With a respectable 25 years having passed since Merchant Ivory’s production of Howards End sparked an Oscars gold rush, you can’t blame the BBC for having another crack at it.
That said, EM Forster’s Edwardian classic isn’t what you’d call naturally … televisual. The story of the Schlegel sisters – originally from Germany, but now firmly established as bourgeois Bloomsbury intellectuals – and their entanglements with a family of unsentimental Victorian capitalists and a lowly insurance clerk, it’s essentially about those old staples of sex, money and power, but not in an immediately obvious, Dynasty-type way.
Indeed, as anyone who studied it at A-level will recall, Howards End’s main themes are repressed emotion, the conflict between the inner and the outer life and the desire to reconcile opposing elements within the soul – as expressed in its most famous line, ‘only connect the prose and the passion’. Not exactly ‘in space no-one can hear you scream’ is it?
Oscar-winning American screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan also faces a challenge the film version could work around, namely the somewhat leisurely, round the houses nature of Forster’s early chapters – which is why the dramatic highpoint of Sunday’s first instalment was someone taking the wrong umbrella home from a music recital. (It was left to a lengthy trailer for next week’s episode to properly signpost where all this is going.)
For all that, it’s an exceedingly handsome production, and beautifully cast. As Margaret Schlegel, Hayley Attwell brings proper Hollywood firepower thanks to her recent adventures in the Marvel universe, and Julia Ormond, as the wise matriarch Ruth Wilcox, manages to say an awful lot with very few words. Tracey Ullman is clearly relishing entering her ‘old maid in a bonnet’ phase as the comically exasperated Aunt Juley, while Matthew Macfadyen provides the love interest (well us men have to be useful for something, don’t we?).
There’s no question that Howards End is top-drawer, BBC quality kite mark stuff. I only hope that modern audiences, spoiled by the instant narrative gratification of Downton and Victoria, can find enough to connect with.
Christmas with the Peaky Blinders? As you might guess, peace and goodwill were in short supply at the start of the stylish period crime caper’s fourth series, as Black Country mob boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) marked the festive season with a violent showdown in his own kitchen. ‘I have blood on my hand,’ Tommy’s chef told him, his arm halfway up a goose. ‘Me too,’ said his boss, and before you knew it there were bodies, guts and giblets everywhere. Welcome back.
Murder on the Blackpool Express
I had high hopes for this feature-length, all-star Agatha Christie spoof, in which a serial killer exacted bloody revenge against the passengers on a literary coach tour by such foul means as death by coronation chicken bap. But with so much fine comic talent on board – including Nigel Havers, Una Stubbs, Sian Gibson, Kevin Eldon and Griff Rhys Jones, hamming it up as a conceited thriller writer – the real mystery is why Jason Cook’s script felt so flat and, well, lifeless. A missed opportunity.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 16, 2017
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