This is a series that has been showing on Saturday nights on ABC TV for several weeks now, and after a slightly shaky start, it's not half bad.
I've always had a soft spot for films and TV series about the old British Raj in India. It's a fascinating period in Indian history, and in British history too, but sadly it hasn't featured hugely in recent times in films and TV. "Indian Summers" remedies that deficiency a little.
This British series is created by Paul Rutman and set in British India in the early 1930s. The story revolves around the custom of the British rulers, the top bureaucrats of the Indian Civil Service, to move to the mountain town of Simla during the Indian summer, to escape the heat of the plains. There is Ralph Whelan, aloof and autocratic, a senior assistant to the Viceroy. There is his sister, Alice, fleeing a mysterious husband back in England. There are Madeleine and Eugene, American expatriates visiting Simla, who are trying, along with Cynthia the social doyenne of the expat Royal Simla Club, to match Madeleine with the very eligible Ralph, who is single. Ralph has an ambitious Indian assistant, Aafrin, who cops a bullet when a mysterious assassin fires at Ralph. Both Ralph and Aafrin survive, while the assassin dies in jail. Ralph and the white Establishment try to link the assassination attempt with the nationalist Congress Party. Aafrin's sister is a political activist with Congress sympathies, so she is endangered by the investigation. On top of all this, Dougie, a British missionary, tries to deal with his love for Indian beauty Leena, while his jealous and frustrated wife, Sarah, tries to fill her empty days by intriguing against everyone.
One of the only two actors in this series who I recognised, is the veteran English star Julie Walters, who plays the scheming and know-it-all Cynthia, who runs the expat club and tries to organise the lives of all the British. As usual, she is excellent. The key role of Ralph Whelan is played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes in true, superior British colonial style. He is very good. As his beautiful sister Alice, we have Jemima West, who is excellent at portraying a character with something to hide. The other veteran English actor who I knew, is Patrick Malahide, who plays the Viceroy as to the manner born, wearing his vice-Regal authority with nonchalant ease. The Indian characters are convincingly played by actors from the sub-continent, or whose forebears certainly were.
Unfortunately, the series wasn't filmed in India – too many modern buildings in present-day Simla, apparently, so they filmed it in Penang, Malaysia. I've been to Penang; parts of it would (and do) double very nicely as colonial India. So, the “Indian” atmosphere of the series is actually not too bad.
I couldn't help comparing "Indian Summers" with another British TV series, made back in the 1980s, "The Jewel in the Crown", based on "The Raj Quartet" of novels by Paul Scott. This was another excellent series about life in the British Raj, although set in India during World War II. It featured young actors such as Geraldine James, Art Malik, Tim Pigott-Smith, and Charles Dance, who all went on to stellar careers in later years. Unlike "Indian Summers", "Jewel" used actual Indian locations. It re-created beautifully the atmosphere and style of what the Raj must have been like in its final years (India got its independence in 1947). "Jewel" was a mini-series, so did not need to run to a second season.
While its genuine Indian locations helped give "Jewel" a superior look to "Indian Summers" in my opinion, both series feature a common, central event: an act of violence perpetrated by an Indian against a British expat. In "Summers", an Indian takes a shot at Ralph. In "Jewel", a British woman is raped by an Indian gang. Both series then proceed to examine British – Indian relations, both at an individual and political level, in the light of these violent acts. Both series show, without flinching, the discriminatory attitudes by the British towards Indians, who were treated as inferiors in their own country. Signs saying "no dogs or Indians allowed", Indians barred from British clubs, Indian prisoners tortured in jail, whole streets where only Europeans were allowed to go – the British had a lot to answer for, and in some ways it is surprising that relations between the two countries, these days, are pretty good.
I bought the boxed DVD set of "The Jewel in the Crown" quite some years ago, and regularly pull it out for another look. The series always repays, at least to me, another viewing. If that era of British and Indian history interests you, I thoroughly recommend it.
As for "Indian Summers"? Yes, although I thought the first episode a little shaky, it has picked up a lot since then. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. There are so many teasing questions: Will Ralph and Madeleine get it together? Why was Ralph targeted? What is Alice's secret back in the UK? And what is the significance of the young, mixed-race kid who keeps mysteriously appearing in each episode? It's got me hooked. So, if you like that historical period, give it a go. I think you'll become a convert.
ABC TV is currently showing the first season. A second season has been filmed, so hopefully it will turn up on Australian TV screens in the not too far distant future. But that, ladies and gents, will be it. According to TV gossip on the Internet, although five seasons of "Indian Summers" were planned, it was cancelled after two. The ratings weren't good enough.
So much for quality TV in this age of mediocrity.