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john doyle

Tom Stoppard's adaptation of the four Ford Madox Ford novels known as Parade's End (HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) has been promoted, in pre-broadcast reviews, as compensation for those who miss Downton Abbey. The gist is, hey, it is set in Edwardian England, there are a lot of toffs talking, the clothes and furniture are gorgeous, so there you go – a stand-in for Downton.

This is balderdash. Parade's End is Downton on acid.

There is much to say about it, actually, but one notable point is that Stoppard, distinguished playwright and screenplay maestro (Anna Karenina, Shakespeare in Love) lost the plot. Can't hardly blame him. The four novels go hither and thither in time and tone, as does this five-part, HBO/BBC series. At times it is deeply serious, a grave meditation on honour, and then there are scenes of camp comedy that leave you gobsmacked and giggling.

It is also important to note that it has the most compelling female character on TV in ages. She's scintillating and a very, very bad woman. By "bad" I mean that in the context of the story, she's toxic – married to a nice man but keeps running away with other chaps and then saying the most haughtily sarcastic things. This is a woman who will shiver your timbers.

She's Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), who is married to the main man in the story, Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rich Tory, a genius government statistician and a drip. When things open, Tietjens is about to marry Sylvia, against the advice of his pals. It turns out that, upon marriage, Sylvia is already knocked up, and Tietjens isn't sure if he's the father. He has had coitus with her. This is established by a flashback to their first meeting, on a train. Before you can say, "Ride a cock-horse to Charing Cross/ To see a young lady jump on a white horse/ with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes," Sylvia is straddling Tietjens. Thing is, she's been with other chaps, too.

Time passes. The child is born and Sylvia, clothed in stunning dresses, has decamped to France with a fellow named Potty. Not a word of a lie. His name's "Potty." There is a remarkable scene – one that establishes Sylvia, and Rebecca Hall, as utterly unforgettable – in which she tells Potty she's tired of him.

"Oh, Potty," she says, "I do hope you're not going to behave badly. I miss my husband. He's a block of wood, but it's like being with a grown-up man, rather than trying to entertain a schoolboy." Potty then brandishes a pistol. Barely paying attention, Sylvia drawls, "I say, you're not going to kill yourself, are you, Potty?"

Meanwhile, Tietjens has established himself as the most boring man in England. He meets a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens, who is coiffed in a most modern hairdo for an Edwardian period piece), and they make goo-goo eyes at each other for years. Tietjens goes off to war, suffers, and returns to make many speeches about being a gentleman. (On these occasions Cumberbatch speaks as if his mouth is full of marbles.) Others, however, see him as a fool, and conspire not to cash his cheques, and bar him from his gentlemen's club. Oh, the high drama! At occasional times, Rufus Sewell appears as a demented priest making remarks about self-abuse and ladies' undergarments. Mad, I tell you.

Parade's End is a delight when Sylvia is front and centre. Cracking woman. You can't take your eyes off her. But the entire series is best watched while sozzled. If it's not Downton on acid, then it's a very drunk Downton.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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