I thought, "Do I need to watch this? Because I've seen the film." But it turns out that the film is now 25 years old and the plot I remembered was actually the one for The Remains of the Day (there is a small cast overlap). But I suppose that is at least one step better than remembering it as Howards Way. In fact, it's pretty remarkable - I can't remember the plot of a film I see nowadays for longer than five minutes. I saw The Girl On The Train at the weekend, for example. It was about a girl on a train. She drank a lot. She got confused. And so did I.
So yes, it turned out I did need to watch Howards End, and I am glad that I did. But a shock similar to the realisation of how long ago the film was made was seeing Matthew McFadyean eligible to play the part of "stuffy old man", when I still like to think of him as "bright young thing". It's a bit like if Ewan McGregor was asked to play Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That hasn't actually happened yet (has it? Renton was still only a mildly craggy middle-aged man in T2, even if he did have a heart attack at the start (don't ask me the rest of the plot - it's been weeks)), but elsewhere Phillip Schofield is a white-haired man fronting This Morning without Gordon the Gopher, and Paul Nicholas and Wayne Sleep are presenting documentaries about retiring. It seems we've all moved on, people. Alas. I've aged, and so have they. (Shopping list item one - reading glasses.)
Another shock was how little of the plot takes place in Howards End itself. Mr Wilcox struggled with his property portfolio, inadvertently buying an estate in the wrong part of Shropshire, where there were "no grouse to shoot". He didn't seem sure what to do with any of his dwellings or which of them to live in, because there were just so many of them. He couldn't keep track and just let them all slowly decay. A bit like the landlords of the properties either side of us here in York. But then the point of this adaptation did rather seem to be its relevance to now - the class divides of wealth, opportunity and sexual attitudes; the gulf of achievements and expectations between genders; the rich decimating the lives of the poor with no heed of the consequences, like water running off a duck's back; the difficulty of climbing back on the ladder when society dictates that you slide off it; wandering about on top of a cliff edge looking longingly across to Europe.
The BBC had thrown in some racism for good measure (and Lord knows, there's still plenty of that around today) with servants and partners from ethnic minorities being regarded with a frown beyond the disapproval of all things German that the Schlegel family faced. But I loved the unconventionality of the Schlegels - the assertive sisters with their cosmopolitan tastes, wonderful dress sense and free opinions (which they were able to express, even if Mr Wilcox wasn't listening), and Tibby with his hypochondria, apprentice pipe smoking and eccentric academic foibles such as suddenly sitting down to learn Chinese. I am not sure if he set foot outside during the whole series.
It was all very subtle, with long scenes and gentle putdowns dismissing great ambitions. So subtle that I didn't even notice that the first Mrs Wilcox was terminally ill, or that Leonard and Helen were supposed to have had sex. The big dramatic climax - the reveal of the illegimate pregnancy, the beating with a sword, the bookcase end of poor Mr Bast - was over in a moment. Then we were back to a slow meadow, reminiscent of that wonderful scene between Lucy and George in A Room With A View where they kiss for the first time in the Tuscan hills (another, even older film). Only this time the love was between two sisters and a child, and for a man who finally understood what it is to honour a legacy, a dying wish, and who had accepted that you cannot act differently to the rules that you dictate to others. There was thunder rumbling in the distance.
There were many scenes in London. The Wilcox's London apartment was in a block on Kensington Gore opposite the Royal Albert Hall, through a window of which I once saw pornographic material being projected onto a giant screen during an interval at the Proms. I thought the soon-to-be-demolished Georgian terraces of Wickham Place were on that perpetual weekend film set of Lincolns Inn near Holborn but apparently they were in a square in trendy Clerkenwell.
|Photo: Becky Buckley|
This Howards End, with its gorgeous country garden reminiscent of the one in the opening photograph of this post, was a house near Godalming in Surrey. West Wycombe House in Buckinghamshire stood in for Oniton in Shropshire, but I can't comment on the National Trust's permissions for grouse-shooting. Aunt Juley's house and the cliffs looking out to Europe were above Studland Bay in Dorset. They all made England look far lovelier than the realities of 2017, where sadly the "remains of the day" are just too many of the attitudes in Howards End.