First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s phenomenal masterpiece Howards End cemented the transition of two freethinking, independent and tenacious sisters into class relations and divides as one of the best pieces of British literature. It is a story that is as relevant and timely now in our ‘modern world’ in the fight for female empowerment as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.
25 years after the film, which starred Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning performance as Margaret, and Helena Bonham Carter as her sister Helen Schlegel, Manchester By the Sea’s Kenneth Lonergan has adapted the script for the small screen with BAFTA-winning director Hettie Macdonald taking on directorial duties for the lavishly luxurious four part mini-series which is to air on BBC One on Sunday the 12th of November.
Set in Edwardian London and the fictional Howards End in Henley-On-Thames, Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) an intelligent, idealistic young woman is courted by the older Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), a self-made conservative businessman after his wife Ruth Wilcox (Julia Ormond) dies unexpectedly and he becomes the owner of Howards End. Meanwhile, Margaret’s passionate and capricious younger sister Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) takes up the cause of Leonard Bast (Joseph Quinn) a young bank clerk who falls on hard times at work and at home with his partner Jacky (Rosalind Eleazar). In the absence of their late parents, the sisters’ loving but interfering Aunt Juley (Tracey Ullman) tries to keep the young ladies and their brother Tibby (Alex Lawther) on the straight and narrow.
From a preview of the first episode, it’s evident that Lonergan has given the story his stamp of simple yet detailed beauty which transfixes with effortless wit and inquisitiveness for audiences who may know the book well but opens up the dialogue for those yet to discover the authentic story. As an American adapting a very British story, Lonergan detailed during a Q and A at the preview, that it came with its challenges but his love for the book and the period in which it is set made it a joy to make.
“It was somewhat of a challenge to adapt a story with characters that had such a rich internal life, but the story is equally focused on the external world that they are living in and the changes in society investigated in the story. To make those things come forward in a dramatisation was a really interesting challenge. There is a tremendous internal narrative for Margaret’s character in the novel that is quite a challenge to put on the screen. I love the period and just love the book. Most of the dialogue is right out of the book and the rest also from the book and movies I have seen, Monty Python… [laughs]”
The aesthetics in the series have been miraculously planned with so much detail in order for it to not only be authentic to the period but to tell its own story, director Hettie Macdonald approached the script with exactly this thought process.
“Everything has to tell a story, so the turquoise blue is linked to these women and characters. Every single choice, every single detail of every costume, every nuance of performance is about telling the story”.
When adapting a great story for TV the performances of the cast are just as important as the words on the page, Macdonald couldn’t have found a better fit of actors to bring the characters to life. From Hayley Atwell to Matthew MacFadyen, Julia Ormond to Tracey Ullman all bring their characters uniquely to life, embodying them with such natural believability. Part of the transformation for the actors to be able to give these characters the best they could came from the time and space they were allowed to develop the characters. Hayley Atwell, who plays the leading lady Margaret Schlegel, reiterated that is exactly what happened on set.
“We felt like we were rehearsing it as a play in the mornings, so Hettie would come in, the book was on hand, the script was there. We were allowed as actors and the director to just to have that space we were to be shooting in. Once we know how to technically and visually knew how to set it and where to put the cameras was a gift. Sometimes when you’re working on television the time is limited. So there is always that pressure that you are aware off that you come in and just do it. We were really given the time to figure out what Kenny was saying, that Forster had been saying and how we were best going to bring that out. We hardly ever overran because of that”.
The first episode was nothing but delightful, anyone with a love of a good period dramatisation will simply fall in love with every facet of this adaptation, and like the rest of the general public, we will be counting down the days until the series airs.
The four-part miniseries is produced by Playground Entertainment in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for BBC One and Starz.
Howards End will air on BBC One as a four part mini-series starting on Sunday, November 12th.