Tuesday, 21 November 2017

TV Review – Howards End Episode 2 BBC1

After my mixed feelings about the first episode of Howards End, I watched the second episode in the hope it would be less of a curate’s egg and it was. There was only one scene with grown women acting like ‘girls being silly’ – the moment when Leonard Bast arrived at the door and they almost accosted him on the doorstep, both talking over each other in their enthusiasm to get him indoors. There were also fewer scenes with women rushing after people – only one this week as Helen chased after Leonard making a hasty escape from their patronising treatment of him in their drawing room once he gave in and accepted their invitation to tea.

The series is made worthwhile for me by the story of Leonard Bast, by far the most interesting character. Joseph Quinn is a superb actor in the role and completely believable against the sometimes melodramatic lines and acting by the Schlegel sisters. They can also be credible but they slip into odd moments when they become ‘silly girls’, which is disappointing in a story that’s looking at feminism.

In this episode we found out more about Bast and the reasons why his face shows all the woes of the world, mixed with some kind of hope – we wonder what it is he most wants. His life as a clerk is mind-numbingly dreary and he drags his feet home after work to a small flat in a basement, reached by walking along a grimy alley with views onto other basement flats with dirty net curtains. Unlike the Schlegels he has no servants and gets the cooking on, while Mrs Bast arrives home to ask him when she can stop pretending she’s his wife. It’s a scene we can tell has been repeated many times, and he promises he will marry here once he’s 21 as his word is his honour. So much is conveyed by this – his young age and the sense that he’s trapped in a life he hates.

When he visits the Schegel household his greatest desire is to talk about books but the sisters see him as a social project and they want to help him in other ways. His attempts at conversation about literature are rebuffed, and he himself feels rebuffed when Mr Wilcox turns up for a visit with his daughter. Bast feels himself out of his class and unwanted as a conversationalist about the arts. The scene when he leaves is moving, giving him the chance to tell Helen exactly how he feels while the maid tries to find his hat. He knows very well that they see him as a ‘charity case’ and a ‘comedy figure’ and that they have no interest in talking to him about books. As Helen tries to deny this the maid finds his hat and he takes it, swiftly moving his hand to grip it by a particularly threadbare part of the brim. Helen notices and he notices her noticing. It’s understated and all the more poignant for that.

Helen’s casual rudeness to her maid also shows her lack of self-awareness, wanting to help one person from a lower class while mistreating another. Quinn shows by his look towards the maid that he has seen Helen’s class superiority, and she is left on her own to consider these things in the light of his comments. Meanwhile, Mr Wilcox and his daughter are advising Margaret not to mix with people like Bast as ‘they will only take advantage’. If Wilcox sounds like the bad guy in this, the truth is that the Schlegels don’t come off well either. They insist Bast isn’t a ‘social experiment’ and that they invite him because they like him, but Wilcox is quite right that they make assumptions about Bast’s life being ‘grey’ and what he needs from them. They never ask him about his life or notice what it is he really wants from them.

I hoped the Schlegel brother Tibby might befriend Bast and give him the conversation he desires, but when he comes out at the sound of Bast saying they don’t like any of the authors he does and ‘what about Dostoevsky’, Tibby says that nobody likes Dostoevsky. He doesn’t recognise Bast at first then realises who he is and calls him his sisters’ social experiment and quotes what they say about him behind his back when talking to their social peers. Bast’s humiliation as a charity case and a curiosity is complete.

Tibby had some sympathy from me last week as his constant illness and fragility could be a serious condition and not the hypochondria some reviewers suspect. But this week he came across as a spoilt brat, not sure if he’s going to go back to Oxford. When the sisters insist that he must go back to university to get a job, he replies that he should be able to live off his inheritance as they do and why should it be different for him. Margaret replies that he’s a man so he must have a work ethic as it’s in the natural order. Another poor moment for their feminist credentials.

The scene also shows that they may be in poorer circumstances than the Wilcoxes, but the Schlegels come from a wealthy background – ‘old money’ you could say, although they are also looked down on for their German origins by the Wilcox son and daughter, who represent British society. Margaret showed that she doesn’t quite fit in by taking a bunch of red chrysanthemums to the funeral of Mrs Wilcox, completely the wrong colour among the white flowers from everybody else.

Despite this, the Schlegels are in straitened circumstances but on a par with the late Mrs Wilcox, who was the epitome of high class, inherited money, and no need to prove herself by her actions (I’m describing the stereotype rather than my view of class and wonder how she comes across in the novel). Mr Wilcox, on the other hand, seems to have married into money, as Howards End was owned by his late wife. He’s an industrialist who has made money – ‘new money’ – unlike the Schlegels who live on private incomes they have had passed down to them. The study of the class system is well observed and a theme that’s unfolding well. Bast brings into this the question of the arts being the preserve of the wealthy from which the lower middle class and the working class are excluded.

It was a surprise to find Mrs Wilcox had died between the two first episodes and a whole friendship between her and Margaret has been missed out. It’s an important friendship as it led to Mrs Wilcox deciding to leave Howards End to Margaret, knowing the lease on her family house is running out. The Schlegels have no idea about this so the Wilcoxes burn the scrap of paper with the improvised will. The Wilcox son and daughter are annoyingly self-centred, greedy and snobbish, and disliking them is pleasure.

Mr Wilcox is more of a mixture, convincingly articulate about the importance of industry and engineering, which the Schlegel sisters feel ‘lacks poetry’. He asks ‘why not?’ and he has a point. His criticism of their hypocrisy over treating Bast as a charity case also hits home as an unwelcome truth. He can also be kind, pretending to enjoy his ‘reformed food’ at the protein café Margaret takes him to – a place I would love to be able to visit!

Margaret quite clearly feels drawn to him and her responses to Helen’s taunts about marrying him show that she’d consider it. After the close friendship with his late wife, who we’ve just seen buried, this does seem rather opportunistic. Talk about jumping into somebody’s grave…

There’s more than enough to keep me watching – in fact I’d watch just to find out more about Bast’s back story and how he has ended up in a relationship and job that are destroying him. Will he find the company he needs so he can share his love of the arts, or will he continue to sit on his own at music concerts and read books by his fireside, keeping his thoughts to himself? Better still, will the Schlegel sisters give him some authentic conversation as an equal, rather than continuing their constant dissection of people, as Helen describes it – just another way to say ‘gossiping’?

If, unlike me, you’ve read the novel you’ll know this answers to my questions and far more, but the TV series will follow its own track. The selection of scenes to condense it into screenplay makes that inevitable. I believe the Schlegel sisters will become more self-aware and will start mixing empathy with philanthropy. HG Wells often wrote about the Schlegel sisters kind of philanthropist – the type who helped the poor by doing what they felt was best for them without giving them the choice. How he hated them. I haven’t read the novel and don’t know if it stirs up such strong reactions in readers, but the television series certainly does.


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