As a committed Indophile, I was excited to see the trailers and posters for the new Channel 4 drama series, Indian Summers. I was also a bit suspicious though: I mean, I’m really interested in that period of history, and I’ve love to see a quality TV series made about it (Jeremy Paxman presenting The Raj, a documentary series covering British-Indian history as comprehensively as The World At War, would be my pitch). But I was surprised that anyone else was.
There’s plenty of cultural output about the Empire and its repercussions from Indian writers and film-makers, but as for us, the ex-oppressors, we seem to have passed through a phase of self-flagellation into one of embarrassed silence. Our mythic, invented view of ourselves will happily embrace a bit of nostalgic one-nation Toryism in the form of Downton Abbey‘s cosy relationships between paternalistic aristocrats and proud servants. But the more morally ambiguous relationships between imperial administrators and subjects? I didn’t think there was much appetite for that as entertainment. The problem is, it can’t avoid the politics, and by necessity, either they’ll be antagonistic, in which case we’ll feel we’re being bashed over the head with our shameful past (which we know already and isn’t very entertaining), or it’ll try to present the “decent people trying to do a difficult job” angle, in which case we’ll feel uncomfortable about whether we should be enjoying whitewashed history as soap opera. Or, it’ll tread such a careful and balanced line between the two, it’ll feel like post-colonial drama by numbers, predictable and unchallenging.
This seems to be exactly what Indian Summers is doing. There’s a bit of politics, but it’s very superficial (people say “we should have home rule!” but there’s no discussion of any of the real issues), it’s imagined through a very modern lens (not the Cambridge-educated lawyers of the INC, but a street protest… led by a woman!), it occurs for the minimal length of time necessary for the British to do something dastardly about it (send in the police with lathis to beat up the women), and then is quickly swept aside in favour of an entirely, safely personal story: the attempted shooting of the main British character by an Indian with a clearly private grudge (because Ralph bonked his daughter and abandoned their mixed-race son, Adam, is my guess).
The only thing that’s surprising about Indian Summers is how they’ve managed to populate it entirely with a cast of stock characters. In what I thought was a not-particularly-well-trodden genre, it’s difficult to see how such cliché could already be established. But it is, and Indian Summers mines it comprehensively. The bitter, bitchy Raj wife. The mustachioed, topee-wearing Viceroy. The star-cross’d lovers from incompatible religions. And of course, the scheming matriarch, who, despite being played by the brilliant Julie Walters with all the skill and panache she can muster, is a pretty one-dimensional archetype, who was almost certainly described in the pitch as “like Maggie Smith in Downton, but more evil.”
Rhik Samadder has been writing a series of articles for the Guardian, recapping each episode. There’s plenty of unintentional silliness in the narrative, and his gently mocking commentary sometimes skewers it, like when Ralph asks Aafrin for love advice on Madeleine, “for no other reason than that Aafrin did a nice painting of her, because Ralph made him.” But for the most part, his jokes are a bit trite, because they’re expressing (albeit with some entertaining similes) all the reactions to the characters and plot that the programme’s writer obviously wants us to feel. It’s too easy to criticise Ralph for being Machiavellian when his only character trait is “Machiavellian”, and Sarah is so implausibly awful that it seems almost superfluous to bother disliking her. Samadder’s write-up is less like a critique, than it is like a particularly extrovert member of a pantomime audience, standing up to lead the boos and jeers.
I think I’ll continue watching it, partly because I am interested enough to know what secrets Ralph and Alice are hiding, and partly because I’ve usually got about an hour’s worth of ironing to do on a Sunday evening anyway. But I suspect I’ll feel like I’ve wasted my time at the end of it. Maybe I should just watch the 10 minute long trailers at the end of each episode which summarise the entire plots of the following ones?