Saturday 16 December 2017

TV Guide: Empire in the sun

Channel 4's Indian Summers is back for a second series. Emily Hourican looks back over a slow-starting but gripping first run. Some spoilers

Julie Walters as Cynthia Coffin.
Julie Walters as Cynthia Coffin.

It was a slow start for the first series of Indian Summers, not helped by the fact that the first couple of episodes seemed to have more by way of beautiful establishing shots of India than plot - lots of mist rising gently off lush grounds, hazy mountains in the distance, broken up by inevitably colourful (in every sense of the word) street scenes. It also had a bewildering selection of characters, all clearly with interesting back stories, but with no clear hero or heroine among them.

Initially, Julie Walters as Cynthia Coffin, cockney doyenne of the Simla Club (a home very far from home for the British establishment in the foothills of the Himalayas), didn't so much steal the show - she was the show. Her merrily conniving, energetically hedonistic and remorselessly cynical Cynthia served as both anchor and guide, taking viewers through the various story threads and personalities with gusto.

It's a part Walters, pictured above, relishes. "I can't wait to get back to the old girl," she recently said. "There's some fantastic stuff to come in this series and Cynthia's naughtiness goes up several notches." That, in itself, bodes well for series two.

The fact that this was apparently Channel 4's most expensive commission ever only heaped the pressure on. And for a while, it seemed as if the series was going to buckle under the weight of expectation, of shaky characterisation and all that beautiful scenery. Which would have been deeply problematic, given that it was intended to run for 50 episodes, from the 1930s up to independence in 1947. But, happily for those viewers who stuck with it, the action picked up mightily towards the halfway mark, as characters separated out with their own individual schemes, dreams, desires and secrets.

There is Ralph Whelan, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, now married to American heiress Madeleine (who seems to deserve much better), with their child and a mysterious older son, who is still determined to become next Viceroy of India at any cost. The trailer for series two appears to show the death of the incumbent Viceroy, leaving the way clear for Ralph's ambitions, and Cynthia's rampant encouragement - "This is your chance my darling . . . Take it!"

His sister Alice, played by Jemima West, in series one, returned to India from England with a baby but without her husband in tow. She fell in love with Ralph's clerk, Aafrin Dalal, a liaison so impossible as to be unspeakable. He, in turn, was torn between Alice, his traditionally Anglophile Indian parents and radical revolutionary sister, and whether to play the promotion game and move up the ranks of the civil service or throw his lot in with those calling for a new India. And Aafrin's wavering seems to continue into the next series; the trailer shows him dithering about methods: "I want the same freedom you do, but this is not the way," he tells a more aggressive comrade. "We are going to blow them up until it is raining hands and bloody feet," is the response.

Then there are the distinctly less posh Dougie and Sarah Raworth (Craig Parkinson and the Tipperary-born Fiona Glascott), landowner Ian McLeod (Alexander Cobb), still battling the fall-out from a murder, and a variety of others, all contributing urgency, drama and intrigue to the hot Indian summer.

Indian Summers gathered pace wonderfully throughout the first series, culminating in the kind of must-watch drama that saw many of those viewers who gave up and dropped out returning or, more recently, watching on More4. Series two arrives with some new cast - James Fleet, Rachel Griffiths and Art Malik - and pleasantly high rates of anticipation.

Indian Summers starts on Channel 4 on March 13

Sunday Independent

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