History In The Right Frame

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In short, just the sort of book most American television executives routinely shun. But to Sir Denis Forman, deputy chairman of Granada Television, it was “a natural … the chance of a lifetime.” He bought the rights to the book, put his crews to work, and the result—fifteen hours of it, spread out over fourteen weeks—will start its American run on the Public Broadcasting System’s “Masterpiece Theater” the evening of December 16. If there has been a better historical drama made for television, I have not seen it.

THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN —the series title comes from the first of Scott’s four novels—has all the strengths we have come to expect from the best British television drama. The script, by Ken Taylor, is literate, unafraid of good talk, faithful to the book, and retains a considerable measure of the quartet’s complexity. There are some twenty-five major characters, and not one is poorly played or out of place. They include all kinds of people, not just young lovers (though there are several pairs of those), but also the old and middle-aged, intelligent and dim, Indian and English. Perhaps the most affecting character is Barbie Batchelor, an elderly missionary who has lost her faith in God and the Raj and herself, played with harrowing power by Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Paul Scott was wise enough to see that history envelops all of us—and so were his television interpreters. Also, the story incorporates themes that in less sure hands could have been sensationalized—rape, homosexuality, sadomasochism, seduction, murder. But here they always involve individuals about whom we have been made to care, and everything takes place within a convincing historical context.

Why can’t we make good historical motion pictures?

The rightness of that context is one of the things that sets this series apart. It is not just that much of it was filmed in India; so was The Far Pavilions , after all, and its glittering background only got in the way. What the producers clearly recognized was that, for all its color, India was first of all a place where real people lived and worked and endured the heat. There are spectacular settings—the Vale of Kashmir, the British summer capital of Simla in the blue Himalayan foothills, the lake palace of the Maharanas of Udaipur—but they are never allowed to become more than settings. The characters stay firmly in the foreground. That style is set in episode one, when the English girl, whose brief, unforeseen love affair with a British-educated Indian sets the whole tragedy in motion, ventures alone for the first time into the Indian section of town in a horse-drawn tonga. Most directors would have seized the opportunity for a bright splash of tourist India—holy men, chattering monkeys, a cluster of snake charmers. Here the camera sees only what the girl sees: loungers peering in at her as she passes; four women in scarlet, their heads covered, hurrying home with pots of water; the twisting, narrow lane itself. The result for the viewer is a vivid sense of being in a specific place at a specific time. (For what it’s worth, I should add that I spent some of my own boyhood in India not long after the British sahibs sailed for home, and so far as I can remember, the producers have got it all right, from the flowered English chintz that covers the parlor sofa on a Kashmir! houseboat to the oddly sullen sound of the crows in the bungalow gardens at dawn.)

But it is in its thoughtful attitude toward history that this production is especially refreshing. The Jewel in the Crown , like the novels on which it is based, is at once understanding and unflinching in its portrayal of the English in India. There are no heroes, though there are plenty of more or less admirable people, who, after three hundred years of contact with India and nearly a century of direct rule, discover that they have never understood the place at all. India has outlasted them, just as it outlasted half a dozen earlier occupiers. It is left to Ronald Merrick, the corrupt officer of Indian police who comes as close as the series gets to villainy, to betray the brutal secret of imperial rule. Comradeship, the egalitarian ideal toward which Britain claimed to be working, would never come about, could never come about, because the Raj was built upon a lie: however good their manners, the rulers were finally contemptuous of the ruled—who feared their rulers in return.

When men and women wonder in the future what life was like at the end of empire, they would do well to watch this series. So would American producers who want to see how history can be rendered honestly for grown-ups.