Starring: Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Julie Walters
It’s now over thirty years since ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown stunned audiences with its lush visuals and epic sweep and made stars of Charles Dance, Geraldine James and Art Malik. You would have thought that success would have bred imitation, but unless you discount Amy Irving (the first Mrs Spielberg) playing an Indian princess in The Far Pavilions, there’s never been anything like it since – until now, with Indian Summers, Channel 4’s hugely expensive ten-part series.
Or is that speaking too soon? Certainly the lush visuals are present and correct in the feature-length first episode, the epic sweep ditto, as a sprawling cast of characters converge on the hill station of Simla to see out the hottest months of the year in the cool of the mountain air. Sensuously directed and refulgent with colour, it’s a glorious overture, and it seems to hint at endless possibilities. But in a way it’s perhaps too good. A victim of its own success, it gets you into such a fine lather of anticipation that you end up being slightly disappointed when the characters fail to live up to your hopes. For instance, seen together for the first time on the train to Simla, Craig Parkinson as the craggy orphanage administrator Dougie Raworth and Amber Rose Revah as Leena, his devoted, coolly poised assistant, make a wonderful first impression as a duo tied together by such powerful bonds of philanthropic high-mindedness that they’re practically in a world of their own. It’s something of a let-down, then, when their relationship turns into a more conventionally romantic one of wistful glances, snatched kisses and reproachful glances from the jealous wife.
And this pattern repeats itself, with interracial love affairs being the name of the game and the plot thread of choice – newcomer Alice (Jemima West) quickly decides she likes the look of humble clerk Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), while her brother, ultra smooth Private Secretary Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd Hughes) clearly has a skeleton of that nature rattling around loudly in his closet. At the same time, there’s a slight fuzziness, an artful blurring, to the Indian background (what exactly do all these people do?), and the nation’s seething politics are largely confined to a few scenes with Dalal’s sister and Patrick Malahide’s delightfully headmasterly Viceroy.
Indian Summers ends up being just a little bit narrower in scope than one expected then, and its main pleasures are small scale ones – pretty printed frocks and vibrantly hued saris, the occasional stunning vista, and a host of expert supporting performances. Julie Walters teeters around laden down with secrets and plots as Cynthia Coffin, owner of the exclusive all-British club where the white rulers pickle themselves in gin and the personification of the snobbery and racism of the Raj at its worst. And there’s some deft, light-fingered scene-stealing by Lillette Dubey and Roshan Seth as Dalal’s mother and father, making you wish that the scenes in the Dalal household had been expanded much further.
Still, if it’s not quite The Jewel in the Crown, Indian Summers is a damn sight more ambitious and lovingly crafted than your average Sunday night drama, and it’s sure to merit repeated viewings on DVD box set.