A drama of the old days of England. An England of Brideshead Revisited and A Jewel In The Crown, the sort of dramas that the BBC has a worldwide reputation for.
But, despite what your memory tells you, those two programmes never aired on the BBC (they were both, in fact, ITV gems) and this ten-part drama comes from Channel 4. It’s certainly one of the most epic dramas ever to come from the channel, and it’s good to know that all the money being saved from ditching Big Brother is going to good use.
We’re in India, 1932 – the last days of the Raj, when the country is beginning to unshackle itself from British rule. Those Brits still in place don’t particularly want to go.
India gets even hotter in the summer, and so the British in rule decamp to Simla, a so-called ‘Little England’ where the temperature is merely sweltering.
Ralph, played Henry Lloyd-Hughes, is the private secretary to the Viceroy. There’s a fairly good chance that with his charisma, he’ll be next in line for command, if he can keep a lid on a certain secret. But then, many of the characters we meet in this feature-length first instalment have all manner of secrets that will no doubt come tumbling out over the next couple of months.
Early on, we meet Sarah (Fiona Glascott), buttoned up and brittle, the sort of woman who, despite being one of the few white faces on a train in the foothills of India, still feels able to tell the natives to know their place. In the same scene, Alice (Jemima West) feels awkward walking alongside the broken-down train, in a sequence that bears an uncomfortable relation to recent news stories.
Indian Summers has been dubbed ‘Downton meets Delhi’, but at best that’s a misleading description. If you really want to stick a label on it, the series has more in common with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and not just because of the location.
It’s oh-so-stunningly shot, and the narrative is careful not to plant a flag on any one side of the Empire. This isn’t just a story of buttoned-up Brits getting all hot and flustered at the sight of a beautifully exotic local: although to be fair, there will clearly be a few moments of that, sometimes in reverse. As one character drily comments, a white man having relations with an Indian woman isn’t exactly unheard of, but it’s very unlikely that an Indian man will be allowed to have a relationship with a white woman. ‘Well,’ the white woman in question replies. ‘It’ll be our secret.’
Meanwhile, Julie Walters’ Cynthia Coffin presides over the Royal Club– where all the great and good go for a good time (as long as they’re British). She’s funny, quirky and brilliant – but still not above hanging a sign on the door that reads ‘No Indians or dogs’.
Pivotal to this first episode is Aafrin (Nikesh Patel) who is badly treated – both by authority, and later by a bullet. Elsewhere is Leena (Amber Rose Revah), who is beautiful, intelligent, fiercely independent; obstacles that for the most part would be anything but elsewhere. She’s also mixed-caste, and increasingly diverted by Craig Parkinson’s Dougie Raworth. Sooni, a highly-intelligent would-be lawyer is determined not to be caught red-handed (literally) for an act of vandalism against a portrait of Queen Victoria.
There’s clearly many characters to put into place and there’s a lot going on. What with this, Wolf Hall, and BBC One’s adaptation of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (which Indian Summers has been pitted against on Sunday nights) it may not be too much to hope that network bosses are trusting audiences with the intelligence to cope with large casts and sprawling, complicated storylines. You know, like in the good old days.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 15 February 2015 on Channel 4.
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