Regular readers of this column know that I have various yardsticks when it comes to judging the quality of dramas. One of the most important is the coats – if a drama features a wool-rich cashmere duster coat (hello, Apple Tree Yard), then I am happy that all will be well. My other major indicator is knitwear. I love a good cardie (like the ones in Call the Midwife) and have found it’s a reasonable rule of thumb that cardigan quality means we’re in for a treat.
So I’m in Howards End heaven! I’m transported not just by the cardigans worn by the bohemian Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard), but by a very fetching and jaunty, ruby-red knitted hat worn to a fateful concert by Helen in Sunday’s first episode on BBC1. Then there are the shawls habitually worn around the women’s lovely house in a dreamy London square. Bliss!
I could hear myself grumbling as I watched, “I want that life… I want to sit in a window seat and read improving works of literature. I want to call on people with the utmost formality and leave cards…” Of course this is pure romantic folly as Howards End is set in 1905 when women didn’t have the vote and their lives were socially, intellectually and emotionally restricted.
At its heart Howards End is a family drama, albeit one set against the ruthless class divisions of the early 20th century, and family dramas are currently TV gold, what with the return of The A Word (Tue BBC1) and the start of Kay Mellor’s new series Love, Lies and Records (Thu BBC1). And ITV has announced a new run of Cold Feet.
The A Word, in particular, is such a welcome, joyful thing, a family drama about a happy family (by and large, though there are hints of trouble ahead in this second series). I’m still trying to wash the anti-family drama Doctor Foster from my system, with its destructive central family and its almost overwhelmingly bleak view of human nature and our power to destroy ourselves and those we love most.
Though it’s written with the lightest of touches by the great Peter Bowker, The A Word isn’t froth. Just listen to his dialogue; it rings with humour and warmth. It has a serious subject, the autism of seven-year-old Joe, but there’s no sense that this challenge dooms everyone to miserable introspection. As in real life, Joe’s family adapts, it overcomes, it loves. Yes, there are constant compromises and almost exhausting negotiation with Joe. But that’s the way he is, and he’s adored.
Joe’s parents, Alison and Paul (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby), feel like real people, they make jokes. (Did anyone ever crack a gag in Doctor Foster?) They’re honest, a proper family, people you might know and, what’s more, actually like.
Kay Mellor knows how to put together a family drama, too – In the Club, Playing the Field, Fat Friends, The Syndicate – with characters who frequently transgress (as we see in the first episode of Love, Lies and Records). But you still care. As in all proper real families, there is forgiveness.
Howards End begins on Sunday 12th November at 9pm on BBC1