TV blog: Howards End

Benjie Goodhart / 09 November 2017

A sumptuous new Sunday evening drama, plus the best of the rest of the week on TV.

Howards End, Sunday 12th November, 9pm, BBC One

Right, look, it’s probably best to be honest upfront. I’m not a noted literary commentator. I’ve never read Howards End. I can’t tell you whether this new four-part series is a faithful adaptation of it, and stays resolutely true to EM Forster’s vision. To be honest, I just had to ask Professor Google if it was indeed by EM Forster. I’d narrowed it down to him or Jilly Cooper. In fact (and this is a genuinely shameful confession) I often have to think quite hard for a minute or two before I can distinguish between this, one of the classics of early 20th Century literature, and Howards’ Way, a rather soapy drama about yachting and people with large shoulder pads in the 1980s. As cultural commentators go, I am still awaiting the call from the English faculty at Oxford...

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But you don’t have to be a literary genius to enjoy this absolutely sumptuous adaptation by the BBC. Costume dramas are one of the things the BBC does best – along with nature docs, news, and getting attacked by the Daily Mail. And when the BBC does something well, they do it really, really well – see also Blue Planet II.

Blue Planet II is full of extraordinary-looking creatures whose appearance is outdone only by their bizarre behaviour. Which, as it happens, is true of most of the people in Howards Way. Sorry, End. The most bizarre of the lot are the Wilcoxes, your typically English well-to-do types, with their croquet and cricket and repressed emotions hidden behind the morning copy of The Times of London. They live at Howards End, and all I can say is lucky them. It is pretty much the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen, and the gardens have that impossibly verdant look you don’t get outside this country.

Meanwhile, the Schlegels are a family of orphans, raised by eldest sister Margaret (Hayley Atwell). But they’re not your average Oliver Twist types – they live in some splendour in their glorious Georgian London home (the show is like an advert for the world’s poshest estate agents). The Schlegels are very much your early incarnations of the metropolitan liberal elite, with their shocking advocacy of votes for women and their enjoyment of the arts. At one concert (Beethoven and Brahms, since you ask) one of the Schlegels makes off with an umbrella belonging to a working class chap called Mr Bast. He collects it, and goes home, but something tells me we’re not done with him yet. (Actually, the series synopsis tells me, I’m just trying to look prescient).

The Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, who met on holiday, have a peculiar relationship – one moment deeply affectionate, the next horribly strained. Most of their communication seems to take place by mail, which comes with startling regularity (there seem to be at least four posts a day, which may explain why nobody back then felt the need to invent email or communicate via social media. I wonder how many of them sent each other pictures of their dinner a hundred years ago).

This is a story all about class, and convention and relationships, but it’s a lot less dull than this makes it sound. This is like Downton, only less silly, and with fewer Turkish diplomats dying in flagrante. The performances are as good as you’d expect from a cast including Atwell, Matthew MacFadyen and Tracy Ullman, and the whole thing is an absolute feast for the eyes. Delightful.

Gone to Pot: American Road Trip, Monday 13th November, 9pm, ITV

Ever since the Real Marigold Hotel proved such a success on the BBC, there has been a rush to make shows of a similar ilk. Celebrities of a certain age must wake each morning to bulging inboxes, bursting voicemails and groaning doormats as production companies frantically contact them to discover if they’d be up for climbing Kilimanjaro or learning macramé in Mongolia.

So far, we’ve had the Real Marigold Hotel, The Real Marigold Hotel series 2, the Real Marigold on Tour, Celebrity Five Go Motorhoming, and  A Celebrity Taste of Italy. And those are just off the top of my head. Now, we have what is undoubtedly the nuttiest idea of the lot, courtesy of our friends at ITV: Gone to Pot: American Road Trip. It follows five ‘national treasures’ (ie have been on telly and are over 55) as they travel around America on a large hallucinogenic bus exploring the legalisation of marijuana. In the same way that, when I go to the pub, I am ‘exploring the end of prohibition’.

The five in question are Linda Robson, Pam St Clement, Christopher Biggins, Bobby George and John Fashanu. The series’ first jaw dropper comes from Pam, before she’s even got on the bus. Not only does she sound fantastically posh, but she describes Pat Butcher as a ‘dreadful woman’. Consider my gast well and truly flabbered.

The five have been chosen because they each have a condition that could be helped by using marijuana. Linda is menopausal, Pam has rheumatism, Biggins has hip and back pain, Fash (as he insists on being known) has arthritis in his knee, and Bobby… Oh Bobby… Bobby has broken his back, has a new hip and knee, arthritis in his right hand, and has had three toes cut off. If he was a horse, he’d have been inside a tube of Uhu years ago. (Incidentally, Bobby keeps one of his toes embalmed in vodka behind his bar at home.)

First stop, to nobody’s evident surprise, is San Francisco, frequently shrouded in a fog that I have long suspected is just an enormous dope cloud. As the gang go to the world’s largest marijuana dispensary, it quickly becomes apparent that one of the group is less on board with the whole exercise than the others. Fash, who has never even been drunk in his life, says he can see no difference between marijuana and heroin (meaning you really wouldn’t want him in charge of the dispensary).

But there is a long way to go. As the episode continues, one by one, the gang test out the water (or, in one or two cases, jump in with both feet, with predictable consequences). Along the way, they stay in two wildly contrasting roadside hotels. One is a little rough around the edges, to Linda’s evident disdain. “It’s like the Simon Bates hotel,” she complains. I think she means Norman, unless her idea of hell is “Our Tune” being played on a loop for hours on end. The other, the Madonna Inn, is a world-famous camp-as-Christmas festival of kitsch, where I had the joy of staying on a family holiday 30 years ago. I swear, Bobby George is sleeping in the room I was in. It has to be seen to be believed. Poor Bobby still probably thinks he’s under the influence of the marijuana given to him by the nuns. Or the marijuana ice cream cooked for him by 95-year-old Nonna Marijuana. And no, I’m not making any of this up.

Basically, this is one of the funniest, strangest and most glorious programmes of the year. Episodes two and three are on Wednesday and Friday nights.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 11th November

Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance 2017, 9pm, BBC One: Music, martial entertainment, and archive films mark this most solemn and important of occasions from the Royal Albert Hall. Huw Edwards presents, and those in attendance include the Queen, the Royal Family, the PM and other party leaders.

Sunday 12th November

Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph, 10:20pm, BBC One: David Dimbleby presents live coverage from Whitehall’s Cenotaph , in the presence of the Queen and the royal family, leading politicians, religious leaders, foreign dignitaries, and thousands of veterans.

Songs of Praise, 4:20pm, BBC One: A special edition of the programme. Claire McCollum is in Enniskillen, 30 years on from the IRA bomb that killed so many, and devastated a community.

Britain’s Forgotten Army, 7pm, Channel 4: Revealing the untold story of 140,000 Chinese workers who travelled to Europe and helped the allied war effort, only to have their contribution painted out of history. Now, their descendants go on an emotional journey to discover how important they were to winning the war.

The Queen’s Favourite Animals, 8pm, Channel 4: The story of Her Majesty’s life, told through her lifelong passion for animals, from thoroughbred racehorses to her beloved corgis.

Elton John: The Nation’s Favourite Song, 9pm, ITV: In a special to mark Elton’s 50 years in showbiz, and 70 years as a living organism, ITV devote a 90-minute special to the great man, before everyone decides Candle in the Wind is his best song.

Big Ben: Saving the World’s Most Famous Clock, 9pm, Channel 4: Architectural historian Anna Keay gains exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the conservation work rescuing this national symbol from decay.

Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me, 10:30pm, BBC One: Former England legend Alan Shearer investigates the potentially devastating link between football and dementia, caused by repeatedly heading the ball.

Monday 13th November

Children In Need Rocks the 80s, BBC One, 8:30pm: Fearne Cotton and Sara Cox host a shoulder-pad-tastic 80s extravaganza from Wembley Arena, with a galaxy of stars including A-ha, Boy George, Bananarama, Erasure, Jason Donovan, UB40 and Nick Heyward among those in the line-up. That’ a potentially explosive build-up of hairspray right there…

The Boy with the Topknot, 9pm, BBC Two: The always-watchable Sacha Dhawan stars as Sathnam, a Punjabi boy from Wolverhampton who moves to London and discovers a painful family secret. This is a warm, funny and emotional feature-length drama.

Tuesday 14th November

International Football Friendly: England v Brazil, 7:30pm, ITV: The success of England’s Under-17 side, winning the World Cup, comes hot on the heels of the Under-20s doing the same, and the Under-19s winning the European Championships. This has caused a wave of unfamiliar optimism among England fans. Tonight, England should do much to dismantle this optimism with a feckless home defeat to Brazil.

Wednesday 15th November

The Secret Life of the Zoo, 8pm, Channel 4: Return for the series covering all the beastly goings-on at Chester Zoo, home to 15,000 animals.

Peaky Blinders, 9pm, BBC Two: An action-packed fourth series of the crime drama set among the gangster gangs of 1920s Birmingham. A spectacular cast includes Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Adrien Brody and Tom Hardy.

Lifers Behind Bars 1/2, 9pm, Channel 4: Ground-breaking two-part documentary, exploring what it’s like to serve a long term prison sentence in Britain (answer: Not terribly nice). Filmed over a year, this is a look at the grim reality for convicted murderers as they face up to a life behind bars.

Thursday 16th November

Love, Lies and Records, 9pm, BBC One: Ashley Jensen stars as Kate in BBC One’s comedy drama set in a registry office. Kate’s dream job is about to be announced, when – wouldn’t you know it – her entire world collapses thanks to a series of rather unfortunate events.

Friday 17th November

Children In Need 2017, 7:30pm, BBC One: Presenters including Tess Daly, Graham Norton, Mel Giedroyc, Ade Adepitan, and Rochelle and Marvin Humes (but sadly no late and hugely lamented Sir Terry) host a night of rip-roaring fun in aid of a very good cause. Highlights include a musical medley from EastEnders, Blue Peter does Strictly, a Weakest Link special, and a raft of glittering musical theatre numbers and spectacular pop performances.

Food Unwrapped: Supermarket Special, 8pm, Channel 4: Extended version of the programme, examining why supermarket prices have soared in the last year, and revealing how new technology could help revolutionise packaging in the future.

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