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The Greatest of All?

Updated: May 13, 2020

The Jewel in the Crown, devised by Christopher Morahan, Jim O'Brien, Ken Taylor and Irene Shubik, 1984

This age of the pandemic may have thrown us into an artificial retreat from seeking the company of others, but social isolation 24/7 at least has provided a temporary respite from the unceasing onslaught of the digital consumerist age. Mandated to abort the insanity of our frenzied forays into the vortex of the rat-race, we suddenly find we have long unending periods of time at our disposal. Time is essentially the enemy of modernity or at least modernity's selfish demand of our time makes us essentially an adulterer to our own lives. Suddenly, spared the machinations of the conveyor-belt attitude of the 21st century, along with its demand to be constantly "connected", constantly reactive, constantly computing at ever more rapid speed, we find we have time to undertake a re-evaluation of how we order and commit the day ahead in a way modern man has not quite been afforded for some years, even decades now. What is a five hour broadcast of a Wagnerian masterpiece when you have the entire morning at your disposal? Why not delve into some hefty tome in the absence of needing to endure the daily commute, when you can actually appreciate the nuance and balance of a Tolstoyan sentence in the absence of that constant stream of ambient and mechanised interruption? And why not devote that easy fourteen hours to binge-watch a great series on TV?

There couldn't be a more perfect time for the value of television to be fully grasped, to finally come into its own as an art form not just as dinner entertainment or gap-fillers for poor weather, but for true social benefit and good. It is escapism. It is comfort. It is therapy. Of course TV has seen some of its greatest additions in the past two decades: the form has largely been elevated, talent has been attracted to it, production values hiked, financial investments finally multiplied; it has entered, like pop-art and curated fashion and gourmet cuisine, the ranks of a widening and more broadly egalitarian high-brow. With its elevation has inevitably crept the slimy hand of profit-hungry capitalists in the form of TV-execs who will insist on milking the sacred cow until the poor beast virtually keels over. How many TV shows have started off brilliant, quirky, original, compelling, only for later seasons to outlast their welcome and degenerate into tragic parodies of their earlier selves? Homeland, House of Cards, Dexter, Girls, Shameless, Arrested Development, Veep, Modern Family, Skins, Broadchurch and, of course, the biggest act of artistic sabotage in recent history, the final two mind-numbingly abysmal seasons of Game of Thrones. (Yes, I am one of those grievously injured souls who is still firmly in favour of handing down a life-without-the-chance-of-parole prison sentence - with hard labour and reduced rations to boot - for the heinous twerps who committed that grave crime against humanity!) Tragically few truly great long-haul shows stand as an overall credit to their initial verve and brilliance: Madmen, The Wire, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Absolutely Fabulous and The Crown (so far!) spring to mind. Others you watch and realise they are so good that you unconsciously begin to cross your fingers and hope to hell that some discerning aesthete out there is keeping a beady eye out and knows when to pull the plug: if only the French producers of Call My Agent and the German producers of Babylon Berlin could hear my plea! Ditto the creative team behind Billions. And I genuinely fear for The Handmaid's Tale and Fargo. These are shows so brilliant and perfect at three seasons long that one genuinely fears they risk toppling over into mayhem and genericism from now on. To witness a beloved show disintegrate before your eyes is a traumatic experience which leaves you grief-stricken, but TV execs are a pretty cruel and cold-hearted breed. They need to learn that foremost lesson in art and entertainment: always leave them wanting more!

This is where, it must be said, the English seem to have largely nailed it. Fawlty Towers is one of the best comedies of all time at a mere twelve episodes. Y0u long for another batch, but actually end up appreciating the genius of every one of those dozen delights even more. Black Adder's three seasons (no one counts the first!) is largely intact. Jeeves and Wooster was a gem that never strayed beyond its source material - well, how can you hope to conjure up anything more genius than Wodehouse himself? The same could be said about the original Inspector Morse, but alas not Agatha Christie's Poirot. And then, there is that wonderful largely English tradition of the self-contained mini-series. The show which is limited in concept, has a distinct shape, has a finite conclusion. They are inevitably loyally adapted from a pre-existing novel or play so in a sense, the writing and concept has already been proven: it works. For these reasons, it's not surprising that two of the greatest TV shows of all time are essentially mini-series in format: Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown (both produced by Granada). It may also be surprising to learn that they hail not from the current era of what many believe is TV's HD digital streaming golden age, but from 1981 and 1984 respectively.

The early 80's, in fact, seemed to be the zenith of the exquisitely crafted television mini-series, the likes of which have not quite been replicated since. There is a reason for this and it is, as usual, down to money. Simply put, the cost of producing Brideshead's twelve and a half hours and Jewel's fourteen hours would rarely be considered now for a limited series whose source material is contained to a novel (in other words, which can't realistically or faithfully be continued beyond an end-point). Nowadays the most such a show would be green-lighted for is probably six hours. 1995's Pride and Prejudice is a great limited TV show which has all the characteristics of a lavishly crafted British period piece but is fatefully marred by the fact that trying to squeeze Austen's considerably dense novel into six hours (less actually if you discount advertisement breaks) reduces it really to just a sort of quick-march parade through the book's main plot points. So much is omitted, so much is left on the page and not on the screen. True, we have the book to indulge us with detail but why go to such lengths to make a high-profile dramatised version of just an outer shell? Even Trollope's epic Vanity Fair - a novel two and a half times as long as any of Austen's - was squashed into seven 45 minute episodes in 2018. Yes it was entertaining and visually stunning, but the point is it lacked the devotion to the finer intricacies of the text it was trying to be faithful to. For these series to really work, they need to given space for characters to grow organically, for implication to settle, for innuendo to land, for silence to speak, for flashback to be consequential, for irony to strike, for the passing of time to feel earned. In short, they need, like any artistic work of real substance, to be allowed to breathe. For this reason it is one of life's little miracles that both Brideshead and Jewel managed to sneak in under the radar just in the nick of time before it dawned on the dull morose penny-pinching philistines who drag their clubs about the sets of film production lots to grunt their miserly disapproval. When will the people who control the purse strings ever realise that art is like a quintessential Wildean dandy: it really has no concept of something as uncouth and degrading as money.

There is another reason these two shows now stand as considerably more masterful than their successors: they were both shot on actual film. Of course modern HD digital filming looks wonderfully pristine and sharp and luscious, and that is great for most contemporary-set TV, but there is something very visceral and authentic about capturing a period piece on film stock. The washed down, slightly acetone colours and the raw sometimes grainy texture of the print, together with the odd characteristic frame-jump, provides us the perfect rendering of a place and a time as to make us nostalgically long for it, even though we may have no right to lay such a claim. There is a kind of applied antiquing of the material which was probably not intentional but which in retrospect gives the series a sense of aged grandeur one appreciates in a slightly buggered and battered but highly treasured piece of stately furniture. You cannot fake verisimilitude, a lesson even something as monied and indulged and explicitly produced as an excuse to distribute hardcore posh interior-porn as The Crown needs to accept. Again, both Brideshead and Jewel seemed to slide into a moment of experimentation which was all too quickly abandoned: they were TV shows but with the production value and vision of an auteur-crafted film. Soon after, again I imagine because of budgetary considerations, much TV of the late 80's and early 90's was filmed on poor quality video, no doubt piggy-backing on the rise of cheap-to-make quickies of the music video generation. We are lucky to have been left two relics of TV's first real foray into the tool-box of consummate artisty.

While I adore Brideshead, my personal favourite - for me possibly the greatest TV show of all time - is undoubtedly The Jewel in the Crown. No piece of great art can ever be consumed in one sitting or at first viewing. What makes such art so valuable as a commodity is its endless ability to replicate wonder and fresh insight in the eyes of its audience. In a way, you pay the asking price once but you get rewarded with an unlimited array of viewing angles. One of the best things about Jewel is the genius of its writer - Ken Taylor - who had the foresight to realise that the four novels which make up the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott on which the series is based have at their heart the essence of any great novel: they have intentionally left out what can better be intuited by the reader's own intelligence and imagination. In such a way, the reader, or subsequent viewer, is all the time invited to contribute to the generation of meaning and proliferation of insight rather than be shown a series of placards insistently signposting everything in five seconds intervals. TV which lets you draw your own conclusions is endlessly rewarding. It's what art should be: engaging and engrossing. It's also something many counterparts of somewhat lesser television of the time and since have woefully failed to understand. Jewel understandably requires one to have a literary sensibility to fully appreciate it. Yes, it is TV unapologetically designed as a rare treat for snobs of a certain cultural persuasion and doyens of history alike. This is not to say it is remotely as abstract or deliciously surreal as Twin Peaks or as ingeniously allegorised as Breaking Bad, but it is, like the finest of English novels from which it derives, subtle, understated, ambiguous, deft, politic, sarcastic, euphemistic. I have watched the entire series four times now and have not nearly garnered or understood every calibrated nuance or gesture, every visual framing device or editorial cut, every implied withholding stare or withering double-sided rat-trap suggestion. Each time I see it, something new becomes apparent.

In effect, the script of the series achieves perhaps the singular difference between it and Brideshead, which, due to the nature of Waugh's most highly-wrought and atypical novel, tends to over-explain and remedy almost every last expression of sentiment. In a production of this calibre, this is not a fault per se, but because the TV series of Brideshead is ultimately faithful to the fidelity of the novel, it likewise deploys Charles Ryder (a.k.a Jeremy Irons) as its first-person narrator so whereas Brideshead is a subjective reminiscence from inside Ryder's head, Jewel takes a more omnipotent third-person perspective and its even-handed judgeless objectivity makes it, for me at least, more powerful and affecting. The whole overarching theme of the distinction between the English occupiers and the native Hindu and Muslim populations of then pre-independent India is an example of the impeccable discipline of the script. There is hardly an instance when the flagrant politics of this issue is allowed to burden any one character: large chunky expositional diatribes explaining the intricacies of such socio-religious ramifications are entirely absent and, in some cases, it is all extremely confusing which is no doubt exactly as it was. Some critics have slated Jewel in the Crown as being too Anglo-centric, claiming it's nothing but a vehicle for an English TV company to trumpet its nostalgia for the glory days of empire, but this completely misses the mark. In fact, the failure for the largely Anglicised set of characters to fully grapple with the consequences of their snobbish racism is in itself one of the major commentaries both the script and the books make about the fatalistic attitude of the British in India: their disregard (or in the case of the missionaries, their zealous over-regard) is exactly what brought about such contempt for their rule. Indeed, the snobbery and blank disinterest the characters show time and again is what gives the story its ringing authenticity as a statement about the arrogant mindset of the coloniser towards the colonised.

There are other remarkable themes and subjects the series covers which are likewise laudably handled by Taylor's adaptation. One such issue is the role of the Christian missionary in the wider context of Britain's imperial project. The motif which holds the entire series together and which connects the diverging strands of the many narratives it contains is the painting of "The Jewel in the Crown" which the missionary Edwina Crane is carrying with her when she is attacked on the road with "the Indian schoolteacher." This painting and its interpretations surfaces again and again, each time in a slightly different context so that one begins to realise that the idea of imperialism is not in fact concrete, but much more elastic. The "jewel in Victoria's crown is India" we are told and yet no matter how many times this statement is repeated, its actual meaning seems to evade and slip away from the conscience of whichever character pronounces it: there is a central failure to understand the discrepancy between a material asset or a resource (a diamond) and the value of presiding over but preserving a culture (India itself). British insistence on re-creating the myth of divine rule over India in the form of Queen Victoria being borne aloft in the air on her mobile throne - attended even by angels in the clouds - is one which permeates the thrust and motivation of the missionary's work: it somehow justifies their devotion to a certain moral blindness which faith can sometimes cause. The attack on Edwina Crane (Janet Henfrey) and the subsequent inheritance of the allegorically vague depiction of imperial rule is what comes to haunt one of the series' central characters, Barbie Batchelor (the magnificent Peggy Ashcroft) and ultimately leads to her crisis of faith. "How many of those children did I truly bring to God?" she is heard asking on more than one occasion. Barbie's bizarre behaviour following the sudden death of her beloved companion Mabel Layton (Fabia Drake) sets off a personal crisis which leads to a quite shocking decline into insanity for a woman who once epitomised the very essence of the goodly and God-fearing Englishwoman abroad. Her final scene when she seems to be struck by a powerful epiphany when blinding white light floods her vision as the bomb blasts over Hiroshima is one of television's most devastating metaphors: after the bomb, nothing was the same. That ironcast belief in a certain kind of English faith was proven a myth once and for all.

Madness is itself a theme which is very much present throughout The Jewel and the Crown. Indeed, the idea of the staid, stoic and genteel English slowly descending into several forms of madness or infirmity is one which Paul Scott uses to highlight a sense of how perverse the whole period was. The solid backbone and stiff upper lip mentality so trumpeted as part of the reason Britain rose to be such an imperial powerhouse is here positively and repeatedly subverted. Some forms of madness are handled less implicitly than others. The mental anguish suffered during the trauma of the rape scene by Daphne Manners (Susan Woldridge) and Hari Kumar (Art Malik) are tangibly felt, if never particularly fleshed-out. They are all the more powerfully presented for us never quite knowing what the consequences of that episode really were. Daphne maintains a principled outer appearance even though we know of the catastrophic distress she is subjected to in tender private moments. Of course Hari - "too English to be Indian and too Indian to be English" - is eaten up by the guilt of failing to prevent what has happened but also by his promise to his English lover that he will deny ever being present at the scene: something which strips him of his ability to mount a defence of her virtue. Scenes of him suffering the long shadow of this guilt in prison are quietly harrowing all the more because he never really speaks of it, while the series' concluding shots of a finally liberated Hari in an independent India are ambiguous to say the least: has the poor man really found freedom? Will the demons ever truly go away? Sarah Layton (Wendy Morgan's) nervous breakdown, Mildred Layton (Judy Parfitt's) alcoholism, Colonel Layton (Frederick Treves') post-traumatic stress disorder, Ronald Merrick (Tim Piggot-Smith's) sadism and repressed homosexuality are all likewise dealt with in such deft, unobtrusive and organic ways and yet are all the more visual and cogent because of their very discretion: if ever writing mastered the technique of "show don't tell" then Taylor's adaptation is the absolute textbook example.

Another stroke of genius Taylor deployed from Scott's novels is the art of creating the main character who is dispensed with as well as the fully-rounded cameo character. Game of Thrones, did this so effectively: major characters would suddenly meet an abrupt and grisly end. The confidence to dispense with characters one otherwise comes to invest in is only achieved when those characters are firstly so fully formed that their sudden absence continues to somehow permeate the screen: they are still felt to be present, even if they are not. Likewise smaller parts appear frequently in Jewel and are never seen again and yet their inclusion is never two dimensional or merely serviceable; each one has seemingly always been there, as fully formed as any character, only just not visible in the frame. Lady Manners (Rachel Kempson) seems to disappear without a trace and yet we know that her work to secure the liberty of Hari Kumar while casting doubt on Ronald Merrick has a lasting ripple-effect: such was her determination to seek justice for her niece that her force of character lingers over subsequent events. The scene when Lady Manners silently and discreetly observes Hari Kumar's prison testimony from behind a concealed scrim is enough to establish a sense of this motivation: she need not say anything or even be there in subsequent scenes for her work to start to take effect. The cameos/supporting roles of the Maharanee Aimee (Jamila Massey), Lady Lili Chatterjee (Zhora Sehgal), Sister Ludmila Smith (Matyelok Gibbs), for instance, each add an important note of authenticity to the complex social dynamics which accompanied the settler life in the Raj: characters, in other words, who seemed to straddle the line between one distinction of person and the other. Nothing in The Jewel and the Crown is ever presented as purely black-and-white which goes a long way to answering certain critics who narrowly point to what they claim are rigid class divides and racial barriers.

For sure, class and race are two central explorations of the whole quartet, but Scott and Taylor could never be accused of degenerating into crass stereotypes. Indeed, scenes flood with ambivalence and established society tropes are often deliciously inverted: seeing the antiquated system of English protocol firstly snub the Nawab of Mirat (Saeed Jaffrey) and then scrape and grovel at his feet when he is later admitted to the wedding banquet says so much about a confused, flawed and redundant system. Likewise, accepting the Nawab's grand palace hospitality only to have the awfully camp Aunt Fenny (Rosemary Leach) go about pulling her nose up at the interior decor says everything there is to say about the hypocrisy of high-minded social mores which really only conceal a deeper inferiority complex: we know intuitively that a woman of Aunt Fenny's contrived haughtiness would be reduced to a pale reflection of herself "back home" amongst a wider social sampling. A scene at Maharanee Aimee's hedonistic house party when she fails to appreciate the vintage of a particularly prized bottle single malt whiskey that the proud Colonel Layton later savours so touchingly is another example of how meticulously Taylor layers the subtext of an instilled cultural discrepancy which, in truth, can never entirely be bridged.

The central drive behind the narrative falls to the superb creation of Susan Layton, played by a young and brilliant Geraldine James. Her rational, sincere and inquisitive mindset allows there to be this unbreakable thread of decency and justice which runs throughout the series' many divergent stories. She makes the decision to eschew the snobbery of her mother and sister to approach Lady Manners to ask after Daphne's child: a plot link which propels the central premise of the rape of an Englishwoman throughout the whole story and influences everything in its wake. It is her kindness to Barbie Batchelor which gives such thrust to the middle section of the series which in turn links back to Edwina Crane and the allegory of the jewel in the painting which is handed down to successive individuals who seem to covet it for the strange symbol of power and elusive meaning of empire it conjures. It is Susan who has the decency to see past thin racial divides to befriend the stately and gently mannered Ahmed Kasim (Derrick Branche). Of Kasim, Susan says, "we weren't in love but we did love one another," which sums up the breadth of genuine sentiment very few of her immediate family or regimental associates would ever admit to. And of course Susan has the instinctive wisdom to reject the advances of the corrupt, racist and sycophantic Ronald Merrick where her sister Sarah doesn't, and settle on the far more noble-minded and genuine Guy Perron (an exquisite young Charles Dance). The on screen chemistry between James and Dance is at times hypnotic, but this is no syrupy end-of-empire love story. Their affair is framed in the context of its historic complications, its need for pragmatic temperance, its ultimate sense of futility. The failure to properly unite the two and instead leave their relationship open-ended is a triumph of story telling: so much was unsettled then, so much that resisted happy endings.

The Jewel in the Crown covers such a wide range of genres but never feels disjointed or tonally unbalanced. Whether its functioning as a political thriller, as social satire (the "Incidents at a Wedding" and "An Evening at the Maharanee's" episodes are wickedly savage gems of comedic invention), as family drama, as war film, as historical document, it always blends its various elements seamlessly. However, ultimately, the projection of the series rests in the development of Merrick's character arc. He is the one real constant entity behind everything that later unfolds: the dark foil to Susan Layton's light. His early resentment of the more socially positioned officers he serves festers into this greed for power and authority which becomes all consuming. The miscarriage of justice he instigates has profound consequences, possibly even, as the series hints time and again, at changing the course of history itself, leading to the violent and barbaric separation of India and Pakistan. How one single rape of an Englishwoman in India sets off a chain reaction of seismic events is the opening premise of Scott's quartet, but the catalyst who triggers off the real shock waves along the way is undoubtedly Merrick himself. Due to the brilliance of Tim Piggot-Smith's performance, there is something disarming and at times even likable about Merrick which makes him such an understandable and sympathetic character. He is no arch-villain of the piece. There is a chilling intelligence and sinister persistence behind all that he does, motivated by a dark sexual secret and penchant for sadism, and yet he tries so hard for acceptance, he is so ambitious and displays this forced attention to civility and decorum which somehow makes him a figure of sad desperation as opposed to being merely detestable and vile. At his most villainous he can be utterly charming while his sincerity remains intact: he believes in what he is doing, he is desperate to climb his way to the top through hard work and diligence. Ultimately the target he puts on his own back is what undoes him, a target which is signalled by the cruelty he has so callously dispensed, but his matter-of-fact and sudden bloody death is nonetheless a tragic high-point of the series.

Watching The Jewel in the Crown reminds you of how fully contained and immersive really great long-form filmed entertainment can be. You somehow feel as if you are acquiring a whole new vocabulary and understanding of a time and place which a quirk of birth denied you ever fully experiencing but which, thanks to such great art, you are nonetheless privileged to experience in something approaching a truthful and authentic recreation. Because, in this case, fiction has been so fully and artfully transformed into this truth, The Jewel in the Crown may just stand as the greatest television show we know.

Geraldine James and Charles Dance in The Jewel in the Crown


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