Miniseries Worth Watching: The Jewel in the Crown (1984)

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I was looking for something long and multi-episodic while I’ve been handsewing, and The Jewel in the Crown (1984) certainly fulfills that criteria. It’s fourteen episodes — why don’t we ever get 14-episode miniseries anymore??!! (Compare Wolf Hall at six episodes and the new Poldark at eight.) This was my first viewing of Jewel. I certainly remember all the parents being a-twitter about this when it came out in 1984, but I was 8, so a bit young for issues of colonialism and such and probably busy reading Nancy Drew.

The Jewel in the Crown is a British production, based on a series of novels called the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and published from 1965-1975. The story is complex, but basically, it’s World War II and focused on the British in the last days of their empire in India.

The first couple of episodes focus on Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar. She’s an Englishwoman recently come to India (I think she’s in the Women’s Army Corps). He was raised in England and attended a prestigious English boarding school, but after his father’s bankruptcy, he’s moved to India, where he’s very much caught between two worlds. At the beginning of the series, Hari basically considers himself English, says he hates India, and is generally frustrated at being a square peg in a round hole. Daphne is fabulously awkward, which makes her the odd duck who is open to unconventional people. The two strike up a friendship, which gets Very Complicated.

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Hari and Daphne. I LOVED Daphne’s look, it’s that quintessential 1920s-40s “English rose” look that you see in people like the Mitford sisters. And Hari (Art Malick) is foxy.

One complication is the police superintendent Ronald Merrick, who has the classic colonist dichotomy — he’s from a less prestigious background and so acts more racist in order to attempt to raise his own station. He’s interested in Daphne and REALLY is not into her friendship with Hari.

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Ronald Merrick lurks ominously over Hari and Daphne.

After a few episodes, the whole story switches (which threw me for a major loop!). The rest of the miniseries focuses on the Layton family, most specifically elder daughter Sarah. She’s the daughter of a well-to-do British army colonel, and she’s currently in the Women’s Army Corps. While her mother and sister are pretty conventional, Sarah is the questioning one. Both Sarah’s character as written, as well as the performance by Geraldine James, are really compelling, and while it might sound weird to switch gears story-wise like this, you won’t be disappointed.

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No-nonsense, unconventional Sarah.

As you can guess from 14 episodes, the story REALLY takes its time, which is refreshingly fabulous! Of course, I got to binge-watch it rather than wait for it week by week. Various characters get introduced, including:

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Sarah’s bitchy mother

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Sarah’s conventional sister Susan

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Susan’s annoying fiance, Teddie.

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Daphne Manners’s aunt, Lady Ethel

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Sarah’s step-grandmother, Lady Ethel, played by Fabia Drake who is one of the fabulous elderly ladies in A Room With a View.

Most important of all these characters is the surprisingly (for those who know him nowadays) hot Charles Dance, who plays Sergeant Guy Perron. He’s in the army now, but he has plans to be a history professor (be still my beating heart!), and he joins Sarah in her questioning perspective on the British in India.

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Charles Dance as Guy: Helloooooo, sergeant!

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More Charles. Rrrrrrrr.

The storyline is fascinating, and it sheds all kinds of interesting light on English colonialism and racism and India’s independence movement. Many of the Brits are hell-bent on staying 100% British despite their surroundings, and they seriously underestimate the Indian people in many ways. Lead characters Daphne, Sarah, and Guy help to question the whole role of the colonial power … but at the same time, there’s definitely a nostalgia for a time when the Brits were on top, quite literally.

These photos will illustrate my one main issue with the series:

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Indians are, by and large, background characters. Okay, you’ve got Hari Kumar, who although he goes through some serious thinking about things, is very British. Sarah (and her family, to a lesser degree) do come to know an Indian — Ahmed Kasim, the personal secretary of the Nawab (prince) of the fictional state of Mirat. And while actor Derrick Branche is HOT HOT HOT, he’s hardly representative of Indian society.

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Ahmed Kasim: H.O.T. but unrepresentative.

Also, there are some definite issues with homosexuality. I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s just say that the baddy does bad things because he’s repressed his homosexuality. Which, it’s 1984 (and the source material was written in the 1960s), so I guess I can’t hope for too much. On the other hand, I was surprised by a minor character who is VERY openly gay (even going so far as to call himself Sophie), although he’s very camp.

Costume-wise, everything is very well done but totally subtle. It’s wartime, and there’s no spangles or sparkles or what-have-you’s. Probably the best wardrobe is on dimwitted Aunt Fenny, who I can’t find ANY good pictures of! She’s played by Rosemary Leach, who is the best mother in the whole world in the only A Room With a View that matters:

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That’s Aunt Fenny/Rosemary Leach on the left, in a less exciting outfit.

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Best Mom Evah in A Room With a View (1986).

The locations are gorgeous:

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Beautiful!

So, it’s definitely worth watching for the story and the history, just know you’re not getting spangly evening gowns and stuff. And you can gaze at all the hot boys!

Have you seen The Jewel in the Crown? What’s your favorite historical costume movie or TV series set in India?

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About the author

Kendra

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Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

3 Responses

  1. Becky Nankivell

    I saw the original run when I was just out of college, then re-watched it this winter. Absorbing, and, yes, definitely from the British point of view (though not unsympathetic). I’m curious as to how different the upcoming “Indian Summers” will be. It is wonderful to have 14 episodes! I haven’t read the books (the 4 novels of “The Raj Quartet”), but I assume that the large narrative shifts probably arise from the shifts between the books, and that 14 episodes does them justice in a way that fewer could not.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I haven’t read the books either, but yes, I believe the narrative shifts are due to combining multiple books into one series.

      Reply

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