I’m working my way through a recently acquired box-set of The Jewel in the Crown. For those unfamiliar with the famous 1984 Granada TV series, I say – go and buy this now. It is quite simply the greatest TV drama ever made – a ‘last days of the empire’ epic set in 1940s British India, and based on Paul Scott’s very excellent Raj Quartet. Every single one of its fourteen 50-minute episodes is a masterpiece of small-screen cinematics. Some of our finest screen (and stage) actors cut their teeth on Jewel, including Geraldine James, Art Malik and Charles Dance. The late Dame Peggy Ashcroft puts in a hugely affecting performance as a neurotic retired missionary. And Tim Pigott-Smith’s police superintendent Ronald Merrick is one of the most moving character portrayals I think I’ve ever seen, in any medium.
It’s a story of power, loss and claustrophobia. In its observations on British rule over an increasingly politically active Indian population it’s spot-on, and of course reminiscent of EM Forster’s A Passage to India (also adapted for the screen in 1984, by David Lean). For the most part the narrative follows the rulers rather than the ruled, but the servants, sepoys and rickshaw-wallahs of the ‘native’ population – as well as the looming menace of the ‘black town over the bridge’ – are a constant shadowy force in the background of the British Raj’s splendidly maniquered bungalows, cottages, parade grounds and stone churches. Incongruity, the sense of things that are not meant to mix, is palpable, and often blackly comic.
Unlike Forster, whose work relies on suggestion and sometimes oblique metaphor, The Jewel in the Crown seems to be quite open in its discussion of ideas around race, culture, power and sex, as well as employing larger-scale allegories. Often characters will come out with clear statements of their own identity or wider observations on society. But they are not just cyphers for ideas; we believe in them as individuals trapped in circumstance. And often these transparent articulations come as a relief after the immense claustrophobia and social awkwardness – the saying nothing – that the drama portrays as a social norm. Perhaps the most moving constant in the series is the silence of Hari Kumar, the pukka, English-raised Indian who falls in love with a white girl, is wrongly accused of her rape, and incarcerated without trial. From the moment he’s imprisoned, he refuses to answer any of his jailers’ questions in a kind of perverse but courageous act of defiance, as well as loyalty to his English lover.
Kumar’s principal tormentor is Pigott’s-Smith’s Superintendent (and later, Captain/Major/Lt.) Merrick – for my money the highlight of the series.
Merrick, like Kumar, is an odd-one-out. Whilst Kumar describes himself as ‘English and Black’, at home neither in India nor public school England, Merrick strides confidently around the Raj in splendid khakis… this is his place, and his time. On the face of it, Pigott-Smith creates a terrifying, sinister and brutal character – a sadist and loner, possessed with the conviction of the superiority of the white races, and perfectly ready to take things into his own hands.
But as the story unfolds, he becomes – if not exactly likeable – strangely sympathetic. As much a victim of circumstance as Hari Kumar, he’s a painfully self-conscious grammar school boy in the class-obsessed, pukka-sahib society of the British Raj. Whilst all the upper-upper-middle-classes and minor aristocrats gossip, snear, sip tea and so on, the business of ruling – or in this case, oppressing – is left to men bitingly dismissed ‘not exactly top draw’. The slow-release realisation that Merrick is homosexual adds another level of alienation to this incredibly complex and grippingly-portrayed character.
The Jewel in the Crown has its heroes too, of course.. in the mould of Forster’s Richard Fielding, Susan Wooldridge (who plays Daphne Manners), Geraldine James and Charles Dance all portray liberal English at turns confused and curious about the inequality of British India. And, of course, powerless to do anything significant about it.
There are dashes too of understated humour – Zohra Seghal plays the aristocratic Indian Lili Chatterjee with great comic timing and turn of phrase. If she’s not ‘bashing awwf’ to play bridge, then she’s ‘bashing awwf’ somewhere else.
I’ll stop there, before this elaborate act of worship turns into a proper essay. This is, I guess, my fourth time of watching Jewel and it certainly won’t be my last. Seriously, I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s 14 episodes so you need stamina and the pace is sometimes slow and philosophical (no special effects I’m afraid, and not much swearing – I was almost shocked when I heard Geraldine James mutter ‘bloody bitch’ under her breath), but if you can manage The West Wing or The Wire, then you can manage this. It’s simply the best TV drama ever made, and a subtle, deeply moving examination of imperialism.