PBS Review: ‘Indian Summers’

John Thomas

The English are known for escaping the cold, grey climate of their country by heading south to warmer sunnier climes. But in the early 30s and without the benefit of air conditioning, even they find the summer temperatures of India unbearable.

The solution for their governing and trading communities is to head for the resort town of Simla, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is here they spend their Indian summers. Should they believe they’ve left the trials and tribulations of daily life behind, they are sorely mistaken.

The epicenter of all political, commercial and personal situations in Simla is the (white-only) Royal Simla Club, ruled by Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters). She is the éminence grise of everything taking place in “her” community.

If someone’s political beliefs need to be redirected, visit Cynthia. Someone needs to leave town? Cynthia will see to it that the person is on the next train out. When a fatally stabbed body is discovered – Cynthia will find a perpetuator.

One problem challenging her skills, however, is the social unrest among the natives. That requires skills beyond her capability.

Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is the Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India, ruling in the Viceroy’s absence. He is also aware of the unrest among the natives and appears to better their situation by including them in governing decisions and white society.

His sister, Alice Whelan (Jemima West), has returned to Simla with her infant son for the summer. Gossip abounds – is the husband deceased or has he been abandoned? Cynthia will deal with all questions. When Cynthia discovers Alice is attracted to a native, Cynthia is forced into action.

Afrin Dalai (Nikesh Patel) wishes very much to advance both his career in civil service and standing in the British community. His efficiency and charming demeanor come to the attention of Ralph who feels Afrin might be a good choice as his Junior Clerk. Most members of Afrin’s family are pleased with his advancement while some feel he is capitulating to the English.

His family has another problem with him – he’s in love with an untouchable. Cynthia can’t help with that, but when Afrin’s amorous attentions change and are directed towards a member of the white community, she moves into high gear.

Another member of UK society to recognize injustices towards the native community is Ian McLeod (Alexander Cobb). He’s come from Scotland to assist his drunken uncle manage the latter’s tea plantation. His uncle dies on his return trip to Scotland, leaving his crumbling, debt-ridden tea plantation to Ian.

The owner of the neighboring, more prosperous plantation is a native who offers Ian a position in his company. He freely admits to only wanting to use Ian’s name for his tea as his family name is well known in England. Ian agrees and over time the two men become good friends. Ian supports the India freedom movement. Cynthia does not approve.

As much success as Cynthia has meddling in other peoples’ affairs, she has no success dealing with her own demons – those she keeps carefully hidden from sight.

This is a “Should See”, ten-part PBS Masterpiece TV series (season one of two). The engaging story is brought to life by a talented cast, gifted art direction and directors who weave these talents together to vividly describe the closing days of British rule in India.



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