Howards End, BBC iplayer, – should you watch it?

Episode 1 of 4 Based on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, starring Hayley Atwell, Matthew MacFadyen and Philippa Coulthard

Even though I would have thought it impossible not to like something with both Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in it, I had dim memories of not liking the Merchant Ivory version very much. I watched it when too young to understand its subtleties and had the impression of a lot of very over-intense and intellectual people (and, I mean, this is from someone pretty over-intense and at least attempting to be intellectual...) having deep, tortured conversations about not very much at all and getting depressed about how downright unsatisfactory life is when you want for nothing and have to wear a pretty hat all the time.

This sparkly new production began with very much the same impression: despite the fantastic Hayley Atwell’s passionate performance as the lead, the responsible older sister left in charge of her siblings, and the vivacious Philippa Coulthard as her younger sister.

There’s a lot of people getting offended over not that much at all by our modern lights: a funny look at breakfast, a snippily written greetings card.

But, Howards End is an insight into a different time with different manners and social mores, when it was not only ok but quite right and proper to agonise over tiny social niceties.

More importantly, it throws into relief just how recently it was considered better to leave things like ‘Discussions about things’ up to the men (paraphrasing from the dialogue).

What I found most fascinating in this first episode is the depiction of Mrs Wilcox, the mother of the exciting new Wilcox family the sisters get to know: she of the 'I leave the discussions to the men' saying, by the way. Nevertheless, she's portrayed as being completely in charge: the absolute power behind the throne that her opinionated, dominant husband (the marvellous Matthew McFadyen) sits on – she is the Queen of Hearts in her own household.

So, issues of class (which is ushered in with the 'accidental umbrella incident') and gender are very much at the forefront, both of which were in turmoil and transition in Forster's day, and are still so today, only at a different stage of development. Then, at the very start of the Suffragette movement, the questions being asked were: can women be intellectual and still feminine? Should they be allowed opinions and real education, or just marry someone with them? Today it’s: should they not be allowed to go to work alongside men (and be paid the same as them) without fear of sexual harassment, covert or overt?

In Forster’s world, while the classes were starkly delineated, some unusual souls saw through that structure to the humans underneath the roles. Today, with the widening gulf between rich and poor, we are in danger of returning to a more divided society where the ‘have’s’ feel they are intrinsically more worthy as human beings than the ‘have nots', and the two classes are separated by fear, which translates into a need to keep people in their boxes: a tendency I sense is going to play out as the drama progresses.

I’m in the happy position though of not remembering the plot of Howards End (having got too depressed to finish the original Merchant Ivory production: I had to go and read Checkov under a parasol for a reality check instead), and am certainly anticipating the next instalment.

Verdict: Intense, at times irritatingly so in its intellectual earnestness, nevertheless; thought provoking, beautifully acted, cast, shot, and the costumes are sumptuous too. I was thoroughly won over by the end of the episode.

Should you? Yes, you should!


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