My education into British colonalism began with Carry On Up The Khyber and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. I guess I must have been about ten or eleven when I first saw the film on TV, which was concurrent with the start of the popular BBC sitcom. I gathered that both were set in the past, and the military aspect helped me correctly place It Ain’t Half Hot Mum at the time of the Second World War. (Up The Khyber is set much earlier, as evidenced by the uniforms, although such historic subtlety wouldn’t have occurred to me at that young age; the BFI synopsis says 1895.) The Carry On was prototypically subtitled The British Position In India, which clarified things somewhat. Here’s what I learned about the British Raj at that time: “we British” – as the Indian bearer Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to ironically say – seemed to rule over India, where Indians live, on the other side of the world. Quite why was not made clear to me then. But you accept the world as it is handed down to you at the age of ten or eleven.
Without the luxury of historical or ethnic context, I followed the crux of the comedy in both film and sitcom: that “we British” were a bunch of arses. Pompous, incompetent, cowardly, entitled, and no match for the cunning and wisdom of the Indians (“There is an old Hindu proverb …” as Rangi used to say in wrap-up). In Up The Khyber, an Indian uprising is quelled by a kilted regiment revealing to the revolting natives that they wear no underwear beneath their kilts. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, our military heroes belong to a camp concert party, and their militaristic sergeant major’s attempts to man them up are a constant source of frustration for him and laughs for us. In the Carry On, Kenneth Williams plays the Indian ruler, the Khasi; the equally Caucasian Angela Douglas is his daughter, Princess Jelhi; and the Jewish Bernard Bresslaw is Burpa leader Bungdit Din. More infamously, Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was played by an even more vigorously “browned-up” Michael Bates, who was born to British parents in British India and spoke Hindi, but was not by any stretch of the imagination Indian. (The usual excuse for this is that there weren’t many Indian or Pakistani actors working in Britain in the early 70s, which may have been statistically true, but they managed to cast the other two key Indian roles with Bengali Dino Shafeek and London-born Babar Bhatti. It’s sobering to remember that David Lean cast Alec Guinness as Hindi professor Godbole in A Passage To India in what you might have hoped was a more enlightened mid-80s.) Is it any wonder my view of the British Raj was somewhat shallow?
I am older and wiser now, further-educated by a wealth of drama set at the time of the British position in India: A Passage To India, Gandhi, The Jewel In The Crown, The Far Pavilions, The Man Who Would Be King, even Black Narcissus. These have all been far more helpful than the two formative comedies. I’ve also read India: A History by John Keay, which I ordered from a book club and found very informative. And now we have Indian Summers (Channel 4). Or, in fact, maybe we don’t, as I just read that C4 have pulled the plug on it after two pricey series.
My politics place me in historical opposition to the British Empire. The very idea of it feels foreign, bullying and distant: lording it over large parts of the globe? Ruling the waves? We seem unable to run a whelk stall or organise a piss-up in the brewery in the 21st century. For me, our imperial past is nothing to be proud of – I’m vehemently against medals being handed out in the name of the British Empire – and I expect my dramatists to feel the same. What’s refreshing about Paul Rutman’s ambitious drama, which opens in 1932 but was planned to go on, is its clear focus. It revolves around the community of civil servants and hangers-on who repair up the mountains of Shimla during the unbearably sticky summers, where they rule a hilltop fiefdom, dress to the nines (at one party as French aristocrats), drink, cavort, patronise, put on plays, wheel, deal and throw their weight around with the “natives”, who are of course not to be trusted, except for Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), a clerk, who is, but perhaps shouldn’t be.
Now here’s my confession. I watched the first episode of series one last February, and, despite the strong cast (Craig Parkinson, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Patrick Malahide, Edward Hogg, Fiona Glascott), and some fetching locations in Malaysia, I felt I’d seen it all before and took it off series link. When it returned for its second series, we decided to give it another go, watched episode one and realised very quickly that we were lost. (There are ten episodes a series.) Conveniently, C4 has the whole first series on catch-up, so we rewound to the beginning and started again. Not since The Knick have I been so wrong about a TV drama based upon my first impressions. The series-one binge was glorious: all the internecine intrigues and secrets (Chris Chibnall once gave me the sound advice: “Give everyone a secret”), and despite the inevitable clashes between civilisations, the line between Good Indians and Bad English was never too thickly drawn. Rutman, who claims no Asian credentials but who worked in India as a drama teacher and fell in love with the culture then went home and read up on the Raj, is interested enough in the more extreme cultural difference and racial divide – the club run by Julie Walters actually bears a sign warning “No dogs, no Indians” in series one – but finds subtleties of conflict to explore dramatically too.
One of the Brits asks how an Indian from one social caste can recognise that another Indian is from a different caste. There is no concrete answer: you can just tell. This cleverly shows the extent of the remove at which the colonialists operate from the indigenous population, and how complex a board game they have taken on – or at least, the one the East India Company took on. (Indian Summers does not get bogged down in history, concerned chiefly with the here and now, which has enough local difficulty to be getting on with: Gandhi’s hunger strike, the rise of the Indian National Congress, political representation for the “untouchables”, the Government of India Act, provincial elections, terrorism, snakes. On top of these tensions and shifts, Rutman weaves further stories out of the hockey-sticks comings and goings of the colonial whites: affairs, illegitimate babies, power struggles, marital disharmony, fraternity with the natives, financial ruin. Dalal’s family has conflicts enough for its own soap: between him and his fiercely rebellious sister, his sister and his Anglophile father, both parents and his girlfriend Sita.
Although Julie Walters plays the old-fashioned lovable music-hall racist and hostess Mrs Coffin (which sounds like a Wood & Walters character name) for broad melodrama – in one scene wearing a massive headdress to her latest free lunch on the verandah which opens up to reveal a live dove – and Patrick Malahide’s viceroy could have stepped out of the dinner party scene in Up The Khyber, picking bits of plasterboard out of his pith helmet, the most striking “baddie” is far more complex, Lloyd-Hughes’s Ralph Whelan, boyish viceroy-in-waiting, who runs the gamut from dastardly to benevolent and treats those impostors just the same. A lustily sneering political climber, he’s brilliant. You want him to get the gig, even though he’s willing to do anything to get it.
So, I’m behind on series two, but literally catching up, with a suddenly empty goal ahead of me, simultaneously berating myself for getting it so wrong at the start and grateful to have had the luxurious experience of racing through series one at a lick. Paul Rutman, incidentally, is one of those writers who’s been plugging diligently away on big TV brands like Lewis, Vera and Marple, and this is his big passion project. Even if it must end before its time, his passion shows, and I’m pleased he got to make two series of it, at a lofty price tag. If you, too, have denied yourself this big, colourful pleasure, please adjust your position.