Tom Stoppard: I was frightened of adapting Parade's End for television

The playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter discusses his first British TV project since 1989 – starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall

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Tom Stoppard: I was frightened of adapting Parade's End for television
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Viewers unfamiliar with Parade’s End are in distinguished company. When the BBC approached Tom Stoppard with a view to adapting Ford Madox Ford’s doorstop tetralogy, Britain’s most garlanded playwright hadn’t read it, either. “It’s one of those classics that never really achieved mass readership,” he says.

The novels are set in an England that changes irrevocably with the end of the Edwardian era, winding itself around the relationship of a troubled aristocrat, Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), his flighty wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens). “The producers came to see me. We talked, I took away the book, read it and after about 200 pages I was thinking, ‘Crikey! This is a masterpiece.’”

Stoppard, author of award-winning plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia, is much in demand by Hollywood – he won an Oscar for co-writing Shakespeare in Love and is often called in as “script doctor” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Bourne Ultimatum). However, it’s more than 20 years since his last foray into British TV – 1989’s original screenplay The Dog It Was That Died.

“Parade’s End,” says Stoppard, “was a really happy job. Because I felt frightened of it. It isn’t an ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ novel. You have to trot to keep up. Often you don’t know where you are in the time schemes and you’re off balance about whether you’re sympathising with a character or not. One part of me was thinking, ‘I had better work everything out before I begin or I’ll get into trouble.’ And the other part – which, thank goodness, prevailed – just wanted to make a start and trust I was so immersed in it that I’d be able to 'pull things up' as needed. I felt lucky rather than clever.”

Above all, Stoppard was concerned that Parade’s End, which ends in 1918, should not come over as a screenplay about trench warfare . “Ford is very clear that the term ‘parade’ extends beyond its military context. In the mind of Christopher Tietjens, ‘parade’ stands for a certain way of conducting yourself, a bearing, a stance to do with integrity, dignity and not being swept away by commercialism or nationalism. One of the reasons I responded so positively to the book is that I rather empathised with him.”

The five-part adaptation took 15 months to write. “As writing goes,” says Stoppard, “it’s as engrossing a 15 months as I have ever had. If viewers have as good a time as I did, I’ll be delighted.”