisons with Downton, which was never intentional - indeed Tom Stoppard was working on the scripts well before Downton was even commissioned. She queried whether, if it had gone out on a Sunday evening, there may have been questions (particularly from the Mail which was 'out to get them') about why the BBC had spent all this money and wasn't getting the viewing figures that Downton did.
She also said they benefited from the summer slot - which was again was a matter of some debate and controversy at the time. And of course she highlighted the impressive iPlayer viewing figures also.
The final question was about the BBC's reaction to the drama. Susanna said she was particularly delighted by new Director-General George Entwistle singling out Parade's End for praise, and for saying that this was something the BBC wanted to do more of. She then said she would love to direct an adaptation of The Good Soldier, but that, unfortunately, no one has approached her with an offer of cash... yet!
It was a very enjoyable evening, huge thanks to Rob and all at FMFS for making us so welcome!