Sunday, 19 November 2017

TV Review – Howards End BBC1

Although I don’t watch much TV, period dramas are among my guilty pleasures as I relax at the weekend and the BBC usually has this kind of series on a Sunday. I’ve been looking forward to the latest one – Howards End. I haven’t read the novel by EM Forster so it was all new to me and as it’s set just before the First World War it has the added benefit of helping me visualise London just after the ending of my own novel-in-progress.

My initial reaction to the first episode was irritation, both with the characters and with the story. After reading the Guardian review I realised there’s more to Howards End than I had picked up from the television version and that perhaps the writer had depended on viewers being familiar with such a well-loved novel. Or perhaps irritation is how we were supposed to feel when faced with some of the scenes.

The irritation started when Helen Schlegel visited the wealthy Wilcox family in the lovely setting of their country residence Howards End. She ‘fell in love with all of them’, enthralled by a lifestyle that mainly involved practising croquet, callisthenics and sitting around at table or going for walks. I don’t normally want to shout ‘idle rich’ at the TV, but I was getting surprisingly heated. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the screenwriter, and if so it worked. It felt as if we were meant to share Helen’s infatuation, which led to falling in and out of love in a day with the most handsome son.

Meanwhile, back in London, Margaret was receiving letters from Helen and getting concerned about her sister, sharing the information with Aunt Juley. By the time Aunt Juley dashes off to Howards End, the romance is over and her questions about an ‘engagement’ lead to embarrassment. The Wilcox son is going off to Africa and shouldn’t have been ‘leading a girl on’ as he puts it to Helen. The atmosphere at table has become distinctly cold towards her. The aunt putting her foot in it really made me cringe, which was a high point as it was well written and acted.

After this I was becoming irritated again because the characters seemed to have so little to occupy their days that a brief flirtation became a cause of serious mortification. When the Wilcoxes took a flat in Wickham Place near the Schlegel household, Margaret and Aunt Juley immediately worried about how awful it was for Helen if she had to meet their son, and a letter was instantly written in response to a friendly invitation from Mrs Wilcox, telling her they should not have any contact. There was a part of me that wanted to shout ‘get a job or at least get something to occupy your time’ because it was so foolish.

There followed a bizarre scene where Mrs Wilcox wrote back that her son was away, and a repentant Margaret ran across the road to apologise to her in her bed. This was soon followed by more running about, with Margaret refusing an impromptu invitation to Howards End, then chasing after Mrs Wilcox to catch her at the station as she had changed her mind and wanted to go. The Wilcox family suddenly turn up and Mrs Wilcox changes her mind about the invitation and postpones it. I don’t know how this reads in the novel, but it was a a bit farcical while looking serious. The use of regular letters throughout the day to communicate with a neighbour across the road was an amusing reminded that this really did happen and the London post was the email of its day.

There was a lot of running about after people, particularly by young women dashing after others. Does this really happen and was I the only person to find it silly that women were depicted in this way? Perhaps men will start dashing out after people in Episode 2.

I was pleased to see Joseph Quinn as Leonard Bast as he’s an actor I particularly enjoy – his face expresses so much. He was especially good last Christmas in Dickensian as Miss Havisham’s jealous and greedy brother, partly innocent and partly debauched and exploited by others. He played the role of Bast well, but the writing made his scenes confusing. After reading the Guardian review I realised he was of a lower class than the Schlegels and wants to be involved in the arts, which they represent. So he provides a comparison and contrast with Helen and Margaret, looking up as they do towards the wealthier Wilcox family.

However, I understood little of this from the episode. In it we see Bast at a classical music performance, seated beside the Schlegels and looking at them with admiration. Trying to guess why, I assumed he was attracted to one or both of the sisters, so when he said Helen had gone off with his umbrella I thought it was a ploy to get to know them. It worked, I thought, as he refused to give them his address to return the umbrella, then they offered him their card and followed up by inviting him to come straight back. At their house he suddenly changes his mind about wanting to stay for tea and rushes off with the shabby umbrella he’s offered and admits is his.

Again, Helen dashes out after him but he refuses to come back and pretends not to hear her, although we see his expression that shows all sorts of unhappy frustration. I was baffled, and then even more baffled to wonder why he went home, sat with a book as if pretending he hadn’t been out, and a woman entered, sat on his knee and kissed him. So the episode with the Schlegels either seemed like he was looking for an affair, or there was something I didn’t understand. The Guardian review made his behaviour clear to me, but a few lines of dialogue would have helped as the screenplay should work independently of the novel.

All of this action gave great opportunities to show the clothes and the transport and housing of the day. This is not just helpful to me for my own research for writing my novel, but I especially enjoy it. Seeing pre-First World War London brought to life is a joy, even if it had a staged and artificial look. In fact a friend I asked for feedback found the whole production very ‘stagey’ and it could be set in a theatre, which is not a bad thing. There are strong scenes, wonderful costumes (especially Helen’s) and the various vehicles, including cars, steam trains, and horse drawn carriages are a joy to behold.

The difference between the Wilcoxes travelling by car and the Schlegels going by horse or on foot drew attention to the subtle differences in class, but the poorer classes were missing. The streets were pristine and the vehicles were like a display from a museum as they flowed neatly and very cleanly past. In real life, horses left droppings on the roads and people were employed to clean it so that the long skirts of ladies walking by or stepping down from carriages didn’t drag through it. A black maid brought in the start of social commentary, but more could have been done to people the streets with characters who are not lower-middle, middle-middle or upper-middle class.

Although the hectic nature of some of the scenes distracted me from the nuances, I realised later that there are themes underlying the foolishness – including feminism, studies in social class, the value of art and culture, and something about race and the colonies that hasn’t become clear yet. I’ll keep watching, hoping the irritation it caused in me was part of the screenwriter’s intention and believing there are intriguing plot and theme developments to come. 

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