Sunday

Howards End

9pm, BBC One

Loading article content

Not to be confused with Howard’s Way, Howard The Duck, Frankie Howerd Strikes Again or Howard Jones’ “Best Of” Tour 2017, Howards End is the BBC’s tasteful and stultifyingly dull new four-part adaptation of EM Forster’s 1910 novel, last seen on screen in 1992 when Merchant Ivory – the masters of dull good taste – gave us the hot Emma Thompson Vs Anthony Hopkins movie. (Itself not to be confused with 1993’s sizzler The Remains Of The Day, the Thompson-Hopkins rematch Merchant Ivory rushed out as follow up, to sate the public hunger for more scenes of these fine actors glancing at each other.)

The BBC previously had a crack at Forster’s book in 1970, with Glenda Jackson wearing the frock as protagonist Margaret Schlegel, who, as played by Hayley Atwell in this latest version, we instantly recognise as admirably intellectual, because one of the other characters says she is, in this subtle exchange:

“You are so intellectual.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I admire you for it.”

Leaving aside the obvious delights of zingy dialogue like this, that the novel has been adapted for the screen three times now begs one of two questions. The first is, “What is it about this book that keeps its themes and characters so relevant?”

In answer, you might suggest that Forster’s story, which details the cultured, emancipated Schlegel sisters’ interactions with both a rich, dense and stuffy family, The Wilcoxes, and a poor one, The Basts, offers a penetrating study of the period’s rigid class structures and suffocating social conventions, and of more lasting interior emotional struggles. You might also add that the focus on independent female characters offers opportunity for infinite nuance, and that every remake gives us Schlegels to reflect our own era.

But don’t be suckered. All this is precisely what the BBC would like you to be thinking about, so as to distract from the other, more interesting question: “Why does British TV keep remaking the same bloody books over and over again?”

Aside from the obvious reasons – crushing lack of imagination and ambition – the answer here is more mysterious. But in the case of things like Howards End (see also every Jane Austen adaptation ever, and any drama involving royalty) we may venture a guess: it’s because Americans like them because they make them feel classy.

This is a theory that gains credence in this instance, as the Forster adaptation is a co-production with US channel Starz, and the extra dollars allow for admittedly sumptuous period recreation. The leafy summer lanes, bright London squares and treacherous brick backstreets of 1905 are handsomely brought to life – to the extent I was soon wishing Jeremy Brett would come bounding into shot and persuade the camera to jump into a passing hansom with him and gallop away on a new Holmes adventure instead.

As it is, across the first endless hour of Howards End, only two interesting things happen. The first goes on inside your own brain as, searching for something, anything, to do, it begins to wonder obsessively about why there is no apostrophe in the title. The second explodes on screen without warning, when, just when you least expect it, somebody picks up somebody else’s umbrella by mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, I value a traditional Sunday night costume drama as much as the next Ebenezer. But while there is a fine eruption of blouses here, it is hard to care anything about any of the people wearing them. If this doesn’t shed viewers after Episode One, I’ll eat my bonnet.

Monday

The Boy With The Topknot

9pm, BBC Two

Based on Sathnam Sanghera’s bestselling memoir, as this one-off play begins, it seems firmly rooted in the regular, well-worn culture-clash terrain. Sathnam (a nicely judged performance by Sacha Dhawan) is a successful thirty-something journalist living in London, and just about to move into a flat with his girlfriend, Laura. The only real cloud on his horizon seems to be how to break this news to his Punjabi parents, particularly his mother, who is very keen to set him up with a Sikh bride for a traditional marriage. But when Sathnam travels back to visit his folks in his old Wolverhampton home, planning to tell them about Laura, he stumbles across a long-buried family secret, and the story suddenly veers into less expected territory. Cultural issues and perspectives remain in play, but as the drama expands, it becomes a wider-ranging piece on universal attitudes toward mental health. A change of pace for writer Mick Ford, who adapted Sanghera’s book, and is also behind Sky’s current comedy Living The Dream.

Tuesday

Jo Brand's Cats And Kittens

8pm, Five

If you like Jo Brand (check) and you like cats and kittens (double check), there’s a good chance you’ll like this new series, although there’s also quite a lot here that will leave you depressed, angry and frustrated. Made in collaboration with the RSPCA, it is, of course, another show in the style of Paul O’Grady’s For The Love Of Dogs, as Brand – cattier than O’Grady – joins forces with some of the inspectors, vets and volunteers working to rescue the nation’s moggies from harm, neglect and downright cruelty. Tonight, she’s in Liverpool, where the first incident is a fairly sickening case of abandonment, involving two cats left locked in a flat after the owner has moved away. Discovered after many days without food and water, it’s touch and go whether they’ll make it. Meanwhile, Brand rolls up her sleeves to assist the vet operating to save Saba, a poor wee critter who’s fallen from four floors. Elsewhere, Lola has been stuck up a chimney four days, and, look out, there are some super cute stray kittens jumping around.

Wednesday

Peaky Blinders

9pm, BBC Two

Just in time for festive season, Steven Knight’s panto without laughs returns, this time with extra-added frowning from this year’s guest dames Adrien Brody and Aidan Gillen. Oh yes they did. Things get going tonight with an episode that has both ends burning with cliffhangers. Last we saw of the Shelby brood, most of them – with the exception of slippery headman Tommy (Cillian Murphy) – were being rounded up by the rozzers and banged up in pokey. As we begin, they’re still all slumbering in the hoosegow, but they’re about to have a very rude awakening: dragged from their cells kicking and screaming and carted off to the execution chamber for a mass hanging…No! Elsewhere, we meet Tommy himself, looking like a much-changed man. He’s ditched his lethal flat cap, has somehow picked up an OBE, and is living the life far away as a well-respected gentleman of business. Rest assured, though, before the episode is out, there will be blood, and Tommy will have a very red right hand indeed. And the Black Hand to deal with.

Thursday

Love, Lies & Records

9pm, BBC One

Gawd blimey. When you see the names of some of the actors featured in this new six-part series – specifically, Ashley Jensen and Rebecca Front – you’d be forgiven for assuming bright, spiky comedy was afoot. Instead, writer Kay Mellor serves up a lukewarm drama, following the exciting scrapes, finger-on-the-pulse issues, and the whole crazy circle of life, love and death, as confronted daily by your friendly neighbourhood registrars. Queen of the registrars is Kate (Jensen), who has just been promoted, and tries to juggle the problems of having a massive heart and just caring too damn much with the pressures of her interesting home life. This week, she’s moved by a dying bride, and suspicious that sinister sham marriages are being cooked up by immigrants seeking to stay in the UK. Meanwhile, the stress at work gets worse when her disgruntled colleague Judy (Front) reveals she knows a secret that could make Kate’s life very difficult. The first episode manages to be both predictable and unconvincing, while the weepy worthiness gets almost overpowering.

Friday

Children In Need

BBC One

It’s that time again, and presenters Tess Daly, Ade Adepitan, Graham Norton, Mel Giedroyc, Rochelle and Marvin Humes have assembled to drive the Pudsey train through the night, with regular help from Jackie Bird, holding the fort in Glasgow. As ever, among the appeals and the films reporting on how last year’s money has been spent, the BBC’s charity juggernaut offers a glitzy night of entertainment in return for your donations – and it doesn’t get much glitzier than the opening sequence, as the cast of Annie take to the stage, with Strictly’s very own Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan. As the night unfolds, there’s the obligatory EastEnders musical section; the presenters of Countryfile going a little more country than usual; a special edition of Strictly which will see six former Blue Peter presenters vying for the glitterball; and a return for The Weakest Link, as Anne Robinson pops the questions to a team of celebrities. Elsewhere, among a ton of other stuff, Joanna Lumley will be presenting the award for The Sir Terry Wogan Fundraiser Of The Year.

Saturday

My Country: A Work In Progress

9pm, BBC Two

It’s debatable whether too many viewers will decide that what they really want to settle down with on a Saturday night is…a bit more Brexit. But at least this comes at it from a different angle. In the days following the Brexit vote, a team from the National Theatre spoke to people nationwide, aged from nine to 97, to hear their views on the UK. Taking these testimonies – angry, emotional, funny, and sometimes even honest – as their blueprint, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and director Rufus Norris created this short play, in which the figure of Britannia (Penny Layden) calls a meeting to listen to her people, as delivered in dialogue that weaves together the words from those real interviews with some of the speeches from various political leaders who led the debate, or what passed for it. The nation has spoken, but what did it say? The original ensemble from the National Theatre’s stage production gathers again for this special TV performance.

BEST OF CATCH UP

Faced with the arrival of the vast and stodgy Quality Television Drama pudding that is Howards End, it was doubly refreshing last week to see the return of Random Acts (Thursday, 12.05am), Channel 4’s strand devoted to rounding up some of the best contemporary short films, and a perfectly tart palate cleanser. Cramming six wildly different pieces into around 24 minutes, whatever else there is to say about it, at least you know if you don’t like what you’re seeing, there’ll be something else along soon.

Channel 4 has changed a lot since it appeared in 1982, and anyone who remembers the 4 that was will grumble not many changes have been for the better. But, while it’s more buried today than it once was, a commitment to short film and animation has remained a constant throughout the channel’s history. In the 1980s, if you (A) didn’t live in a town with an arthouse cinema and/ or (B) couldn’t afford tickets, it was pretty much the only place you’d stand any chance of seeing work by the likes of Jan Svankmajer or The Brothers Quay.

Arguably, Youtube has made a short film strand on TV redundant. But, amid all the swamping noise, clutter and chatter online, Random Acts quietly but firmly makes the case that a dedicated, curated showcase is perhaps more valuable now than ever. The show’s promotional blurb says a lot about how Channel 4’s ideas of itself and its audience have declined: “The late-night, post-pub serving of the world’s craziest...short films.” But the series itself ignores the “it’s bonkers bantz!” stuff, to offer the films seriously, albeit with crafty humour. A filmmaker herself, regular host Zawe Ashton’s introductions are careful, sly, smartly blank little miniatures.

This week’s selection ranged across wide territory, some nightmarish, some moving, some out to mess you up, but all made with attitude and ideas about life and about experimenting with images and sound. Among them, filmmaker Kirsten Lepore’s “Hi Stranger,” was an unsettling piece of encouragement-seduction delivered by a sexy-sexless naked thing that looked like a mix between a bodacious Bod and an unfinished Nick Park creation. Johnny Kelly’s “Fern” had the great Monica Dolan cultivating a relationship with a jealous houseplant, like a lonely suburban Little Shop Of Horrors. Choreographer Antoine Marc delivered a filmed dance piece as much about editing and inevitable stillness as bodies in motion, and artist Alex Bag’s advertising assault “Diaper Surprise” was the kind of blast you wish you could forget.

Finally, director Mike Fisher’s “Last Words” gave simple visual accompaniment to Simon Armitage’s daft but devastating poem, a love story between a woman dying from a spider bite in her kitchen and a man adrift on the Indian Ocean, who she phones by mistake. In the binge age, Random Acts flies the flag for films that come nibble-sized, and nibble back at you.