Wow, that was a satisfying, sumptuous piece of television. EM Forster’s brilliant Edwardian novel Howards End was brought to vivid life on Sunday night in another BBC period drama success story that was a feast for the eyes and the mind.
If you thought it would be hard to top the 1992 Merchant Ivory film starring Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson, then scriptwriter Kenneth Lonergan (of Manchester by the Sea fame) and his cast may have just done it, with what seems on the evidence of episode one to be a pretty pitch-perfect rendition of the story.
Philippa Coulthard is excellent as the idealistic, restless Helen Schlegel, the heroine of the novel whose early experiences at Howards End, the rural retreat of the wealthy Wilcox family, kickstart the action. The story of her brief, failed flirtation with young Paul Wilcox (Jonah Hauer-King) encapsulates the idea of a world on the cusp of change; the disapproval and threat felt by the Wilcox clan clashing with Helen’s sense of freedom, and entitlement. The plot is set, let’s not forget, when the Suffragette movement was gaining traction.
Helen’s sister Margaret (Meg) sees Hayley Atwell give a more suitably restrained performance as the composed and less impulsive Schlegel sister – the consequences of whose friendship with the Wilcox matriarch (Julia Ormond) is a key part of the latter stages of the story. (Spoiler alert: Mrs W leaves Howards End to Meg at the start of episode two, enraging her grieving husband).
Matthew Macfadyen’s performance as Henry Wilcox captures perfectly the character’s intriguing mixture of affability and aggression. This is a subtle and convincing portrait of family that can be generous and welcoming but, when it is threatened, pulls rank and lashes out at outsiders. It’s a story of the age, but also pretty much every middle-class family I’ve ever come across.
Henry beams at Helen but his taut drawn expression, when her liaison with Paul comes to light and threatens the conformable moneyed equilibrium, is perfectly delivered; even the way his fingers flicked with just the right amount of fury at the pages of his Times, a paper which he uses to shield himself from Helen at breakfast, was skilfully done. Aggression is never overt in worlds like these, but Helen was left in no doubt about its full force.
Howards End is a wordy, ideas-driven novel where much of the exchanges are delivered through letters. But voiceover was used judiciously and this is a production as much for the eyes as the mind. In short, it looked ravishing.
God knows how much money was spent on this four-part drama, but the rural scenes in Howards End were a visual feast, while the scenes in London were astonishingly detailed and evocative of the Golden Age of Edwardian England. One shot showing the streets outside the omnibuses and streetfolk clattering outside the British Museum was mesmerising and packed with detail.
But this isn’t just a story about the rich. And we also had, in Joseph Quinn, a wonderful Leonard Bast – he’s the ill-at-ease clerk with intellectual aspirations who for me is the heart, the moral conscience of this story.
He meets the Schlegels at a concert – an encounter which has serious ramifications for him – as the world of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels wrestle with the idea of a man not born into money but with the brains and the determination to better himself. Quinn really captures his spirit and, crucially, his vulnerability.
The only duff note I thought was in the bizarre casting of Tracey Ullman as Aunt Juley, the neurotic busybody guardian of the Schlegel sisters, played by Prunella Scales in the movie.
Ullman is hugely talented but the sight of her shuffling around in an Edwardian gown had me constantly wondering when she would crack a gag. Of course, no performer should be typecast but it seems a strange decision to eschew all the other possible contenders for the role in favour of a casting decision which doesn’t seem to make obvious or particular sense.
Still, it’s a minor quibble. This is a feast for the eyes and the brain. Here’s to tucking in to episode two.