Jewels revisited

LIKE most people we have spent a lot of time watching television during the pandemic. This is an ordinary experience for some, but it is rare for us, since we have always worked in the evening – as newspaper journalists covering parish, town or district councils or public meetings to hear residents voice their fear or opposition to planning applications, road schemes or other developments.

Over the years we have also reviewed many hundreds (probably thousands) of productions – amateur plays and pantomimes, professional theatre, dance, opera, music from folk to baroque, private views of exhibitions and more. Latterly, for Fine Times Recorder, we have reviewed three or four times a week, across an area that extends to Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Poole, Salisbury, Southampton, occasionally Plymouth, and London or further afield.

All that stopped on the evening of 23rd March, when we were on our way to Bath Theatre Royal and had a call to say that the theatre – like others across the country – was closing for the Covid-19 lockdown.

As well as theatre and opera streamed from the National Theatre, Glyndebourne and the New York Met, we took the opportunity to catch up with some of the boxed sets we have been given – Line Of Duty, The Fall, Borgen. We watched An Honourable Woman again, finally saw every episode of Cracker. The Wire and Breaking Bad are still waiting.

In between new dramas, we have gone back to some favourite series – the wonderful Juliet Aubrey and a very young, and devilishly handsome, Rufus Sewell in Middlemarch; Lark Rise to Candleford, a not-always cosy portrait of life in a rural community at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; and Cranford (so much more enjoyable than the heavy-going books!)

We decided early on that we would watch again two of the greatest television series (perhaps the two greatest) – Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown. It is astonishing to think that both are nearly 40 years old, and that there are generations who did not see them, and who cannot imagine the detail and pace with which these masterpieces of the small screen were allowed to unfold.

Brideshead was filmed in 2008, but for those of us who love the book and had such good memories of the Granada Television adaptation, it was an insubstantial, inadequate shadow.

Some years ago, we took two American friends to Castle Howard, the fictional grand ancestral home of the Flyte family – the Brideshead Castle to which the artist Charles Ryder, now an officer in wartime Britain, and his battalion have been sent.

Revisiting the vast stately home, Charles relives his relationship with the beautiful Sebastian, whom he met at Oxford, the enigmatic Julia Flyte, their siblings, their deeply Roman Catholic mother and her estranged husband, living with his mistress in a grand palazzo in Venice.

It is a story that drips with melancholy, memories of love, loss, the relentless grip of the Catholic church and a way of life that was passing into history.

It was fascinating to see Castle Howard, particularly through the eyes of Americans with their romantic ideas of “old England.” Many of the visitors were drawn by Brideshead – there was an interesting exhibition of the making of the series.

The Jewel in the Crown – a 14-episode adaptation of Paul Scott’s magnificent Raj Quartet of novels – seemed a natural chronological follow-up. Set in the last years of the British Raj in India, it starts in 1942, around the time that Charles returns to Brideshead.

Like Brideshead, it is a story of a way of life that is ending – but whereas Brideshead is an exquisite miniature, focusing almost entirely on the Flytes and their inner circle, The Jewel in the Crown is an epic, spanning five years that changed everything in the Asian sub-continent. It is a story not only of the end of the Raj but of the often forgotten war in Burma, the gathering tensions between Hindus and Muslims, which culminated in the massacres and horrors of Partition, and of a society which was as doomed as the old rulers of the princely states (many of whose opulent palaces are now world-class hotels).

Brideshead’s Charles Ryder is an observer – not quite an outsider, but never fully an insider. The Jewel in the Crown’s three central characters are all outsiders, in different ways. Sarah Layton, the Colonel’s daughter, is one of those strong, stalwart women who were the backbone of the Raj, but she is also humane, open-minded and highly intelligent; lower middle-class Ronald Merrick, a sado-masochistic closet homosexual, claws his way up British India’s complex social structure by competence and ruthless ambition; public-school educated, English-speaking Hari Kumar is the ultimate outsider, ignorant of his own culture, but ignored by the Brits (even old school-friends) who see only a brown face.

Watching these two powerful dramas was not an exercise in nostalgia – rather a reminder of the astonishing quality of television at its best. It is impossible to imagine that either could be made again. Evelyn Waugh’s slender novel would never get 11 episodes now. And the woke generation would find so much to criticise in The Jewel in the Crown that programme-makers would baulk at the controversy – rape, racism, snobbery, sexism … it’s all there. It was of course. You might say that it still is – but we don’t want to think about that, do we?

Fanny Charles