A Beautiful Now
The stunning period setting of Howards End — and the timeless soul-searching of its leads — converge in a new Starz production, with a script by Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan.
On a bright summer afternoon in a Georgian square in north London, Hayley Atwell and Tracey Ullman are at war with the modern world.
They are filming Howards End, a four-hour adaptation of E. M. Forster's classic novel, which premiered April 8 on Starz. And their first battle with modernity is in the script.
"Sometimes," Atwell, playing Margaret Schlegel, says to Ullman, playing her Aunt Juley, "I feel that we are swathed in cant and it is good for us to be stripped of it. Sometimes I long for someone dominating to tell me that my ideas are sheltered and academic. That equality is… bosh!"
And so, framed in an afternoon walk, the thematic battle lines of Howards End are drawn: Margaret Schlegel is a single young woman who believes culture and the life of the mind are preeminent. As the story unfolds, those beliefs are challenged by the Wilcox family and their home at Howards End, a beautiful country manor house.
Henry Wilcox, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is a rich capitalist who should be deplorable to Margaret, but of course he is not. The crux of the novel is crystallized in the single conversation played out in that picturesque square: in the modern world, is money everything? If so, how does a woman fit in? Is equality bosh, or nonsense?
On this day, however, the practicalities of the modern world are intruding on the paradise of the mind in a different way. The square may be perfect for the period, shortly after the turn of the last century, but it happens to be a public thoroughfare. The roads can't be closed for something as flighty as filming a TV series.
As a result, schoolchildren on their way home keep wandering through, making faces at the cameras and jumping on the open-topped vintage cars parked nearby for a later scene. Some of the kids honk the cars' horns until P.A.s shoo them off.
Dog walkers glued to their phones wander into shots. Meanwhile, clouds scudding overhead spoil the light, requiring grips to walk alongside Atwell and Ullman holding large square screens. Plus, there's always traffic noise.
It's a clash of old versus new, and if it's a little frustrating for the crew, it happens to be the perfect metaphor for what Forster was getting at when Howards End was published in 1910.
Indeed, everything about this adaptation of a book that's more than 100 years old speaks to the now. "What we've found from first draft to the script to shooting," producer Laura Hastings-Smith says, "is that the material is so relevant now in so many of its themes."
Famously, Forster's epigraph to Howards End is "Only connect."
"You think of Obama when he left the White House and said how we all need to get out of our bubbles and start talking to people who don't think the same as us," Hastings-Smith says. "That's exactly what Howards End is about."
To put it another way, Atwell adds, Margaret Schlegel's story is "How do you accept the world as it is, rather than as you want it to be?"
Howards End was first adapted for the screen in 1992, in a film version starring Emma Thompson. It was a hit, and Thompson won the Oscar for best actress, but it was very much of its time — a time when Merchant Ivory period adaptations were the lodestar of British cinema, with a look and grammar all their own.
When the rights to Howards End became available again a few years ago, Colin Callender, CEO of Playground Entertainment, thought the story deserved another look.
"I felt that the book had remarkable resonances to today," says Callender, an executive producer of Howards End along with Joshua D. Maurer, Alixandre Witlin, David A. Stern, Sophie Gardiner and Scott Huff.
"Not just because of the obvious themes that people talk about when they talk about Howards End, which are class and societal change and so on. But what I thought was so interesting — reading it again in the context of the world we live in now — is how the story of the two sisters was so resonant."
Howards End, in Callender's reading, is a story about two young, independent-minded women — Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard) — trying to find their way in the world. "I felt that would speak to a contemporary audience on both sides of the Atlantic," he says. "I felt exploring that would give it a different perspective and make it feel different from the original film."
Callender approached Kenneth Lonergan, who was then working on the script for Manchester by the Sea, which would win him last year's Oscar for best original screenplay.
"I've always wanted to do a long-form television piece," Lonergan says, speaking from his home in New York. "This is my first. I'm very interested in English literature, in period drama and anything historical. But I had not read the novel, so I went back and read the whole thing. Ultimately it seemed like a great piece of material to cut my teeth on, so to speak. But I did have some concerns."
Lonergan thought certain aspects of the novel needed further exploration, in particular the relationship between Margaret and Henry. Was questioning the source material — altering, augmenting, dare one say improving it — sacrilege when the source was a literary classic? Lonergan was unsure; he hadn't done this before.
"He was rather daunted by the idea of adapting Howards End," Callender says. "Early on, he sort of said, 'Look, I love the idea of this, but I don't think I can do it. There are certain things in the book that I think would need to be explored further than Forster does — and I'm not sure that's appropriate.'"
Callender told Lonergan it was not merely appropriate; it was required. "I said to him, 'It's precisely because you think that all these things need to be explored further that I want you to do it.' What we wanted was Kenny Lonergan's interpretation of E. M. Forster on the screen. That's exactly why you hire a brilliant writer to adapt a book."
Lonergan wasn't looking to put any topical touchstones in his script, just enduring human truths. "I don't worry about whether it's relevant or not," he says. "I figure if it's done well, no matter when it was written, it's going to be relevant now."
According to Atwell, Lonergan's scripts were indeed "done well." Very well, in fact.
"Although a lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the book," she says, "Kenny's done these brilliant scenes where a lot of the dialogue overlaps. And that's as people really speak. We don't always listen to what the other person is saying. Our minds are inspired to go over here for a minute and then come back here and then connect and be a bit bored or a bit impatient. So, Kenny's language has this kind of rhythm to it, which is very natural."
Lonergan may not have been looking for contemporary relevance, but Atwell says he found it. "It's the human relationships that are at the heart of it," she says. "It's very, very relatable. It shows the dynamics of a family and who we think we are — and then how we are able to, over time, hopefully change and grow."
Crucially, she adds that Lonergan's Howards End shows "how idealism can get suddenly a real wake-up call. You realize the world is not going to be what you want it to be. The question therefore becomes, how do you come to terms with that and accept the world as it is rather than how you dream about it?"
According to Ullman, "The Schlegels are the intellectuals; they are the ones who are questioning things. They are like the people living in a liberal bubble nowadays who are always like, 'What's going on in Venezuela… isn't it terrible? ...We should not buy that — that's been unethically sourced.' You know, those people.
"Whereas the Wilcoxes are playing the market, like a hedge-fund manager, money from this, money from that. 'What about the workers? Oh, well, they are fine.' They represent the male-dominant society. All of those analogies are fascinating."
Atwell notes how Forster's and Lonergan's presentation of the Schlegels changes over the four hours, so that characters who begin as apparent Pollyannas acquire new depths.
"What's so brilliant about E. M. Forster's work, that Kenny has got so well, is his ability to allow characters to be very complex and contradictory — but we still follow them," Atwell says.
"We follow their journey because they're ultimately very relatable. They exist now, and they exist then. The period- drama side of it — being in Edwardian time — is the backdrop to a lot of very modern relationships. So, although that's visually what it looks like, it's still very resonant."
The scripts spoke to 2018 as much as to a century ago. But they also needed to be done right.
This day on set, the primary headache (aside from the kids crawling all over the period vehicles) comes from just three words: it , does and sometimes . Atwell and Hettie Macdonald, the director, take at least 10 minutes to determine whether Margaret should say, "It does sometimes" or "It sometimes does." It's an issue. Calls are made.
"Everything is there for a reason," Atwell says later, laughing. "If there's a comma, there's a reason, and that tells you how to deliver it. It's brilliant, because Kenny will bring you up on everything."
Even "It does/sometimes"?
"Ha ha! And I had grit in my eye and hay fever when we were doing that line," the actress continues. " It does sometimes . It sometimes does …. And you go, 'Well, that's the same sense, isn't it?' But Kenny wants specificity, because that's how it's written. And, actually, it comes out as a slightly different thought.
"But that's the level of detail that you get when you're adapting a book that's loved. And the reason why it's loved is there's so much richness in it." If all that sounds a little stuffy, this Howards End is anything but.
"People say, 'Is it like Downton Abbey 2? '" Ullman says. "And I can tell them right here, right now, this is not Downton Abbey."
Watching production, you'd say it is respectful of the period detail but not encumbered by it. Street signs have been replaced, TV antennas removed and asphalt roads covered with straw and gravel. Atwell and Ullman are in period dress, with puffy sleeves, long skirts, neckerchiefs and hats. But the way they carry themselves and the way they converse feel modern.
Indeed, Atwell confides that one of director Macdonald's regular notes to the actors is, "You sound a bit 'period drama.' Take it down a bit."
Macdonald, who's worked on Doctor Who and Fortitude, wanted her actors to drop any notion of what they might have thought people did in Edwardian England and to imagine instead that they were talking to a friend or sibling today. Atwell has done several period dramas, so she knows the beats but also recognizes the pitfalls.
"Period drama comes with a lot of easy traps to fall into about making it mannered and all about etiquette and how you wear stiff corsets," she says. "We're all wearing costumes, of course, but Hettie, in her direction, wanted it to be very relaxed so that we're just wearing clothes — we're as comfortable in a corset as we would be in jeans today."
Later, we watch a scene filmed at the corner of the square — it's the Schlegels' London home, Wickham Place. Family members Margaret, Helen and hypochondriac younger brother Tibby (Alex Lawther) are sitting around, legs up, lying back. They couldn't be less formal or posed.
"That's it!" Atwell says later. "Hands behind the head, wiping our noses, doing things that feel very much like you're just breathing into it."
That suits Ullman, who's known for her comedy roles. "I do not want to play it like some kind of period drama and talk like thees . I did not go to drama school, so I do not have an elocuted voice.
"I listened to women from the turn of the century in early recordings. They weren't trained actresses, and they didn't speak in period-drama voices. They had very high, very simple voices, and they weren't aware of the sound of their own voice — nobody was used to being recorded or listened to.
"I got away from that and watched a lot of Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India. She had that way of speaking, not like an actress but of somebody who was around at that time." The result is a Howards End for the modern age (and, appropriately, available for catch-up viewing on demand and on the Starz app).
"If we had sold this as a very cerebral novel, we wouldn't have sold it," Callender says. "Instead, we sold it as an emotional story of two women finding their way in the world. I think what is interesting is taking certain classics and revisiting them years after they have been written or made and seeing how the new context changes the way you look at the material."
Part of that new context is the current climate surrounding women's rights. Howards End has two female leads, and this production has a female director — though Ullman maintains that shouldn't even be a talking point these days.
"All my career I have been asked to talk about women in comedy or women directors, you know? People are trying to be so polite about it: 'Maybe we should talk about this?' Look, just employ them, don't talk about it. We're just people."
The other big difference with this Howards End is that it's a limited series rather than a film. As has been widely documented, television has become the go-to place for screenwriters like Lonergan to ply their trade .
"There's been an explosion of television over the last few years that's very inviting," he says, "and there's a lot of opportunity to do all kinds of television that didn't exist 20 years ago. I could see myself writing period adaptations for TV for years to come, I really could."
That will please Callender, who has a special place in his heart for the miniseries. "It is a form that is entirely unique to television. You don't get them on film; it doesn't exist anywhere else. The business goes in cycles, and miniseries were out of fashion for a long, long time. This last year, obviously, HBO's Big Little Lies broke out. Hopefully, Howards End will do the same."
Only connect, you might say.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018
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