THE UK’S BEST TV CRITIC DAMIEN LOVE RAMPAGES HIS WAY THROUGH THE WEEK IN TELEVISION
HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
Sunday Howards End 9pm, BBC One N OT to be confused with Howard’s Way, Howard The Duck, Frankie Howerd Strikes Again or Howard Jones’ “Best Of” Tour 2017, Howards End is the BBC’s tasteful and stultifyingly dull new four-part adaptation of EM Forster’s 1910 novel, last seen on screen in 1992 when Merchant Ivory – the masters of dull good taste – gave us the hot Emma Thompson Vs Anthony Hopkins movie. (Itself not to be confused with 1993’s sizzler The Remains Of The Day, the ThompsonHopkins rematch Merchant Ivory rushed out as follow up, to sate the public hunger for more scenes of these fine actors glancing at each other.) The BBC previously had a crack at Forster’s book in 1970, with Glenda Jackson wearing the frock as protagonist Margaret Schlegel, who, as played by Hayley Atwell in this latest version, we instantly recognise as admirably intellectual, because one of the other characters says she is, in this subtle exchange: “You are so intellectual.” “Really?” “Yes. I admire you for it.” Leaving aside the obvious delights of zingy dialogue like this, that the novel has been adapted for the screen three times now begs
one of two questions. The first is, “What is it about this book that keeps its themes and characters so relevant?”
In answer, you might suggest that Forster’s story, which details the cultured, emancipated Schlegel sisters’ interactions with both a rich, dense and stuffy family, The Wilcoxes, and a poor one, The Basts, offers a penetrating study of the period’s rigid class structures and suffocating social conventions, and of more lasting interior emotional struggles. You might also add that the focus on independent female characters offers opportunity for infinite nuance, and that every remake gives us Schlegels to reflect our own era. But don’t be suckered. All this is precisely what the BBC would like you to be thinking about, so as to distract from the other, more interesting question: “Why does British TV keep remaking the same bloody books over and over again?”
Aside from the obvious reasons – crushing lack of imagination and ambition – the answer here is more mysterious. But in the case of things like Howards End (see also every Jane Austen adaptation ever, and any drama involving royalty) we may venture a guess: it’s because Americans like them because they make them feel classy.
This is a theory that gains credence in this instance, as the Forster adaptation is a coproduction with US channel Starz, and the extra dollars allow for admittedly sumptuous period recreation. The leafy summer lanes, bright London squares and treacherous brick backstreets of 1905 are handsomely brought to life – to the extent I was soon wishing Jeremy Brett would come bounding into shot and persuade the camera to jump into a passing hansom with him and gallop away on a new Holmes adventure. As it is, across the first endless hour of Howards End, only two interesting things happen. The first goes on inside your own brain as, searching for something, anything, to do, it begins to wonder obsessively about why there is no apostrophe in the title. The second explodes on screen without warning, when, just when you least expect it, somebody picks up somebody else’s umbrella by mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, I value a traditional Sunday night costume drama as much as the next Ebenezer. But while there is a fine eruption of blouses here, it is hard to care anything about any of the people wearing them. If this doesn’t shed viewers after Episode One, I’ll eat my bonnet.