Indian Summers, trailed as lasting for five series, has just been axed while series two is still under way – there’ll be no series three. The initial audience of five million has dropped to one million. On an advertising channel, such figures were always going to sound the death knell.
So why, despite the money lavished on the programme – the first series reputedly cost £14m to make – and despite a strong cast headed by Julie Walters, and despite the exotic, turbulent background of the British Raj in the 1930s, did the programme fail to hold the viewers?
In a word — planning. To add a few more words, there appears to have been a failure to outline the contents of all five series before embarking on the detailed planning for series one.
SPOILER ALERT. If you’re not up-to-date with viewing and intend to catch up, don’t read on!
Indian Summers is set in Simla, the summer seat of the British Government during The Raj. Lying in the foothills of the Himalayas, Simla offered an escape from the intense heat in the plains below. The aim of the programme was to depict the events and relationships among the group of British socialites and government representatives who went up to Simla for the summer months. In doing so, over the course of the five series, they would cover the birth of modern India.
For a project of this scale, advance planning is essential.
JK Rowling said that before she started the first Harry Potter book, she’d worked out the story arc for the five novels. With Indian Summers, the narrative effort seems to have been confined to the first series, and the second series has been left to struggle along as best it can. Which hasn’t been much of a best. Take, for example:
Characterisation. Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) was a prize bitch in the first series, which gave the series life.
In the second series, not only was there unfortunately little for her to be bitchy about, but halfway through the series she was reborn as a figure for whom the viewer should feel sympathy! Her husband, we’re told, was serially unfaithful – indeed he was revealed to be the birth father of Ralph, a revelation which had all the excitement of a damp squib – and she’d suffered several miscarriages owing to the medical conditions he’d passed on to her. Gone was the woman we loved to hate.
Gone also was the Reverend’s snide wife, Fiona, whose attempts at being accepted by the Simla socialites, made for good viewing in the first series. In series two, she’s a pallid shadow of her former self, and doesn’t seem to have a role to play.
Taking over the role of malevolence and unpleasantness in series two is the new bad guy, Charlie Haverstock, the husband of Ralph’s sister Alice. But what he’s allowed to get away with is so unlikely that viewer-incredulity is the resultant outcome. Can viewers really be expected to believe that Ralph and the English community, hidebound by rules and their code of etiquette (eg all nasty goings-on should go on behind closed doors), would allow Charlie to humiliate Ralph’s sister every time they were in company, and more than likely abuse her in private?
To turn now to one of the good guys, Ralph. He was the ‘hero’ in series one, and much of the interest was centered on him, strong, upstanding and powerful as he was. But in series two, he’s greatly diminished in stature.
Would the Ralph of series one have allowed his adored sister to be so publicly humiliated? Would the original Ralph have agreed to his wife to indulging in nooky with the Maharajah in order to win the Maharajah’s assent for something Ralph wanted? Would Ralph have publicly acknowledged, and brought into his home, his mixed race son at the time when this was highly frowned upon and he was lining himself up for higher office? No, to all questions.
And if the characterisation is undergoing ill-thought-out changes, which indicate a lack of planning and consequent desperation, what about the cohesion of the story, which features the Indians as well as the British?
Background. The background to Indian Summers is the rise of the Indian Nationalism. Indian factions are fighting the British – fair enough, they want us out of their country – and they’re also fighting each other. Why? This is never made clear in Indian Summers.
While I don’t want a history lesson on a Sunday evening – I want exciting story lines, gripping characters and to find myself at the end of each episode longing for the next episode – I do want sufficient understanding of the background to know what’s going on and to know for what the characters stand. Instead we have confusion as nothing is really explained.
I’m not even sure what Ralph wants, which is so important that he allows his wife to prostitute herself. If that was made clear, I must have blinked at the wrong moment.
Instead of us being given sufficient information for narrative clarity, we are left to struggle with a ‘story’ that seems all over the place, set against a background of confusion, with little vignettes that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
So, with apologies to Margaret Mitchell, Frankly, I and a great number of viewers no longer give a damn!
Do you agree or disagree with me? I’d be interested to hear.