News, Culture & Society

DEBORAH ROSS: The Delhi Downton? Not this feeble fare…

Beecham House

Sunday & Monday, ITV 


The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files

Monday, BBC2


Beecham House was heavily trailed by ITV as ‘the Delhi Downton’ and it does have Mrs Patmore playing the Maggie Smith character, so there is that, but mostly it feels like a drama that doesn’t even believe in itself – so many continuity errors – or had been devised by some kind of Sunday-night TV algorithm. (Take one part Downton, one part Upstairs, Downstairs, throw in a buff, saintly Poldarkian hero, and Bob’s your uncle.) However, it is set in India in 1795, just before British rule, so it is interesting from that aspect. Or would be if the mise en scène didn’t put you solely in mind of a luxury spa holiday. I can imagine Victoria Beckham going to Delhi in 1795 and then recommending it to David: ‘Bit of a schlep, but so wonderfully pristine and opulent once you get there, and everything’s bathed in the most gorgeous golden glow.’ 

Tom Bateman in Beecham House. Beecham House was heavily trailed by ITV as ‘the Delhi Downton’

Tom Bateman in Beecham House. Beecham House was heavily trailed by ITV as ‘the Delhi Downton’

However, it wasn’t created by an algorithm as it was created by Gurinder Chadha, the otherwise wonderful filmmaker (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice), who also co-wrote and directs. She had said she wanted to offer a corrective to the traditional period dramas that present white colonial versions of history, which only makes this yet more inexplicable, given the Indian characters are almost wholly subsidiary to the white ones and barely drawn and perpetually fawning. Anyway, our hero is John Beecham (Tom Bateman), who is noble of character, handsome of face, but ripped of torso? Yes, a spot of shirtless hacking at a bush for no good reason whatsoever fully confirmed this. 

We first meet him when he saves what appears to be a rich man from being robbed on the road, shooting the robber with a rifle which, in the next shot, has transmuted into a pistol. (Go figure.) Cut to three years later and now he’s arriving at his vast mansion in Delhi (with its barely drawn, fawning servants) along with a mysterious baby that is wearing something one way, then wearing it in a completely different way seconds later. (Also, go figure.) 

Beecham was a soldier with the East India Company, but he was too moral for that line of work, as he repeatedly told us. It was, ‘I’m a fair trader, not a pillager!’ Or, ‘their hypocrisy sickens me!’ There was much exposition but, two episodes down this road and I’m still confused. Can you just shrug off your soldier’s garb and  walk away from the East India Company? If he’s yet to acquire a trading licence, how come he’s so staggeringly rich already? Also, the baby, and all that secrecy? What was the point of that? 

It’s the sort of drama that suffers from both a surfeit of plot and also no plot at all. In other words, there is a lot happening, but no narrative through line, which makes it desperately boring. Plus no character, in fact, succeeds in being more than one-dimensional, including Gregory Fitoussi’s conniving French general, Dakota  Blue Richards’s pretty English governess, who becomes John’s love interest, and Lesley Nicol (otherwise Mrs Patmore), who plays John’s mother, newly arrived from England. She is the Maggie Smith of the piece, and acerbic. But without the wit and dexterity of a Julian Fellowes script, or his depth of characterisation, she merely comes across as annoying, unpleasant and stupid. She had made the journey with Violet (Bessie Carter), whom she considers a perfect match for her son, and whom I mention because Carter’s performance is rather lovely. And my best advice? Just marry Violet, John, then we can all go home. 

And now, from the earliest years of the British Empire to its legacy, and The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files. This documentary, presented so elegantly by David Olusoga, had as its starting point the recent scandal whereby people who had lived in this country for almost all their lives, and were absolutely British, were threatened with deportation back to countries they barely remembered, and lost jobs, homes and savings in the process. The testimonies were riveting if horrifying. Sarah O’Connor arrived in this country in 1957, aged six, and was told by her local job centre, ‘You are an illegal immigrant.’ Anthony Bryan came here from Jamaica in 1963, aged 8, and ended up in a detention centre. 

Olusoga traced the behaviour of a British government that desperately needed workers after the war – Enoch Powell went personally to Barbados to recruit nurses – and then deliberately, if furtively, created a ‘hostile environment’. When it wanted workers, it meant mostly white workers from Canada and Australia. It did not want predominantly Caribbean workers, who were viewed as a threat and an ‘incursion’ rather than British citizens. It was racism at the highest level or, as Olusoga put it, it’s been ‘70 years of prejudice and bad faith’. This was the corrective to the traditional white colonial versions of history. And horribly shaming, too.





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