tue 10/12/2019

Beecham House, ITV review - a cartoon version of 18th century India | reviews, news & interviews

Beecham House, ITV review - a cartoon version of 18th century India

Beecham House, ITV review - a cartoon version of 18th century India

Murky colonial history reborn as melodramatic fantasy

Tom Bateman as John Beecham, with pachyderm

It has become routine to accuse Brexiteers of wanting to bring back the British Empire (though obviously it's OK to run an empire from Brussels), but the charge might more accurately be levelled at ITV. They’ve brought the ratings rolling in with their saga of the early years of Queen Victoria, and Beecham House, set in late-18th century India, is being touted in some quarters as “The New Downton”, itself a relict of Edwardian pomp and ceremony.

Though I must admit, Beecham House doesn’t look much like Downton Abbey to me. True, it’s full of spectacular palaces peopled with wealthy potentates served by armies of staff, and instead of the Crawleys’ dogs and horses there are elephants and peacocks wandering in the grounds. But its depiction of Delhi in 1795 feels more like a fairytale concocted by the Indian division of Pixar than anything remotely connected to history.

As the Beatles (big fans of India themselves) once sang, “nothing is real”, and everything here looks painstakingly artificialised. The daylight has been mutated into a curious shade of fuzzy ginger, as if it were all taking place under enormous studio lamps using multicoloured filters, and what we see of India looks like mythological images from folklore rather than anybody’s everyday life. The show is saturated in background music, cloying orchestral schlock with a few Asian-style twiddly bits thrown in to evoke exoticness and rare spices from the East.

It's more Trailfinders brochure than drama, though faint glimmers of plot occasionally seep in. The titular hero John Beecham wears a long dusty coat and hat, like Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, and is played by rugged Tom Bateman as if he wants to give Poldark’s Aidan Turner a run for his money. He also wants you to know that he’s “a private man” on a serious mission. After spending many years as an employee of the rapacious East India Company, that notorious example of mercenary empire-building, he has turned his back on all that and now wants to set up as an honest trader, working in harmony with the Mughal emperors.

His plan is to convince Emperor Shah Alam (Roshan Seth) of his bona fides and his good will, and acquire a trading licence in his own right, but he faces opposition from General Castillon (Grégory Fitoussi, pictured above). Castillon represents the French imperial interest, and naturally assumes that Beecham is working undercover for the East India mob.

There is clearly friction in store (and where are the Dutch, who fought a series of trade wars with the British?), but for now Beecham wants to settle down in stately Beecham House. He’s accompanied by his young child, August, and two Indian ladies, Chanchal and Maya, the nature of whose relationship to Beecham was kept coyly under wraps in this opening episode. As a special bonus he’s brought his old mum Henrietta over from England, played by none other than Lesley Nicol, Downton Abbey’s no-nonsense cook Mrs Patmore. She hasn't seen him for 12 years, and seems to think her son will be delighted to marry her travelling companion, Violet. She may have another think coming.

It's more like a Trailfinders brochure than drama

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Comments

Can't quite believe what I'm reading in those first two lines frm an arts journalist. Let's hope you're in a minority among writers for The Arts Desk.

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