Howards End by E. M. Forster, adapted by Amanda Dalton

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BBC Radio 4, 18-25 October 2009
In Susan Roberts' adaptation, Forster's 1910 novel came across as a melancholy tale of people's failure to connect with one another. The Schlegel sisters Margaret (Lisa Dillon) and Helen (Jill Cardo) live in a rarefied social milieu of books, music and literature; for them the world depends on the dissemination of 'ideas.' By contrast the Wilcoxes are unashamedly capitalist in their outlook: possessions mean everything. This explains why Henry (Malcolm Raeburn) cannot accept Ruth's (Ann Rye's) last will and testament - hastily scribbled on a piece of paper - leaving Howards End to Margaret. The idea of leaving such a valuable property to an artistic type seems preposterous to him. As the story unfolds, Henry and Margaret form a close relationship, but they seldom see eye-to-eye on anything. Meanwhile Helen does her best to render herself socially useful by taking an interest in the lowly clerk Leonard Bast (Joseph Prospero) and his wife (Christine Marshall). She tried to find Leonard a better situation, but only succeeds in destroying both his prospects and his marriage. Helen eventually falls in love with Leonard and falls pregnant by him, but the two seldom connect with one another. For all her artistic pretensions, she cannot understand how her behaviour towards him might be considered patronizing by the Wilcoxes and Bast himself.
Howards End itself provides a symbolic backdrop to the characters' internal struggles. It becomes all things to all people - for Henry it represents wealth and social standing; for Margaret it sums everything that is beautiful in the world. What none of them understood, however, was the house's timeless quality; it would continue to exist well after they had passed away.
At times Roberts' production resembled a high-class soap, as the action unfolded in a series of melodramatic exchanges linked by the narrator (John Hurt), whose mournful voice suggested that the characters were doomed to suffer. But then perhaps this is precisely Forster's point; in a world where human beings cannot connect with one another, they resemble ships that pass in the night, communicating superficially with one another yet condemned to lives of perpetual isolation.