Although this blog's name is inspired by Sauti Kubwa ("Big Voice"), the late lead singer of Rumba Japan, a band that played in Nairobi in the early years of this century, it won't focus unduly on Swahili nicknames, rumba music or indeed any other African issues.


Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Jewel in the Crown

My eldest son (19) and I have finished a five-month exercise to watch all 14 episodes of the 1984 TV series The Jewel in the Crown. We normally see each other once a fortnight, so watching just one or perhaps two episodes each time explains why it's taken us so long to get through all of them.

I was a big fan of the series when it was first shown, and have often thought it the best thing ever produced by British television, though before this year I'd only once got round to watching it all again. The books - Paul Scott's Raj Quartet - on which the series is based are equally impressive, and probably my desert island choice (if I could break the rules slightly to take four books).

How did I find it 26 years on? It's still impressive, although the pace seems slow by today's standards. It's been years since any British TV company would consider adapting a literary work over so many episodes.

My main reaction was a somewhat altered attitude to the principal characters. Although Scott was wonderful at characterisation, the diverse (and numerous) inhabitants of the four books can be divided into the Good, the Bad and the Others. Ronald Merrick, the lower-middle-class, chip-on-his-shoulder, repressed-homosexual policeman-turned-army-officer, remains Chief Baddie (though I was surprised when I later read the books that they painted him even worse than the televised dramatisation did: I had expected - and hoped - it to be the other way around).

In the Good camp are British liberals such as Sarah Layton (an army officer's perceptive daughter, out of step with her dull, tradition-minded family), Robin White and Nigel Rowan (colonial administrators trying, in their own minds, to do their best for the Indians) and Guy Perron (a young Cambridge academic). When I first watched Jewel in the Crown these characters seemed very sympathetic. This time I thought most of them (there are exceptions) looked uninspiring, their weedy liberalism (there are other varieties) irritating.

Perron (played by alleged heart-throb Charles Dance - the series made him a star) came across as particularly ineffectual; the only time he looked energized was when he beat up Merrick's Pathan manservant after catching him nicking his wallet. Even shagging Sarah didn't seem to animate him greatly.

What do Indians today make of the books and the TV series? Not much, I'd guess. I don't blame them. Despite its setting, the Raj Quartet is about us, the British, not them. As indeed are most other novels set in the declining years of the British Empire - a topic to which I will return.

Meanwhile, Paul Scott's novels are a cracking read, and I highly recommend them!


  1. I too loved Jewel when it was first shown, but I'm not sure if it's my preferred presentation of the events of the last days of the Raj, a great subject for dramatic interpretation.

    I think in many ways, E M Forster captured the zeitgeist better, particularly the small-mindedness of many British colonials, perhaps, and especially the inter-racial tension.

  2. It's a long time since I read A Passage to India, so memory might be playing tricks, but I recall Paul Scott's charcterisations of his players as better than Forster's. Unfair comparison perhaps - the Raj Quartet is on a broader canvass and over a longer period of time.

    I also highly recommend John Masters' Bhowani Junction (set in 1946) which explores some of the same themes.

  3. By chance, the current Spectator has a review by Francis King of a new biography of Forster (by Wendy Moffat). King says:

    "... over the years I have become aware of flaws in both the writing and the character [of Forster]...

    "A Passage to India contains so much that is superb; but increasingly I wonder whether all those ambiguities — what really happened in the caves, why did Mrs Moore have that sudden breakdown, were Fielding and Aziz in love with each other? — resulted not from intention but from a panicky inability to decide how to proceed to a satisfactory end."

    I agree, and it chimes with my view that Paul Scott was a better writer on the Raj than Forster.