Review: TV Editor Stacia Briggs watches Howards End

Hayley Atwell is a spirited Margaret Schlegel in Howards End

Hayley Atwell is a spirited Margaret Schlegel in Howards End - Credit: BBC/Playground Television UK Limited 2017/Laurie Sparham

A hatred of Europe, sexual inequality, the divide between rich and poor – was Howards End really written 110 years ago?

It's autumn, the nights are drawing in, so it's about time we had some awkward upper-class families wrestling with social conventions on our screens on a Sunday.

Filling the Downton-Abbey shaped hole in our hearts is Howards End (no apostrophe), a rousing call from EM Forster for us all to reach out to each other regardless of class, gender or religion – while wearing tweed or a bonnet if possible, but I'm sure he'd be adaptable on that one.

Written in 1910, it's actually quite depressing that the central themes in this Edwardian classic are still as relevant today as they were then: the gap between rich and poor is still as wide as ever, women are still subject to gender-based claptrap and croquet is still fiendishly difficult to master.

At a time when we appear to trying to distance ourselves from other countries and other people, heroine Margaret Schlegel's plea that we should all try to 'only connect' with each other and forget our differences feels bang up to date and important.

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(That she, in her way, is as much of a snob as those she derides is another matter – and, presumably, in future episodes, if I recall the book. Let's not muddy the water of her noble vision. Yet)

But oh, all that inequality, sexism and heartbreak looks so very beautiful in this stunning adaptation – think Downton with longer words and more tam-o-shanters or Brideshead Revisited without the teddy bear (although Tibby does bring dear old Sebastian Flyte to mind). I'd watch it for the houses and the interior décor alone, but luckily Howards End is just as beautiful to listen to as to look at.

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American playwright and Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan has adapted the novel beautifully for the small screen and the cast is faultless: Hayley Atwell as Margaret is a feisty treat, Tracey Ullman plays well-meaning but exasperating Aunt Juley with the right degree of bumptiousness and Joseph Quinn is a suitably enigmatic Leonard Bast, a man with the heart (and salary) of a poet who is seeking his thrills in a class he can't hope to compete alongside.

Matthew Macfadyen has a slightly thankless role as the awful Henry Wilcox, a patronising doler out of smug platitudes who expects everyone to hang on his every anti-suffragette, anti-liberal, anti-equality words as Margaret's sister Helen (Philippa Coulthard) does when she first goes to stay at Howards End.

Helen is so liberal and outrageous (for 1910. She's not pole-dancing) that she's almost gone full circle and thinks that Henry being an obnoxious, single-minded misogynist is hugely radical. As she writes to Margaret of Henry: 'He says the most horrid things so nicely.'

And then there's the friend we all wish we had (one who takes us shopping and then bequeaths us an amazing house), the fragrant Ruth Wilcox, played by Julia Ormond, who manages to be both glowing and consumptive in the same (laboured) breath.

But my favourite of all is Tibby, Margaret and Helen's younger brother who, orphaned as a little boy, is a self-obsessed hypochondriac who has been pampered all his life to the point where he feels he shouldn't be left alone in case his hayfever claims him during the night. Alex Lawther hijacks every single scene he's in, although when I look at him I do keep seeing Kenny from Black Mirror (because he was Kenny in Black Mirror).

In addition to all the lofty idealism, there's plenty of scandal (keep an eye on Leonard's wife, the marvellous former sex worker Jacky, played with knowing zeal by Rosaline Eleazar), thwarted love, under-handedness, hopeless desire, tweed three-pieces, birdsong, steam trains, bonnets, silk housecoats, lolling around in hazy parlours, bohemian ideas and postulating about intellectulism. Marvellous stuff.

On the minus side, we'll be seeing Marvellous Margaret fall under the spell of Horrid Henry in coming episodes, but in the meantime, this first episode of Howards End was really quite splendid: uplifting, thought-provoking and beautiful.

On which note, my bathroom looks as if it's the same colour as the Schlegel's parlour, I'll have you know. Farrow and Ball, Stiffkey Blue – no need to thank me.

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