The Jewel In The Crown - The Complete Series Review
For fans like myself of classic telly on DVD, this serial has been at the top of the wish-list for years. There has been a Region 1 set available since 2001 but, if buyers’ comments on amazon.com are anything to go by, the picture quality on that is, at best, not much better than the old VHS release. This set however is quite another thing.
The Jewel in the Crown was made by Granada and transmitted (on ITV which surprises many people nowadays who think it was a BBC production) in early 1984 to huge audiences and was a massive hit both in the UK and overseas. It was adapted from a series of novels known as The Raj Quartet written by Paul Scott and published between 1966 and 1975. It made household names of Art Malik, Tim Pigott-Smith and Geraldine James and a matinee idol of Charles Dance – who doesn’t even appear until Episode 10. Some indication of its popularity can be gathered from the fact that in London from the mid-80s there was an Indian restaurant in a Covent Garden basement called The Jewel in The Ground… The biggest name in the cast at the time was Dame Peggy Ashcroft, a contemporary of Gielgud and Olivier and the most distinguished stage actress of her generation. Following her success in The Jewel in the Crown she went on to star in A Passage to India for David Lean.
Jewel was part of a popular genre of the early 1980s known to some now as ‘Raj rage’. Other examples include Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi, A Passage to India and, on a lighter note, the romantic TV mini-series The Far Pavilions. This interest in the colonial past can be partly attributed to the social upheavals in the UK resulting from Thatcherism rearing its ugly head in the early 1980s while the final death throes of Empire were being expressed in the Falklands War. The same period also saw the beginnings of what would become known as Heritage Television, a genre which encapsulated a certain type of Thatcherism with its nostalgic celebration of historic English achievement and its cultural patrimony all around us. The genre was kicked off by the wildly popular Brideshead Revisited in 1980 and probably reached its pinnacle in the 90s with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Jewel however subverts the genre somewhat by casting a highly critical eye over the conduct of the British in India.
The Jewel in the Crown was originally planned to run for 15 weekly episodes of 52 minutes each – playing at one hour each once adverts had been added. Before transmission it was decided to edit the first two episodes together into one feature-length opening episode which ran at 1 hr 45 minutes. The episodes were aired first on ITV on a Tuesday evening at 9pm (a traditional slot for quality prestige drama) and then repeated the following Sunday on Channel 4. An unusual arrangement at any time but one which led to the show achieving instant popular success and high ratings. The story is very much a human drama following the repercussions of ‘The Manners Affair’ played out during the last five years of British colonial rule in India. It begins in the summer of 1942 and closes on the eve of Indian independence in 1947. Power politics only enter occasionally into the drama and for those more interested in the bigger picture, I would recommend watching Gandhi. The entire first episode sets up the pivotal event – the gang-rape of a young English nurse, Daphne Manners (Susan Wooldridge), in the Bibighar Gardens in the fictional city of Mayapore. The remaining episodes examine the repercussions of this event, both personal and political.
Daphne, a gauche but spirited young woman, becomes romantically involved with a young Indian man, Hari Kumar (Art Malik) who grew up in England and was educated at an exclusive public school, Chillingborough. He now lives with his aunt in Mayapore following the death of his parents and feels very much out of place in India – ‘too English for the Indians, too Indian for the English’. After a sexual liaison one evening in the Bibighar Gardens, Hari and Daphne are attacked by a local gang. Daphne is raped and Hari is beaten up. The local chief of police, Ronald Merrick (Tim Piggott-Smith) who had already proposed to and been turned down by Daphne, seizes the opportunity to arrest, torture, and wrongfully imprison Hari, driven as much by warped sexual jealousy as a desire to stamp out growing political unrest. A sadistic double-hard bastard with a massive chip on his shoulder about his middle-class social ‘inferiority’ compared with the local upper-class British army officers, Merrick is also a deeply-repressed homosexual. Hari testifies in a later episode that Merrick sexually assaulted him during his ‘interrogation’.
At this point the narrative takes some extremely interesting turns. After spending the first two episodes presenting two likeable young lovers who indulge in a socially-dangerous romance, the narrative then swiftly removes them from the drama. Daphne dies in childbirth in the third episode and Hari spends most of the serial locked away in prison. The narrative focus then shifts to another young Englishwoman, Sarah Layton (Geraldine James), a WAC Corporal and member of an Army family. She is introduced as a neighbour of Daphne’s aunt, Lady Manners (played by the luminous Rachel Kempson) now tending Daphne’s baby daughter Parvati. I haven’t read any of the source novels but everyone involved in the production remarks on their multi-viewpoint elliptical narratives which jump around in time constantly. One academic notes that these ‘were not easily adapted to a form based around linear progression, continuity of action and character and the promise of eventual narrative resolution’. The one constant throughout is Merrick who appears in every episode (in flashback in the final two) through his social-climbing insinuation and eventual marriage into Sarah’s family, even though he is rarely the focus of attention. The principal narrative threads in the greater tapestry of the drama are interlinked by meetings (chance or otherwise) between many of the same characters who pop up now and again throughout. In fact, little is resolved by the end of the drama except for Merrick’s murder for his part in the Manners Affair.
The fourteen or so hours devoted to the drama give a measured pace which never becomes boring or stale. Scenes have room to breathe and the pace never feels hurried or compressed. The script credits the audience with some intelligence as each episode launches straight into the drama with none of this modern ‘previously on…’ nonsense, although there are plenty of recaps in the dialogue along the lines of ‘You won’t remember the Manners Affair, let me tell you about it…’. Concentration is aided by the narrative focussing on a single character in turn – first Daphne, then Sarah and then in Episode 10 by the introduction of a completely new character, Guy Perron (Charles Dance) which acts as a very neat device to renew interest in the established characters by seeing them from a third-party viewpoint. There follows another neat device by having the penultimate episode open with Merrick’s funeral which allows Perron to spend the remaining two episodes unearthing the unsavoury truth about Merrick’s death (actually a brutal revenge murder) which could not be revealed to Sarah. There are also certain repeated themes and motifs to lend dramatic cohesion – images of fire abound and the handing-down of the eponymous painting from character to character.
The actors use the measured pace to develop character relationships which is vital to this drama as its essence is what I would refer to as The Dance of Manners (no pun intended). There are many scenes of people, particularly English ladies, sitting around chatting and treating each other with acid-etched courtesy. This is essential to convey the ingrained snobbery, racism and anti-semitism of the British colonial ruling class which is at the heart of Scott’s story. This gives the opportunity to the acting heavyweights in the cast such as Judy Parfitt (playing Sarah’s gin-swigging brittle bitch of a mother) and Peggy Ashcroft (the seemingly fluffy old spinster Barbie Batchelor) to pull the gloves off and rip each other apart. Ashcroft in particular dazzles as she explores the seemingly simple character of Barbie, a retired missionary and now companion to Mabel Layton, the elderly widow of Sarah’s grandfather. Two of the highlights of the entire piece are the confrontation scenes following the death of Barbie’s employer and friend, Mabel. These allow Ashcroft to peel away layers of the character as the scenes develop and reveal her to be a tough old bird under that fluffy exterior. The first with Mildred (Judy Parfitt) sizzles with tension as she evicts Barbie from the home she has shared with Mabel and which Mildred has now inherited. The second is perfectly and achingly played as Barbie, now a paying guest of the local vicar and his wife, is interrogated terribly politely by said wife and asked to refute the ‘rumours at the club’ about Barbie’s possible lesbianism – without using the term, of course. Ashcroft imbues the character, so easily a potential figure of fun, with dignity and courage.
Indeed, with matters sexual, the serial boldly ventures into areas rarely, if ever, seen before in a prestige British historical drama. In Guy Perron’s first appearance he is taken to An Evening at the Maharanee’s, a louche and decadent party with a noticeably pansexual guest list. All tastes catered for. In one of the most unforgettable scenes on first transmission, Barbie stumbles upon Sarah’s mother being vigorously fucked by her officer lover, made memorable by Judy Parfitt’s desperate intensity in a very brief but unusual scene showing a middle-aged woman actually having sex. Merrick, as already mentioned, is homosexual, as is one of the other major characters, Count Bronowsky (Eric Porter) and a memorable but vital minor character, Corporal ‘Sophie’ Dixon. He is Merrick’s nurse after his arm is amputated and is played pitch-perfectly by Warren Clarke now better know for Dalziel and Pascoe. Even then he was known as a craggy character actor and he plays against type brilliantly. And what his character acknowledges is the fact that many gay men and women served with valour in the forces during the Second World War, even the screaming queens. Merrick confronts him specifically on this issue, noting his bravery under fire and asks him pointedly ‘What are you? A hero or a pansy?’. No clear answer is given nor indeed needed as this piece is very much about avoiding two-dimensional stereotyped characterisations. One of its great strengths as a TV drama is the casting of fabulously experienced character actors throughout who can invest their characters with the layers required. People such as Rosemary Leach, Fabia Drake, Anna Cropper and the unique Janet Henfrey amongst many. Even Saeed Jaffrey, last seen as a scenery-chewing old ham going right over the top on Corrie a few years ago turns in a restrained, dignified performance as the Nawab of Mirat. Particularly so as one of the serial’s crucial scenes in explaining English racism has him turned away from the English Officers’ Club in the capital city of the state he rules simply because he is an Indian.
The serial is split over four discs. The picture quality is simply stunning considering the source material. Also considering the very poor picture quality on the recent release of Brideshead Revisited by the same company. Granada, however, have really made an effort with this one. The prints used are almost flawless so I suspect a digital restoration of the source materials has been carried out. In fourteen hours of film, I saw perhaps ten seconds of noticeable print damage. The original newsreel footage has been left untouched though and is still very scratched and dirty, probably for authenticity’s sake. Unfortunately the clarity of the mastering does make apparent the shortcomings of the source materials. Like many dramas of the early 1980s, The Jewel in the Crown was shot entirely on 16mm film utilising a great deal of location shooting. Ten years earlier, the series would very likely have been made almost entirely in the studio on video but things changed a lot in the late 1970s. Film cameras became lighter and easier to use and film stock more sensitive. I also suspect that a move away from studio-based production came about due to union activity resulting in damaging strikes in the mid-70s which led to a great deal of studio-based production being lost. Television location shooting had used 16mm film for decades as TV cameras were huge mains-powered behemoths which required a mobile production suite to run them and so were not readily portable. On the other hand, film cameras were very portable. This became the medium of choice in the 1980s for many TV dramas but its small frame size relative to 35mm film led to noticeable grain and poor colour saturation by comparison. This was less noticeable on TV sets of the time than it would be today.
Having said that, Ray Goode, the lighting cameraman on The Jewel in the Crown, worked miracles given the production circumstances. He was required to shoot in tropical conditions on location in India, often shooting at night as well as shooting in locations in England standing in for India, numerous studio interiors and some location interiors – over a period of eighteen months. This leads to an enormous variety of lighting conditions and the images do reflect this. On the whole, the images are sharp and colours pretty faithful if a little muted. Patterns in clothing, both printed and woven are delineated very nicely. There is some noticeable softness in landscape shots, most likely due to a combination of film stock and humidity in the air. There is a very occasional hint of blocking and shimmer on dimly-lit interiors but these are barely noticeable. However some of the more dramatic interiors such as Hari’s prison cell become a little more chiaroscuro than originally intended. Actors’ faces are warmly lit but shadows become very dark indeed, unlike exteriors where shadow detail is nicely brought out. One criticism I have is that scenes are clearly lit to favour the paler skins of the English actors. The Indian actors’ skin tones often vary noticeably from scene to scene, particularly so in Art Malik’s case. But, as always, this would have been less noticeable on TVs at the time the serial was first transmitted. The sound is clear and effective – dialogue is helped immensely by the actors’ excellent diction and the atmospheric ‘ethnic’ music by George Fenton burbles away in the background, never dominating or intruding.
The menus are attractive enough but appear to have been designed to be reminiscent of the décor of a 1980s Indian restaurant. Each episode is broken down into four chapters which are accessible from still menus. Episode 1 has eight chapters.
Not bad considering it’s an archive release. Each disc has an image gallery called ‘Postcards from the Raj’ consisting of production stills which have to be keyed through. One drawback is that each image is framed in the generic decorative frame used for all menu images which reduces their size somewhat. Disc 3 has two extra image galleries. The first is called ‘Location Scouting in India’ and plays as a flip album of location scouting polaroids. The second is a reproduction of the painting ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ which features throughout the serial. Unfortunately both are reproduced so small as to be virtually useless. And you will be well sick of George Fenton’s cod-Elgar theme tune by the time you’ve flipped through all of these.
There are four audio-commentaries, all recorded earlier this year. Episode 1 has a commentary track from Art Malik and Tim Pigott-Smith moderated by Robert Ross. In an informative and anecdotal conversation, the two men are clearly very proud of their work in The Jewel in the Crown and of the serial as a whole. Episode 4 has a solo commentary from the producer and co-director of the serial, Christopher Morahan. The words ‘I don’t know why he bothered’ come to mind. There are lengthy silences and most of the time he simply describes in hushed tones what’s happening on screen. The final two episodes have contributions from Charles Dance (urbane and charming) and Geraldine James in conversation with Robert Ross. As with Art and Tim, these are two people who are very proud of the work they did in the serial and appreciate the quality of the show as a whole. There are occasional lapses into back-slapping luvvyspeak but their warmth and professionalism shine through.
On the whole, I can’t recommend this set enough. This serial is one of the greatest TV dramas of all and has been given a sensitive and loving release. This is a must-have.