Poor Leonard Bast. The put-upon clerk with lofty literary ambitions and tastes is the emotional core of this story, the focus of so much of its preoccupation with class and opportunity and making the world a better place.
Expertly played by Joseph Quinn, he is the project of the do-goody Schlegel sisters and the object of derision of Matthew Macfadyen’s Henry Wilcox; Bast is a figure upon which so much is carelessly projected it can only end badly for him.
But however much one may despise Wilcox’s sneering contempt towards Bast, there is no doubting the brilliance of Matthew Macfadyen who steals every scene he’s in.
It’s a performance which perfectly captures his class-bound patrician disdain, conservatism and scorn as well as his beaming magnetism. This really is one of The Ripper Street star’s best performances yet – conveying a man who is clearly attracting the love of Margaret (Hayley Atwell) while never leaving us in any doubt about his shortcomings. Anyone who knows the book will also realise that Wilcox’s journey to self-knowledge is a long and interesting one.
Evidence of this came in an early excruciating scene where Bast storms out of his tea with the Schlegels upon the sudden arrival of Mr Wilcox, the businessman’s easy bonhomie contrasting heavily with the clerk, a man with all the grace of an elephant on skis.
“Don’t treat him like a social experiment”, the sisters agreed, before doing just that, forcing poor Leonard to reflect that he can’t talk about books in their “nice easy way” however bibliophilic he is in private.
“I know the type… keep him at a distance,” remarked Wilcox, leading us to perhaps forget that he had earlier tugged at the heartstrings of the audience while burying his beloved wife Mrs W (Julia Ormond).
This is a very satisfying drama not least because of the way it is so subtly attuned to the complexities and nuances of behaviour and decorum which mean so much in this world, allowing E M Forster’s story to breathe. At Mrs Wilcox’s funeral Margaret piques the irritation of the Wilcox family by bringing the wrong flowers – Chrysanthemums – in a manner which they ascribe to her German roots. That little remark said so much.
But of course, the big deal is the news that the late Mrs W has bequeathed Margaret Howards End on the basis of what the family regard as a slight acquaintance – and the note, written in pencil, is swiftly dispatched to the fire.
The casual cruelty and selfishness of the Wilcox clan is something to behold, and it is even starting to sow rotten seeds in the life of Bast, with Wilcox’s airy suggestion that his insurance company Porphyrion is going to go bust.
But the Schlegels too are guilty too – calling Bast at various points a “nice creature” and a “silly boy”.
If there’s one oddity it is the drama’s bizarre tradition of cameos for predominantly comedy performers. Last episode we saw a lot of Tracey Ullman’s strange Aunt Juley – and this time it was the turn of stand up and The News Quiz presenter Miles Jupp to put in a fabulously silly turn as Evie Wilcox’s fiancé Percy Cahill.
“See, see how she chafes me,” Percy chortles over dinner in one of the evening’s funniest moments.
Other amusing lines belonged to Tibby, the young Schlegel whelp prone to irritating everyone, including the viewers. “Can’t a chap play the piano in peace,” he announced at one point with all the imperiousness of a mini Caligula, though perhaps minus the charm.
It was hilarious, and a sign of the venom behind Forster’s dissection of intellectual, social and class foibles. But we won’t be laughing long. Things are about to take a very dark turn in episode three…
Howards End continues on Sunday nights on BBC1 at 9pm