Any readers of the Sun who excitedly tuned in to Howards End on Sunday night with their pause button at the ready will, I fear, have been in for a disappointment. Before the programme went out, the paper had assured them that this new BBC1 adaptation would ‘do a Poldark’, with ‘a hot cast’ providing ‘a sexed-up remake’ of the 1992 Merchant Ivory film. (The sub-editors may have missed a trick by not headlining the piece, ‘It’s E.M. Phwoar-ster!’) In the event, what they got was a quietly thoughtful exploration of Edwardian intellectual life.
The first episode, in fact, didn’t differ very much from the non-sexed-up film version — and when it did, it was generally by being even more faithful to the book. Large sections of the dialogue were lifted so directly from Forster that for much of the time anybody equipped with a paperback could have followed the score the way Tibby did with that of Beethoven’s Fifth in the characteristically unhurried concert scene.
Early on, Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) did have a brief middle-distance kiss with Paul Wilcox — but, rather than asking for any juicy details, her sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell) preferred to examine the more philosophical implications of what had happened. ‘Do you think personal relationships lead to sloppiness in the end?’ she inquired without a hint of double entendre. ‘That’s what I felt,’ Helen regretfully replied. Not that Margaret is wholly lacking in sexual feelings herself. At one point she noted that Leonard Bast was ‘very good-looking’ — even though ‘he said the most ordinary things imaginable about Faust and Tosca’.
Oddly, though, the programme’s failure to do a Poldark doesn’t mean that it’s a complete write-off. In Atwell and Coulthard’s hands, Margaret and Helen’s abiding earnestness is never off-putting.