As the cold of February really bites down, the arrival of Channel 4's most expensive, ambitious drama, the 10-part Indian Summers, feels like a perfect piece of escapism. However, set in 1932, during the declining days of the British Raj, it also promises to tackle the tangled history, politics and society of India at a time when the Empire was in retreat and the British clung hopelessly to power, even as the irresistible forces of independence were gathering to displace them.
Clearly challenging the Downton Abbey crown, at a time when Downton has slid into complacent banality, Indian Summers, which cost £14m, is set in Simla, in the Himalayas, which, for the hottest six months of every year took over from Delhi to become the imperial capital. The series was actually filmed in the Malaysian island of Penang, to the delight of Julie Walters, who said, "I never get location work. It's usually Liverpool or Manchester."
Walters plays Cynthia Coffin, an East End Londoner become doyenne of the Royal Simla Club, which seems to have been what the Muthaiga Country Club was to the Happy Valley set in Kenya, and uncrowned queen of Simla society. She's also an inveterate meddler in other people's business, with an unshakable sense of her own rightness.
Rich in colour and plot, centred around people desperately pretending - to be something they are not, to love someone they don't, and mostly that nothing is changing - and with too much to lose, set against a backdrop of music, polo, lush tea plantations, dancing, gin cocktails, tropical rain and rebellion, this is a near-perfect combination of sex, politics and intrigue.
Written by Paul Rutman (whose previous credits include the well-written detective series Vera) and directed by Anand Tucker (Red Riding and Leap Year), the story revolves around three sets of siblings. Ralph and Alice Whelan (played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Jemima Whelan) are Indian-born but distinctly British, with an ambiguously close relationship. Aafrin and Sooni Dalal (Nikesh Patel and Aysha Kala) are Parsi Indians, trying to make something of their lives within the Empire, and conflicted about the gathering spirit of independence. Finally Madeleine and Eugene Mathers; she a free-spirited New York socialite (played by Olivia Grant, pictured) who believes she can have exactly what she wants, including Ralph Whelan, Eugene, meanwhile, is a formerly successful architect left sickly by a bout of malaria.
Irish actress Fiona Glascott, who starred in Elizabeth Gill's Goldfish Memory along with Fiona O'Shaughnessy, plays Sarah Raworth, homesick, disapproving and brittle, unable for the heat, the insects, and the local inability to do anything the way she wants it done. Lonely and misunderstood, she begins to obsess over Alice Whelan. Then there's Leena, played by Amber Rose Revah, an Anglo-Indian girl who works at the missionary school run by Douglas Raworth, husband of Sarah. Soon obsession begins to creep into that relationship too.
"I am here to work," says Aafrin Dalal in the trailer. "And why are they here?' his sister demands; "to dance and forget!" And indeed, everyone is far from home, in a hot, exotic land, with more power and glamour than is theirs by right, and fewer responsibilities. Social barriers are broken down and the kind of informality that would have been unthinkable in England, is permitted. The Empire made its own rules, for as long as it continued to rule.
Who could be unhappy in such a place?", asks Aafrin's mother. And yet they are clearly going to be very unhappy indeed, some of them. Unhappy, frustrated, furious and lustful. An excellent recipe for drama.
Indian Summers starts February 15th at 9pm on Channel4