Entertainment & Arts

Indian Summers exposes last days of the British Raj

Julie Walters as Cynthia Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Julie Walters admits she was ignorant about Indian history before taking on the role of Cynthia Coffin

For the first time since 1980s stalwart The Jewel in the Crown, colonial India is returning to primetime TV in new drama Indian Summers.

Starring Julie Walters, the Channel 4 series takes us back to the summer of 1932, to tell the explosive story of the decline of the British Raj and the birth of modern India.

At a time when India is dreaming of independence, but the British are clinging to power, the 10-part period saga exposes the cracks that emerge as India moves to establish its own identity.

The series is set in Shimla - the capital of the Himachel Pradesh state, in the north of the country. During the hottest months of the year, a burgeoning community of Brits would descend and govern from the foothills of the Himalayas, where it was cooler.

Swapping Sussex for Shimla, Walters didn't think twice about travelling halfway around the globe, to take on the lead role of widow Cynthia Coffin.

"I never get location work. It's usually Liverpool or Manchester," jokes the award-winning actress.

Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Inbetweeners actor Henry Lloyd Hughes spent time at the Treasury in order to prepare for his role as Ralph Whelan

In fact, the entire drama was filmed on the Malaysian island of Penang, after today's tourist-fuelled Shimla threw up too many contemporary obstacles.

But it wasn't just the prospect of sunshine and great food that attracted the 64-year-old actress to the role.

"I loved the script... The story wasn't romanticised or nostalgic, there was a real edgy, gritty feel to it, and I'd never seen this subject treated like this before."

Walters confesses she knew very little about British-run India before signing up and was "ignorant" about that period in history.

Her character, Cynthia, is the owner of the Royal Club - a hub for gossip and entertainment among the British elite. Yet the fact that she is an East End girl came as something of a surprise to the actress.

"I didn't know people like that went out there, so the whole thing was new to me," she says.

"I was completely ignorant and ill-informed. When it [this period] has been portrayed in the past, it hasn't been balanced.

"It is about the Indian population, and the Brits, and how they dealt with the fall of the Raj

"It's just very real."

Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Aafrin Dalal, an apolitical young Parsi, represents the ‘real India’ in the drama

With a budget of £14m, Indian Summers is Channel 4's most expensive commission to date.

The plot centres on the personal experiences of two sets of very different siblings.

Henry Lloyd Hughes plays Ralph Whelan - British private secretary to the viceroy of India.

The Inbetweeners actor spent time at the Treasury "meeting and shadowing Ralph Whelans - young, very smart, well-read people, who understood how to use their knowledge to influence a government minister."

"Why would someone want to spend their life doing that?"

Jemima West, known for her role in TV's The Borgias, takes on the role of his sister Alice, who returns to Shimla with her son following a marriage break-up.

"I think she's a woman who listens to her instincts," says West, adding that the character was "ahead of her time".

"But she will pay the consequences. There will be an adventure," she adds.

Representing 'real India', Nikesh Patel plays Aafrin Dalal, a young Parsi who works in the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service.

"He wants to support his family - so although he can't help but be aware of the growing cause for independence, to pay too much attention to that would be at odds with his job," says Patel.

"As the story unfolds, that sense of duty gets tested - time and time again."

In contrast, Aafrin's sister Sooni, played by Aysha Kala, is fiercely political from the outset and resents her brother's job in the civil service.

"She is a hothead who risks the full weight of the law when she paints pro-independence graffiti on a monument - you both admire and worry about her."

Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Jemima West takes on the role of Alice Whelan, who returns to Shimla with her son

The idea for Indian Summers came to creator Paul Rutman after a stay in a Darjeeling hotel.

"I was shown these photographs that were a story of a world that's gone," he says.

"They were of British people from all walks of life, sitting about, dancing and drinking.


"It wasn't so long ago, and it struck me how something so central to how British people felt about themselves as a nation has been swept under the carpet.

Rutman, who has also written shows like Vera and Lewis, did a lot of research to get "under the skin" of those living in that period of history - which he believes is often misunderstood.

"I tried not to take sides and to understand what it would have felt like, whether a young Parsi family or a British man living the life you dreamt of as a child."

Unlike 1984 drama The Jewel in the Crown, Rutman wanted Indian Summers to shift the focus away from the aristocracy and on to the ordinary people, who made the administration tick.

"Empire is still something that many on the right are quietly proud of, but a source of deep shame and self-castigation to the left.

"I want to ride those contradictions."

Indian Summers begins on Channel 4 on 15 February.

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