Indian Summers recap: season one, episode one - well-made drama unafraid to take its time
Sunday 15 February 2015 / http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2015/feb/15/indian-summers-recap-season-one-episode-one-well-made-drama-unafraid-to-take-its-time
Channel 4’s most expensive ever drama has arrived to fill the Downton slot, packed with beautiful people doing naughty things in colonial India
The birth of a nation, the decline of an empire. Indian independence is still important – its intersections of race and caste and class inform identity politics in both countries, and set in motion national trajectories still being charted. But does it make good telly, or is it like being hit over the head with homework and a vague sense of guilt? Not for me; I’m Indian. So let’s talk about it!
Channel 4’s most expensive ever drama arrived on screen following a month of trailers and billboard-sized photos of its cast hanging in city centres like portraits of despots. Airing in the Downton slot, Indian Summers is meant to draw the comparison, but sets itself against another piece of history too. The ground was last covered by Granada Television’s much-loved Jewel In The Crown; although 1984 feels so long ago that it could have been shot during the actual days of the Raj for all we know.
For anyone unfathomably reading a recap of a show they’ve not seen, let’s set the scene. We’re in the Himalayan hill station of Simla, in 1932. India is ruled by a thousand British civil servants, who summer here, governing away from the punishing heat of the city … Whoooaaaah there now! This is about civil servants, taking a busman’s holiday? Isn’t that like watching accountants filing other people’s tax returns? Thankfully, no. Their civility is a thin veneer; servility’s out the window. In a colonised land, this is a horny, scheming, spoilt ruling class. Also this is TV, so they’re quite sexy. Also it’s not all about them.
So who were the main players in this first episode? First: Ralph Whelan, 50% of your Recommended Daily Allowance of handsome. Ralph is private secretary to the viceroy of India, which is a hell of a job title. He’s played by Donovan the school bully from the Inbetweeners, which is something that once you know, you can’t unknow. There’s his beautiful sister Alice, mysteriously alone, with child, pretending to be a widow. Aafrin, the other 50% of your RDA of handsome, is a diligent junior clerk, who worries a lot and wants to keep the peace. His sister Sooni is a very different sort of fish; a revolutionary agitator sort of fish.
Then there’s Doug. I don’t quite know the deal with Doug – he seems a patently good person. Sarah (Doug’s sister? Wife?) – is patently not a good person, riddled with racist complacency, and clearly a source of bad things.
And let’s not forget Julie Walters. As Cynthia, she spent most of the episode cleaning, and lighting fags off shrine incense. She speaks with a surprisingly strong east London accent, like she might shake eels out of her sleeve at a moment’s notice. In Britain she’d probably be working in a shop, but here she is a matriarch, the centre of Simla society, for the Brits anyway. She welcomes them to The Royal Club like a soused group rep. “Cheats! Adulterers! Slaves of Empire, here to rule this glorious nation for another six months,” she charges their glasses. “I want no moaning about my milk punch.”
They’re throwing a lot of irons into the fire, in the way ambitious television does. Within 10 minutes, a bullied mixed-race child is found on the train tracks, between the Brits and their milk punch (what the hell is milk punch?). A portrait of Queen Victoria is daubed with revolutionary Home Rule graffiti, and police ransack the town to find the culprit. (Aafrin literally catches his sister red-handed, but she gets away with it.)
Back on the tracks, the stricken boy, apparently poisoned, is carried to Simla by Doug, accompanied by a beautiful, conflicted Indian woman with whom he is clearly in love. At The Royal Club’s opening night shindig, Ralph meets American socialite Madeleine in a sideroom and diddles her. (This leads Julie Walters to genuinely smell his fingers. “Lucky girl” she wisecracks, “But wash your hands before dinner.” I can’t help thinking there’s a joke about Partition she might have missed.)
Later the same night, an elderly assassin who has been trailing the Brits up the mountain shoots at Ralph. He only succeeds in hitting fellow countryman Aafrin, returning late from a spurious errand. As Aafrin lies (possibly) dying, Ralph catches up with the assassin. “You!” he says with recognition, suggesting the pair have history. Was the attempted murder political or personal?
This is carefully plotted television, unafraid to take its time, well made. The reported £14m budget has been so obviously well spent it’s like looking at an itemised receipt. Attention has been paid to period detail and clothing. For the first half hour, Ralph wore collar points so long it looked like he had an albino bat hung around the back of his neck. (Why don’t men dress nicely like that any more?) The women have that gorgeous 30s hair, each curlicued fingerwave a work of art. (Why don’t women spend every waking second tending their hair any more?) There are elegant gowns, which get pushed up and thrown on to hedges as nookie unfolds.
There’s lots of nookie, in fact. (I’m calling it that because it’s not very graphic.) Plantation heir Ian got off with an army man’s wife in a rickshaw. Aafrin has a Romeo and Juliet thing going on with Sita, a girl of another faith. They share a kiss between some saris before she bites his hand and draws blood, which is excitingly unhinged behaviour. In a twist, Ralph and Madeleine’s steamy sideroom shenanigans turn out to have been engineered by Julie Walters, who lured them both there. She wants Ralph to marry soon, to increase his chances of becoming the next viceroy. Big pimpin’ stuff, Julie.
Indian Summers is certainly a nice place to spend an hour, beautifully lit, with stunning cinematography. Verandas overlook verdant mountain ranges, blooms heavy as melons spill off bushes, palpable heat sticks to everything. It’s a welcome contrast to the uniform grey outside UK windows. There’s also enough style and suspense to justify a return trip. In a David Fincher-esque final shot, the camera circles the would-be assassin sitting lotus-legged in a chilly blue cell, face implacable as a sword, his motive a mystery. I want to know more.
Most Colonial Bucks Fizz moment:
Julie Walters wriggles out of the boiler suit she’s been wearing for 40 minutes like an industrial char-lady chrysalis, revealing a glamorous cocktail gown underneath. Party time in Simla!
Best Of Frenemies moment:
Sarah suspiciously questions the particulars of Alice’s bogus wedding ring, before telling her: “We’re going to be great friends.” Alice looks like she’d rather be friends with a box of wasps.
• This article was amended on 17 February 2015. An earlier version said the Aarfin has a relationship with Sita, a girl outside his own caste, rather than a different religion.
Indian Summers, episode one, review: 'too leisurely'
This drama set in pre-Partition India has promise but it botched some key scenes, says Gerard O'Donovan
By Gerard O'Donovan
10:40PM GMT 15 Feb 2015 / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/11411443/TV-and-Radio-reviews.html
Perhaps the most striking thing about Indian Summers, Channel 4’s new drama series set in the twilight years of the Raj, was how much it owed to previous screen visions of the era. Anyone who knows The Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India, Heat and Dust or even Gandhi will have found much familiar in its story of a handful of haughty Brits lording it over an entire subcontinent, so busy knocking back the gin and canoodling behind each other’s backs they don’t notice the masses they rule are on the brink of boiling over.
Set in 1932 in Simla, the “summer capital” of British India to which the sweating, complaining ruling elite decamped every summer to escape the heat, the leisurely opener spent much time introducing us to the large cast of characters, many of whom seemed familiar already as archetypes. There was the dashing private secretary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) to the Viceroy, and his mysterious sister (Jemima West) who’d arrived from England on the run from a bad marriage. The snobbish wife (Fiona Glascott) with the flawed missionary husband (Craig Parkinson). The idealistic Indian clerk (Nikesh Patel) with a revolutionary hothead sister (Ayesha Kala) and a lover from another caste.
Overseeing them all in a rather too raucous manner was Walters as the memsahib owner of the local bastion of colonial rule, gossip and snobbery, the Royal Simla Club, where everyone headed of an evening to tuck into Roast beef and Yorkshire pud, washed down by barrelfuls of gin. Of course history and politics were on the menu too, but for now kept bubbling away in the background. Simla itself, with its otherworldly “little England” of high street shops, Anglican church and bungalows surrounded by privet was beautifully reproduced.
What made Indian Summers watchable – apart from the stunning backdrops – was the palpable sense that all these lives, all this bored privilege and casual repression, would soon be shattered by the oncoming storm. And while there’s no evidence yet that Indian Summers has the power to match its screen antecedents (it’s a little too leisurely, and not convincing enough in key scenes like the closing assassination attempt) the scale of the series, and its ambition over a planned further four series to relate the whole story of India’s struggle for independence, could well repay signing up for the long term.