Howard's End

Written by Ben Felsenburg

We may fondly remember A Room with a View and A Passage to India, but it’s Howards End (Sunday, BBC1, 9pm) that represents the peak of EM Forster’s brilliance. The rich social satire provides a sweeping summation of Edwardian England – from the humble lower-middle classes to gentry and bohemian intelligentsia.

This was the novel in which the irrepressibly idealistic heroine Margaret Schlegel proclaimed, ‘Only connect!’, and that was exactly what Forster achieved, mapping out the slights and fears and hopes and ambitions that held sway a century ago in a vast canvas that even now gives us an immediate snapshot of life back then.

All the nuanced internal thoughts of Forster’s characters are tricky to put on screen, but the team of Merchant and Ivory didn’t do badly with their 1992 movie starring Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter. Now comes this four-part adaptation from the BBC, garlanded with what is unarguably a top-notch cast – Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Tracey Ullman – and a plethora of lovely locations, plus the elegant gowns and tailoring that make you long for the sartorial standards that once were the rule. But my word it’s insipid, laden with pretty-pretty plinky-plonky music and about as much bite as a toy animal. Quite why someone decided to turn one of the great novels into the source material for what was clearly misconceived as the new Downton Abbey heaven knows.