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Oh, Indian Summers! What went wrong?

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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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  • I talked about the first series at the time it was broadcast. I think you are very generous towards it – I gave up after two and a half episodes.

    I decided to give it another try for the second series, but I didn’t even finish watching the first episode. Very sad, because my in-laws were part of the whole set-up. In fact late dh was born in Delhi after the war, his elder brother before it in the late 30s, so I knew quite a bit about it – and there are still a few photographs kicking about.

    I think the writing was poor, the story construction abysmal and the character development non-existant. Setting and clothes were lovely, though!

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your interesting comment, Lesley. I agree with everything you’ve said. The reason I’ve stuck with the programme – both series – is because I’m writing a novel set in Darjeeling, 1930. The focus of my novel is the world of the tea planters, not the goings-on between representatives of the British government, but since Indian Summers covers the period during which my novel is set, I’ve been hoping to gain something by watching, despite its many flaws. So far, alas, all I’ve gained is a feeling of ennui!

  • I also gave up early in the first series. There seemed to be no structure to it, just a lot of unconnected incidents. When I read in one of the reviews a few weeks in that Ralph was supposed to be the hero, I stopped watching. I’d thought he was the bad guy. For me that’s very poor story-telling.

    • Liz:

      I thought Ralph was meant to be the hero in the first series, April, because the focus was so much on him. There seemed to be no other male candidate for the role. But the way in which they have allowed the character to become so weak and ineffectual in the second series is quite amazing. The viewer doesn’t know what Ralph hopes to achieve, nor why he wants this. In answer to a question asking why he was pushing for this thing, he replied that it had been the dying wish of his father. A few frames earlier, we had learned that the man whom he had thought his father was not, in fact, his birth father. He seems to have forgotten that. Give me strength, I thought!

  • Clare Flynn:

    I too gave up after a couple of episodes of series 1. I’d been looking forward to it but found it dreadful and was completely unengaged. The last straw for me was the chap bathing outdoors on his veranda (what!) and some fully-clothed floozie coming upon him and clambering in with him – while his servant was within earshot.
    Agree about the setting (although I think it was shot in Malaysia or somewhere) and the clothes.

    • Liz:

      Yes, it was set in Malaya, Clare – it was set in Penang. Apparently, Simla is so altered now that there weren’t sufficient places that could have been used. They found exactly the unspoiled areas they needed in Penang.

      I had such expectations of the programme, given the period at which it was set and the actors who’d been chosen to give it life, but my expectations had long gone before the end of the first series. With your novel, Kurinji Flowers, which I loved, set among the Indian tea plantations during the last years of the British Empire, the lack of real depth must have been particularly galling.

  • I thought that happened in Downton Abbey. I left that in the middle of series two, when it was obvious that the wit and fun of the first series had deteriorated into a poor soap. So it can also be the support the network is prepared to pump into the series. At one time, you couldn’t move for adverts for Downton, but I hardly ever saw anything for Indian Summer. There was no buzz, no scandal, appearances at first nights and the rest of the pizazz that surrounded Downton, which I thought was equally lacking after series one.

    • Liz:

      Yes, there’s an interesting comparison between the two, Lynne. Thank you for making it. Both were trailed heavily at the start of their series, but whereas the hype surrounding Downton built up as the series went on, the hype around Indian Summers seems to have fallen off fairly rapidly. This must be because viewers were switching off in large numbers during the first series, though we didn’t know that at the time. Downton Abbbey, however, seemed to build and build, and there were increasing references to the programme in Britain and abroad, with cast appearances and magazine articles. One could say that the red carpet was being rolled out further for Downton Abbey, whether or not it deserved it – more ‘not’ in my opinion as the series progressed – while being rolled back in for Indian Summers.

  • Great post, Liz, and I have to agree with you about series two. I really enjoyed the first series and have been watching the second to find out what happens but I’ve been appalled at the public humiliation of Alice and confused about what Ralph hopes for his son. I might stick it out but I’m not unhappy it’s going to end soon.

    • Liz:

      I feel exactly the same, Rosemary. I shall stick with it to see how they complete the series, but I won’t regret its passing. It’s been a wasted opportunity to do something really grand and dramatic, set at a very interesting period. It is, also, a lesson to novelists. When planning a series of however long, it’s essential to work out the narrative arc and the principal players before beginning. The details can always come later. Thank you for your comment.

  • Interesting analysis Liz. I am still watching but I do agree with you. The Julie Walter’s character was outstandingly bitchy and racist in the first series and she has appeared in a completely different light in series 2. While I like it that its not all about goodies and baddies and has all the complexity which makes up human nature, there has been a tendency to stray from previous plot lines making for some confusion. Its sad though that its going to end.

    • Liz:

      Thank you for your comment, Sylvia. From the time it was first trailed, I looked forward to watching it, but it’s been a huge disappointment and I’m sad that it wasn’t better. I, too, love complexity in the characterisation. This makes for realistic, recognisable characters, but there needs to be consistency in the depiction of each character, and that has increasingly been lacking.

  • I watched two or three episodes of the first in the promised series and lost interest because, in my mind, the characters seemed like cardboard cut outs.

    • Liz:

      That’s very true, Rosemary. One might also say that the way in which each character has changed from one sort of character into another within the space of fewer than two series suggests that there would need to be more than one cardboard cut-out per character!

  • I watched the first series because there was little else on Sunday evenings here to interest me and we haven’t had the 2nd series yet but I’m not surprised it’s been axed – I didn’t find it as gripping as expected.

    • Liz:

      Ooh, Angela! I do hope I didn’t spoil your enjoyment of the second series by talking of some of the changes you’ll see! In the fullness of time, when you’ve watched the second series, I’d be interested to know if you agree with my criticisms.

  • Katie Carr:

    I agree with the comments above but for me there was something else too.There was something strange about the type of tension created. It wasn’t the excitement of a story plot where you wonder what’s going to happen next; it felt more like being an unwilling voyeur of unbelievably self-destructive mistakes which were inevitably going to be discovered. I found it uncomfortable as well as tedious.
    And yes, given an historical setting so rich in genuine drama, fascinating cultural comparisons and big personalities, I think it’s an utterly underwhelming viewing experience! I think the reason Downton succeeds despite its many weaknesses is that the setting and social behaviour are well presented; I just have to ignore the storyline sometimes!

    • Liz:

      That’s a very interesting observation about the nature of the tension, Katie. You are absolutely right. And right, too, about Downton Abbey’s appeal. Downton was helped, though, by a degree of consistency in the characterisation, which has been lacking in Indian Summers. Both suffered from increasingly ridiculous story lines. Last night’s Indian Summers reminded me of Coronation Street, where they’d decide on a Thursday to hold a fete on the Saturday, and two days later, the fete would be up and running with banners everywhere! The speed last night of Alice and Aafrin deciding to leave for Australia, her theft and pawning of the necklace, the making of plans that were bound to be discovered before they could get far, and then leaving, was ludicrous.

  • Interesting post, Liz. I started watching series one with great anticipation. I was born in Calcutta and went to Darjeeling every summer. I was there till 1956, so well after independence (though of course, I was very young, I hasten to emphasise!!). I was in Shimla a few years ago. All of which pointed to the fact that this was a series I would enjoy very much indeed.

    Alas no. Not even series one. I found it uncompelling (is that a word??), for all the reasons listed above. I didn’t really engage with any of the characters. Where in The Night Watchman I was chewing my knuckles when Jed and Hiddleston had it off in case they were discovered, I couldn’t have cared less about any of the various liaisons in Indian Summers. The settings were glorious, but didn’t look anything like Shimla. There were no houses remotely like Ralph’s in modern day Shimla. The shopping street scenes were ridiculous. You never find a shop in India with a glass window with mannequins in it! Well, outside of modern Delhi perhaps. They are all little shops, open to the street. The clothes shops would have had endless gorgeous bales of fabric on display and a dherzi sitting cross legged on the floor with a sewing machine at his feet. Dresses were copied from British magazines or pattern books.

    It all looked too clean! India is all heat and dust.

    There were some promising story lines, but they never seemed to develop properly. I simply didn’t care about the wife striving to be accepted or the husband having a secret affair with the Indian girl, or the Indian hero’s lack of respect for his fiancée. Ralph had a certain attraction because he was so beautiful and slightly edgy, but if he hasn’t been further developed, I’m glad I’m not watching series 2! I gave up.

    Pity.

    • Liz:

      That was so interesting, Jenny. Many thanks for your comment.

      Indian Summers was filmed in Malaysia’s Penang Island as Simla had become too modernised to be used.

      Part of your comment became a check-list for me as my current wip is set in Darjeeling in 1930! If only you were an awful lot older! There are no shops with glass windows in my novel – they all open on to the street, some of which I name. There are also plenty of bales of fabric on display, but my dherzi is mentioned as travelling between the houses of the tea planters, sitting cross-legged on the verandah.

      You wouldn’t recognise the characters from series one as they’ve become in series two. They all seem to have lost interest in what they’re doing and to be going through the motions, rather than feeling their roles. I presume they must have known that viewing figures fell steadily throughout series one, and that the writing was probably on the wall, but there seems to have been little effort on the part of either the writers or the actors in series two to fulfil the potential of the original premise. Such a huge shame.

  • Shaz:

    I have watched it all and loved the settings and characters but it’s storylines have been awful making very difficult viewing.

    • Liz:

      I totally agree with you, Shaz. I think it a fascinating period, rich in promise, and I thought the characters got off to a good start in the first series. Something went wrong with the writing after that, though, and the characters in the second series lack consistency and credibility, and they are not part of a strong story line. As for what’s going on in the background, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s as if the writers lost interest between the two series. Such a waste of potential.

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