House rules

APRIL 2019: Lavish new drama, Beecham House, is set in pre-Raj India against the dying Mughal Empire, colonial ambitions of the British and the French, and India’s maharajas jostling for position. But for all its historical, cultural and political angles, the six-part series is – above all else – prime time TV entertainment, says creator/writer Gurinder Chadha.

1795. A power vacuum is looming in India. The Mughal Empire is coming to an end. The British are standing by. The French are hovering. So, too, are the Indian Maharajas. “People were standing by to take India. It was a free for all at that stage. No one quite knew what was going to happen,” says British-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha. Set against that uncertain backdrop is her new series – the lavish six-part epic family saga, Beecham House, which she created and wrote with Paul Mayeda Berges (Viceroy’s House), Shahrukh Husain (In Custody) and Victor Levin (Mad Men). 

Beecham House is Chadha’s closing bracket on a period in Indian history that she opened in 2017 with Viceroy’s House, which was set in 1947 at the end of the Raj. Viceroy’s House starred Hugh Bonneville as the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was charged with overseeing the dissolution of the British Raj and the establishment of independent India, including the partition of India and Pakistan.

“During Viceroy’s House I was fascinated with telling the story of Britain and India through my eyes,” she says. And so, for her next project – Beecham House – she went back to the beginning, pre-Raj. This, she says, “felt like a really good time” in which to set a story about a handsome former soldier – the enigmatic John Beecham (played by Tom Bateman) – who has purchased a magnificent mansion, Beecham House, in Delhi to begin a new life with his family. Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey) plays his mother, Henrietta. The cast also includes Marc Warren, who plays Beecham’s friend Samuel Parker, and Leo Suter, who appears as Beecham’s brother. 

Another attraction of the pre-Raj period was that “not many people know about it,” Chadha says, speaking ahead of the worldwide premiere at Mip TV in Cannes earlier this month. The series  premieres on ITV in the U.K. is spring 2019, and in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. The series is distributed by Fremantle. Asian broadcasters had not been disclosed at press time. 

“Everyone knows that Britain colonised India, but not many people know exactly how that happened and who the other players were at the time,” she adds.  

Was it the complexity of the period or the lack of knowledge among today’s audiences that attracted her? “Both actually. It was a good story and worth telling. In prime time.” 

Chadha is 100% clear about the series’ aim: to fill a prime-time 9pm Sunday night slot on ITV in the U.K., the same slot as Downton Abbey. This has given rise to the description of Beecham House as “Delhi Downton”. She doesn’t mind at all.  

“Look, it’s a series for ITV. It’s prime time Sunday night, which was the Downton spot. It’s a commercial show, so people will call it all kinds of things. But that’s fine... If I wanted to do a historic piece, I would have done it for the History Channel. You have to cut your cloth according to what you are making and who you are making it for. And I made it for a prime-time audience on commercial television at 9pm on a Sunday night.”  

 It follows then that, first and foremost, Chadha would like viewers to be entertained by Beecham House, which was produced by her own production house, Bend It TV. Apart from it being “a very good looking show”, she wants viewers to feel as if they have “learned a bit about history that they didn’t know, and that they are also being told about a history that they know a bit about but from a totally fresh perspective”. 

“Obviously, colonialism is a very tough area,” she adds. “The way I’m doing it is that I’m asking the audience to come up with their own moral judgment on what’s happened. They have to make the decisions. They have to decide what is morally acceptable or not. And that’s what suddenly makes it a very contemporary show because it’s about a scenario where the British and the French are themselves... trying to make inroads, and a better life for themselves there. And then you turn the tables a bit on what is happening around us today,” Chadha says. 

There is absolutely no effort to portray history through a more sympathetic lens (as some early reports about the series claimed). “No, not at all,” she says. “The East India Company did have terrible practices and I share that [in the series]. John Beecham has left the company because of those practices. I’m not looking to make the East India Company look good. Quite the opposite. It’s through the character of John Beecham that we learn about that, that he’s conflicted about India and the practices at the time,” she says.  

Beecham House is part of a long and award-winning body of work that includes Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and Bride and Prejudice (2004). In 2006, she was awarded an O.B.E. for her services to the British film industry.

 Born in Nairobi when Kenya was a British colony, Chadha says Beecham House is “very distinctive in that the vision is definitely from the British-Asian perspective. In that sense, it expands my vision of who I am. I am part of an Indian Diaspora looking with an inside/outside feel to the world... When you are both British and Indian, you are able to tell both the stories, hopefully with a bit of complexity and not just two dimensional.”  

Published in April 2019 in ContentAsia print+online magazine for APOS 2019