Hayley Atwell may be best known for starring in superhero fare such as Agent Carter and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but in Starz and BBC One’s forthcoming adaptation of Howards End, she plays Margaret Schlegel, the chief protagonist of E.M Forster’s classic novel.
Atwell, speaking at the premiere of the four-part drama in London, said that she’d never read a script that had given her so much time to figure out the “many facets of her character”.
“My character starts off with self-doubt… she’s contradictory, contrary and hypocritical and curious and inquisitive, all of these characteristics that I see present in my life but I don’t necessarily see it as much on screen. So, for me, I wanted to tread carefully because I thought it was beautiful and nuanced and wasn’t earnest or sentimental,” she added.
That script, which was written by Manchester By The Sea writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, follows the story of two independent and unconventional sisters, and the men in their lives, as they seek love and meaning in an ever-changing world.
Lonergan said that he was drawn into the project because of the way that the Schlegel family, in 1907, was actively trying to assess what was happening with the class system in Britain. “You don’t often see that done in such an anthropological way. It’s very unusual territory to explore,” he said.
The last major adaptation of Howards End was done 25 years ago as a Merchant Ivory-produced feature film starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave.
Lonergan said he was pleased to have had four hours to tell the story rather than 90-minutes. “I’ve tried to adapt novels for feature length films and most of the work is trying to figure out what to cut and how to allow the book to survive in a shorter format so having four hours to experiment is wonderful.”
Atwell was also aware of stepping into the shoes Thompson, who won an Oscar for best actress in 1993 for her performance.
“Emma has been a mentor to me for a number of years so I told her they were doing the impossible [and remaking Howards End] and I wanted to pay my respects to such an amazing woman. She said ‘don’t watch my version, you should never do that, read some physics books instead’.”
The series, which is produced by Colin Callender’s Playground Entertainment, is directed by Hettie Macdonald, director of Bafta Award-winning White Girl as well as Doctor Who.
Macdonald said that she wanted the drama to feel like a true representation of the period, rather than a stilted stereotypical snapshot. “We [had seen] photos of Edwardian women walking down the street with skirts swinging, holding books and laughing and smoking and there so much movement. Normally they had to remain stiff in photos… but I wanted them to have a sense of energy,” she added.
Callender, who was behind Peter Kosminsky’s BBC period drama Wolf Hall, said class was a major feature of the show, which he produced in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment.
“What’s interesting is this emergence of a business class and the tension between business and art and treating people more than [just based on] their financial value. Those are themes that are relevant and present today, almost as much as the traditional exploration as class,” he added.
Howards End, which also stars Matthew Macfadyen and Tracey Ullman, filmed across London.
However, the team, which also included Hunger producer Laura Hastings-Smith, managed to pull off something that no other film or TV production had managed – to film outside The British Museum.
Coincidentally, Vera Drake filmmaker Mike Leigh was in the area and started shouting at Ullman – asking how they’d managed to secure permission.
The series will air on BBC One on 12 November in a 9pm slot; Starz has not confirmed TX details, although it is likely to air in early 2018.
Premium pay television is not usually the home for such period fare, but Callender said that the broadcaster wanted to make the “definitive television production of Howards End”.
“PBS Masterpiece wanted it but the truth is that Starz were agreeable to paying more,” he said. “Starz was extraordinarily supportive through this and they wanted what Ken [Lonergan] and Hettie [Macdonald] and the BBC wanted. They weren’t interested in trying to morph this into some sort of concept of what a pay television show should look like in the States.”