Turning up the heat on the last days of the Raj

Cynthia (Julie Walters) in Indian Summers
Cynthia (Julie Walters) in Indian Summers

Indian Summers, which depicts the final years of British colonial rule in India, is one of Channel 4’s most epic projects – in scale and cost. The cast and creator tell Susan Griffin what we can expect.

Julie Walters admits she couldn’t believe her luck when she was offered her latest role.

“I never get location work. It’s usually Liverpool or Manchester,” exclaims the 64-year-old, who travelled thousands of miles to film the lavish 10-part drama Indian Summers.

Set in 1932, when India was dreaming of independence and the British were clinging to power, the series explores the tangled political and passionate web among the people occupying Simla, a region in the country’s north.

During the hottest months of the year, British power brokers would descend on this station town and govern from the foothills of the Himalayas, where it was slightly cooler. The Simla of today proved too modernised to use for filming, so the team located to the Malaysian island of Penang. But Walters wasn’t simply lured by the prospect of sunshine.

“I loved the script, and had a very seductive letter from Charlie [Pattinson, the producer]. The story wasn’t romanticised or nostalgic, there was a real edgy, gritty feel to it, and I’d never seen this subject treated like this before.”

In the series, Channel 4’s most ambitious and expensive drama to date, she plays Cynthia Coffin, the proprietor of the region’s British Club who, as queen of Simla society, knows everything that’s going on.

“I was surprised to find out she’s an East End girl. I didn’t know people like that went out there, so the whole thing was new to me. I was completely ignorant and ill-informed,” quips the actress. “When it [this period] has been portrayed in the past, it hasn’t been balanced.”

The idea for Indian Summers emerged from the creator Paul Rutman’s stay in a Darjeeling hotel.

“I was shown these photos [dating back to the Raj] that were a story of a world that’s gone,” says Rutman, who’s also written on shows like Vera and Lewis. “They were of British people from all walks of life, sitting about, dancing and drinking. It wasn’t so long ago, and it struck me how something so central to how British people felt about themselves as a nation has been swept under the carpet.

“Empire is still something that many on the right are quietly proud of, but a source of deep shame and self-castigation from the left. I wanted to ride those contradictions.”

This historical period has been explored on screen many times, most memorably in the 1984 series The Jewel In The Crown, and for that reason, Rutman was keen to shift the focus from the aristocracy.

At its heart are three sets of siblings from very different backgrounds – the high-ranking Ralph and Alice Whelan; Aafrin and Sooni Dalal, Parsi Indians who are trying to get by and make do; and the American Madeleine and Eugene Mathers, who represent the outsider’s perspective.

Nikesh Patel plays Aafrin Dalal, a young Parsi who works in the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service.

“He’s quite apolitical at the start. He wants to support his family and, although he can’t help but be aware of the growing cause for independence, to pay too much attention to that would be at odds with his job,” notes Patel, also 29. “As the story unfolds, that sense of duty gets tested, time and time again.”

The actor, who’s also appeared in Honour and Bedlam, credits the series’ makers with “not looking at an idealised version of the good old days”.

“And what was really exciting, was how they have fully-fledged Indian and Anglo-Indian characters, and fully-fledged parts for men and women,” he adds.

Indian Summers begins on Channel 4 on Sunday, February 15