Finally, a period drama set in India before 1857/58, and indeed even before 1803! But, so far, it’s not really living up to the hype. On the plus side, we got all the glorious colour of India – elephants, camels, lush gardens, and the wonderful colourful clothes and amber and pink buildings of beautiful Rajasthan (except that it was supposedly set in Delhi!). We got mystery, and we got political and romantic intrigue. On the minus side, I’d had a horrible feeling that Gurinder Chadha and William Dalrymple would badly mishandle the history, and they did – it gave a very misleading impression of what was going on. Also, the characters’ behaviour didn’t ring true – a respectable young single woman going round to a strange bloke’s house for tea, and touching his arm?! – and the bare-chested scything scene was such a rip-off of Poldark that I just had to laugh. Mixed feelings about this – but it was only the first episode, so let’s see how it goes.
The scenery and the sets were stunning. Was the City Palace in Jaipur used for the scenes with the emperor? It certainly looked like it. Such an amazing place! The French mercenary bloke who used to be in Mr Selfridge was based at the glorious Amber Fort, near Jaipur, and Beecham House and the neighbouring home owned by the bloke who used to be in Ackley Bridge were filmed at two of the beautiful Rajasthani palaces which are how heritage hotels. And the hills, the lakes, the gardens, the animals, the gorgeous clothes … it was definitely a feast for the eyes. It was supposed to be in Delhi, though, not Rajasthan! Well, OK, we did get to see a bit of the Red Fort!
The basic idea is that John Beecham has left the East India Company because he doesn’t approve of it, and has bought himself a palace in India, where he intends to settle down and earn his living by trading (although he presumably has plenty of money already), and be part of the local community. Now, this sort of idea can work very well – think Dances With Wolves. Admittedly that was made before the days of snowflakes screeching about “cultural appropriation” and “white saviours” and so on, but, in the 18th century, British attitudes towards India and relationships between the British and the Indians were very different from how they were in the days of the Raj, and I was hoping that this was going to show that, in a positive way. However, given that Gurinder Chadha ruined Viceroy’s House by bizarrely claiming that Britain partitioned India as some sort of anti-Soviet plot, and William Dalrymple, however detailed his research and in-depth his knowledge may have been, ruined The Last Mughal by claiming that evangelical Christians were responsible for all the evils of the world, I should have known I was being over-optimistic!
Back to John Beecham, first. One big difference between India in the 1790s and India in the days of A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown etc was that relationships between white British men and Indian women were much more acceptable in earlier times – and John B turned up with his mixed race baby. What an absolutely gorgeous baby! Well, twins, playing him. Big smiles for the camera! But no sign of the mother. So this was all meant to be very mysterious. There’s also a mysterious brother whom we haven’t met yet, but the preview of the second episode showed him smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls. Two brothers who are completely different – nothing like a good cliché! The cliché of “nabobs” at this time – think Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair – was that they were all complete prats, whereas John is supposed to be all brooding and into Indian culture and generally a big hero. Who can cut down trees without having his shirt on, like Ross Poldark.
And, by the end of the first episode, two women were after him. The first one was his neighbour’s daughter’s governess. He asked her round for tea. On her own. She went. Touched his arm. Used his first name. I know these are Georgians rather than Victorians, but even so! The other one was a childhood friend, who’d travelled out there with his mother, apparently purely in the hope of bagging him because his mother had told her he was a good catch. I was hoping that Lesley Nicol, as the mother, would have a good part, maybe a bit of battleaxe; but she was a real trope, dressed entirely in black (if she’s in mourning, we weren’t told) and whingeing about the weather. An old pal of John’s had also travelled out with them, reasons unknown.
I was assuming that the household staff’d play a big part in it all – although maybe that was all the “Delhi Downton” talk in the media – but they haven’t had much to do yet. Nor have the neighbours: we barely saw them. However, we did see a lot of the aforementioned French mercenary – who looks even better in military uniform than he did dressing Mr Selfridge’s windows. Now, to be fair, he is a mercenary, but the programme definitely gave the impression that the French were allied with the Mughal emperor against the East India Company. Rubbish. The French were barely involved in India after the Seven Years’ War. And they did have rather a lot else on their minds in 1795!
Furthermore, there wasn’t a single mention of the Marathas, who’d been fighting the Mughals for years. By this stage, the emperor was only really a client king under their protection. Nor was there any mention of the recent wars between the Mughals and the Sikhs. Nor did they raise the fact that Mughal rule meant that an Islamic dynasty was ruling over a mainly Hindu population. It was quite ironic, really – Chadha and Dalrymple were so busy being anti-British that they ended up demeaning Indian history instead, with this Eurocentric impression of events as being all about the French trying to help the Indians keep the British East India Company out of Delhi, instead of showing the relationships and conflicts between different groups of Indians.
Incidentally, Delhi is full of stunning buildings dating from both the British Raj and the Mughal era. It does not have snowflakes wanting to show how politically correct they are by campaigning for them to be pulled down. Just a thought.
I’m not defending the East India Company. In fact, as the programme mentioned, Governor-General Warren Hastings had just been impeached on a number of charges – although he was acquitted. I first got into Indian history in the late 1980s, when two of Britain’s best-known sports personalities were Scottish rugby union players Gavin and Scott Hastings, and I still want to call Warren Hastings either “Gavin” or “Scott” because the names got a bit mixed up in my head, but that’s beside the point! But making out that 18th century Indian history was all about the Mughals versus the British East India Company is nonsense, and rather insulting to India.
Oh well. There’s more to come. We haven’t met the brother yet. And I believe that there’s also an Indian princess, who may be the mother of the cute baby. It was only the first episode – and it had been so hyped up that it would have been very difficult for it to have lived up to expectations. I do very much hope it gets better, because this is a period of history that, because there’s so much focus on the Raj era, tends to be overlooked. It deserves better. Maybe the series will get better!