It’s been rather hard to miss the launch of Channel 4’s new period drama Indian Summers; trailers have been airing since last year, the show’s stars have been on many chat shows and billboards around the country have been festooned with promotional posters. As reportedly the most expensive drama made by C4 –the budget was £17 million- was it worth the hype? On the evidence of the first episode, the answer is a hesitant yes.
Set in 1930s Simla, the “summer capital” of British India, the ninety-minute introduction gently presented its key themes of love, betrayal and independence. If that sounds like the recipe for a rather trite soap opera, you’d probably be right. The gentle pace of Indian Summers is perhaps what separates it from more sensationalistic dramas. Writer Paul Rutman (Vera, Lewis) is not afraid to let events gradually unfold –perhaps a wise decision since he does have 10 episodes to fill- and to attentively create an atmosphere of British Raj, from both an Indian and a British perspective.
That isn’t to say that nothing happened; in the first fifteen minutes, a bullied mixed-race child is found on the train tracks, a portrait of Queen Victoria is smeared in revolutionary “Home Rule” graffiti and the police officers raid the town to find the culprit. But most of the running time was taken up with introducing us to the large cast of characters, which, given there are over thirty speaking roles, each with their own plotline, was essential.
Much of the preview material had concentrated on Julie Walters’s character, Cynthia, so it was a slight disappointment that she featured in few substantial scenes. The chunk of the action was divided between the other main characters. Hopefully, as the series develops, the characters will be considerably more fleshed out because this episode revealed little beyond their somewhat archetypal character traits. There were few aspects not already explored in other TV dramas set in that era; there was a snooty wife (Fiona Glascott) who made racist comments while her missionary husband (Craig Parkinson) fell for an Indian woman, meanwhile the suave secretary to the Viceroy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) had a sister (Jemima West) with a secret, and Cynthia moped around talking about her dead husband until the party started then it was all sweetness and light.
What does make Indian Summers appealing, and worth sticking with despite its initial shortcomings, is that we know the end of the story, but not how Rutman will lead us there. The voice of the independence movement can only become louder throughout the series; there are fifteen years of story to tell between this episode and Indian Independence Act. It’s unclear how fast the series will go, but rumours are that there are four series planned. If the cast stay as strong as they are, the cinematography stays as beautiful and the writing expands its reach, Indian Summers will undoubtedly become the show to see on a Sunday night. Downton had better watch out.