"What is the good of the arts if they're interchangeable?" complains Margaret Schlegel, as relentless as a steamroller, while dismissing a sister who gets the same response from an art gallery as a concert hall. You shudder to think what she would make of the interchangeable versions of Howards End, EM Forster's novel, which has since found its way into theatre, a Merchant Ivory film, a contemporary opera, and now its second TV adaptation (BBC One, Sunday, 10pm).
Perhaps it was fated all along. A stately pile belonging to the materialistic Wilcox family, Howards End changes hands a number of times in the novel, with great significance. Why stop there? Now Howards End belongs to Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright and filmmaker behind Manchester by the Sea, a devastating story of blue-collar tragedy given a startling economy of expression. Here, he and director Hettie Macdonald display that understated command with one early, artful image: an aging postman, stiff in his caped uniform, spun between two passing motorcars. Briefly disoriented by modernity, he doesn't know where to look.
That seems like a neat proxy for a post-Brexit audience, vacillating between nostalgic yearnings for England’s green and pleasant land, and lawn croquet among the leisured classes, and immense fears for the future, with its urban sprawl and multiculturalism.
In some significant ways, the new adaptation works to rehabilitate Forster, a threatened traditionalist, for the coming Britain he so obviously resisted. It helps that it easily jettisons Forster's narration, which one working-class clerk as "not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as loveable". (His wife, Jacky, is "bestially stupid".) Lonergan's version is more sympathetic, or certainly nowhere near as prejudiced. And in casting Rosalind Aleazer, a black actress, as Jacky, among black servants and working-class colleagues, the show widens and complicates the representation of early 20th-century London, this seat of empire, in a way Merchant Ivory never did.
The plot, however, will always be loaded, keeping a fatal appointment with a bookcase for any unlovable lower-class pretender who doesn’t know his place. Lonergan and director Hettie Macdonald are aware of the seductive spell of a costume drama, and they film Howards End, presided over by Julia Ormond’s excellent near-mystical Mrs Wilcox, as a kind of intoxicated dream. But they allow its more escapist pleasures. There are the sun-dappled lawns and plumes from a steam train; there is a society pampered enough to contain eccentric hypochondriacs, and women who confine themselves to bed following a hectic day of social appointments; and there is Hayley Atwell’s beautifully played Margaret, who can say, “I am really distressed that he had no tea.”
That they fret so severely over every embarrassment and faux pas might seem like the prerogative of any literary adaptation. But here it seems something more pointed. There is every reason for dismay over improper actions, which Forster’s new adapters understand, but it ought to be directed towards real cruelties. As Forster himself insisted, Only connect.