Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Jewel in the Crown: This Is How It’s Done

Charles Dance and Geraldine James in The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

Many of us who have longed to see our favorite literary sagas rendered intelligently and comprehensively in dramatic form have hoped they’d wind up in good TV miniseries rather than truncated on the big screen.  (Everyone I know who thrilled to the Dickensian twists of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch felt let down when it was pared down to a two-and-a-half-hour movie last year – and apparently the film satisfied no one.) And for those of us who saw The Jewel in the Crown, Granada TV’s fourteen-part adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, when PBS ran it in 1984, it has been a model for three and a half decades of how to bring the pleasures of a complex, riveting historical narrative to the small screen. Written between 1965 and 1975, Scott’s tetralogy – The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils – is set in India in the final years of the British Raj, beginning in the midst of the Second World War and ending with independence and the splitting apart of India and Pakistan in 1947. It is, I think, a masterwork: though it hasn’t achieved the celebrity of Forster’s A Passage to India (published in 1924), they deserve to sit next to each other on any discerning reader’s bookshelf.

The focus of the quartet is a violent incident in Mayapore in August of 1942. An unconventional, independent-minded young orphaned Englishwoman named Daphne Manners who has come to India (where her closest living relative, Lady Manners, the widow of the one-time governor of the province, resides) is raped by a group of masked men in the secluded Bibighar Gardens, where she has just made love to an Indian, Hari Kumar. Hari, a journalist, is as out of place among his fellow Indians as Daphne is among the émigré Brits. He was raised in England by a wealthy father who gave him an elite public-school education, but when his father died destitute, Hari had nowhere else to go but to an affectionate aunt in Mayapore. He is, as one of the other characters phrases it, too Indian for the English and too English for the Indians, and he lives in a state of limbo until Daphne dares to cross the color line and treat him not only as an equal but as a potential suitor. After the rape, she makes him promise to lie that he was nowhere in the vicinity, but his silence, which he sticks to out of unswerving loyalty to the woman he loves, doesn’t help him when he’s arrested, along with five slight acquaintances he once got roaring drunk with, and framed for the assault. (The other young men are no guiltier than he is.) Hari is thrown in jail and tortured by the local District Police Commissioner, Ronald Merrick, who comes from a lower-working-class English background and is inflamed by Hari’s aristocratic upbringing, though that is only one of several psychological motivations for his cruel treatment of the young displaced Indian. When Merrick finds insufficient evidence to hold Hari or any of the others, he has them sent to prison on vague, unsubstantiated political charges. Daphne has a baby she assumes to be Hari’s and dies in childbirth, leaving the child to the good offices of the reclusive Lady Manners.

Scott’s narrative goes far beyond this tale. The protagonist is neither Daphne nor Hari but Sarah Layton, a second young Englishwoman, this one brought up in India in an army family with her younger sister Susan. When she moves into the story she herself is in the military, living with her family in Rampur, and her father, a colonel, is in a Japanese POW camp. The only character from the Bibighar Gardens section who retains a central position in the quartet is Merrick, who rises from the police to the army and is badly injured – also disfigured – is an explosion while trying to save the life of Susan’s new husband, Teddie Bingham, his roommate, for whom he stood up at Teddie and Susan’s wedding. But Bibighar Gardens and its aftermath is the injustice that haunts the tetralogy, as well as defining Merrick, who can never escape it. Scott returns to it over and over again. The saga is a tightly wound spiral whose every thread leads back to Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners. We get the story through a series of perspectives; Scott is continually shifting points of view. And we don’t understand it completely until we’ve heard from everyone and explored all of its implications. It’s the main tragedy through which Scott reflects the terrible botch that England has made of India – though certainly it’s not the only tragedy.

The Jewel in the Crown’s adapter, Ken Taylor (sometimes working in collaboration with Irene Shubik and Scott himself) has straightened out the chronology; except for a few brief flashbacks, mostly toward the end, the storyline is linear. But he’s omitted practically nothing. The large ensemble of characters is intact with one minor exception from the last hundred pages of A Division of the Spoils, and the dialogue is generally directly from the books. And though that kind of fidelity is not generally a necessity in literary adaptations, it’s an indisputable boon here, since Scott writes superb dialogue. Two men, Jim O’Brien and Christopher Morahan, share directing duties, and Ray Goode is the DP throughout, showcasing the beautiful Indian landscapes.  Taylor has relied on Scott’s expert dramatic shaping of the scenes; O’Brien and Morahan and the actors manage to incorporate the nuances that Scott has put into the thoughts rather than the mouths of the characters. One sharply observed example is the romantic anxiety of Guy Perron (Charles Dance), who meets Sarah (Geraldine James) when he’s a sergeant in the  uncomfortable role of aide to Merrick (Tim Pigott-Smith) and has a brief affair with her. When he returns to India two years after the war they meet again, and, still in love with her, he struggles to read every clue to discover her current status and how she feels about him now.

Nicholas Farrell and Tim Pigott-Smith in The Jewel in the Crown (1984).

The performances are marvelous, and some of them are indelible, like Judy Parfitt’s as Sarah and Susan’s mother Mildred, an alcoholic who represents for Scott the way in which decades of the Raj lifestyle has twisted the humanity out of many of the women, and Peggy Ashcroft’s as Mildred’s favorite whipping post, a missionary named Barbie Batchelor who rents a room in the cottage of Mildred’s mother-in-law Mabel (Fabia Drake). When Mabel dies and Barbie tries hopelessly to fight Mildred on the subject of where she should be buried, insisting that Mabel made it clear to her that she wanted to lie next to her husband and not in a local grave, the scenes that ensue, enraged on Mildred’s side and tormented on Barbie’s, draw out the brilliance in these two actresses from different generations, one of them (Ashcroft) legendary. Ashcroft was mostly a stage actor, though no one who has her early film portrayal of the unnamed crofter’s wife, trapped in the Scottish countryside with a tyrannical, small-minded husband, in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, is likely to have forgotten it, and she gave one of the great one-scene performances in movies as Glenda Jackson’s mother in Sunday Bloody Sunday. She did possibly the finest work of her career toward the end (she died in 1991), playing, back to back, Barbie in The Jewel in the Crown and Mrs. Moore in David Lean’s film of A Passage to India. Her Barbie Batchelor is a woman of conscience whose old age has been blessed by an unanticipated friendship with Mabel (whose appreciation of her crosses class lines) yet troubled increasingly by a sense that her life of service in India, as a schoolteacher, has been a failure that mirrors England’s. And, as poignantly and agonizingly for her as for Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night or Maggie Smith’s Judith Hearne in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Barbie has lost the faith that irrevocably shaped her. Parfitt is currently a regular on the English series Call the Midwife, though I suspect some filmgoers still think of her most fondly in Dolores Claiborne, where she played memorably opposite Kathy Bates; I was fortunate to see her as the neurotic invalid in a Broadway revival of Night Must Fall years ago, with Matthew Broderick unexpectedly cast as the psychopath who targets her. (They were sensational together.) Her depiction of the bitter, thin-blooded Mildred, who sometimes seems numbed by drink into a voodoo-doll impersonation of comme il faut English officer’s-wife behavior, isn’t quite like any version of the English aristocracy I’ve ever seen. It’s curdled high comedy, undergirded with calcified venom.

Everyone makes a strong impression, but particularly the women. Scott has conceived of most of the characters as doubles for each other. Geraldine James brings tremendous warmth to the part of Sarah, a more gracious, less brittle version of the rebellious Daphne (played with an endearing gawkiness by Susan Wooldridge). The elegant older women whose moral compasses and insistence on thinking for themselves set them in opposition to the Raj and military codes are Lady Manners (played by Rachel Kempson, matriarch of the Redgrave clan) and Mabel Layton, both the widows of important officers. Kempson and Fabia Drake have distinctive transcendent presences in these roles. Drake imbues Mabel with a serenity interrupted only by the distance she feels from the Raj she’s meant to be an important part of. She has one of my favorite moments in the series. When Barbie alludes to the hatred she feels from Mildred, Mabel quietly protests that it’s she and not Barbie who is the real object of her daughter-in-law’s dislike – that she has never forgiven Mabel for sending a hundred pounds to the families of the victims of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in 1919, where General Dyer’s soldiers trapped and fired on hundreds of unarmed Indian men, women and children. Mabel refers to Mildred as “that daughter of the regiment,” and Drake pronounces the five words with understated but precise moral repugnance.

Barbie is paired with her old friend and fellow missionary Edwina Crane (Janet Henfry, who, a few years later, played the terrifying schoolteacher in the Forest of Dean flashback section of The Singing Detective), who loses her way (and her faith) when she and an aging Indian teacher friend are attacked during the early days of unrest and he’s murdered and dies in her arms. Henfry is in only one episode, but she does striking, woebegone work. Like Barbie, Edwina personalizes the English fiasco in India – and she kills herself, in an especially appalling ritualized way. The two women are also linked through the allegorical painting both used to exhibit in their classrooms, “The Jewel in the Crown,” which visualizes a visit Queen Victoria never actually made to India, allegedly the jewel in England’s colonial crown.  And as one of the few characters who isn’t doubled (at least, not in any clear way), Wendy Morgan gives a delicate rendering of Susan Layton, the most fragile character in the narrative, who feels she is the only one in her family who lacks a self – and who acts out, twice, in frightening ways as a result.

The male side of the cast includes Art Malik as Hari Kumar and Derrick Branche as Ahmed Kasim, the son of Mohammed Ali Kasim (Zia Mohyeddin), a member of the Indian Congress who’s imprisoned by the British during wartime for his political views. They are a pair – two articulate, expensively educated young Indian men who are alienated in different ways and whose connection to white English women echo each other, though Ahmed and Sarah becomes close friends rather than lovers. (Through this juxtaposition Sarah can be seen as a Daphne Manners who is not a tragic figure.) Both young actors are first-rate. Ahmed is employed as secretary to the Nawab of Mirat (played by the wonderful Saeed Jaffrey); watching Branche and Jaffrey together I was suddenly reminded of scenes they played together a year later in My Beautiful Laundrette. The handsome, golden-haired Charles Dance is admirably skillful as the closest to a romantic character Scott thought up, Guy Perron. (The other association I couldn’t help making upon a recent reviewing of the series: when Lord Mountbatten shows up in newsreel footage, having just become England’s last Viceroy of India, of course I thought of Dance’s portrayal of Mountbatten on season 3 of The Crown. These may be my two favorite of his performances, thirty-five years apart.) Other standouts are Eric Porter as the cosmopolitan White Russian Count Bronowsky, the Nawab’s counselor and self-appointed guide to Ahmed, and Frederick Treves, who appears in the last few episodes as Colonel Layton, released from the Japanese camp. (Treves manages to etch a complete character in a handful of scenes, and he’s very affecting.)

The only major player about whom I am less than enthusiastic is Tim Pigott-Smith, and the problem with his performance is not entirely his fault. In the first few episodes, where Merrick courts Daphne and targets Hari, Pigott-Smith gives a startlingly fine impression of a man who is profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin – the result of a sense of class inferiority mixed with racism as well as repressed homoerotic feelings. He detests Hari for having been educated at a fine school, as Merrick was not, for having been brought up as (to quote a term the Pakistani émigrés in My Beautiful Laundrette apply to assimilated members of their own culture) “a little Britisher.” And since he’s so contemptuous of Hari, when he’s sexually drawn to him, the attraction brings out his sadistic side. Merrick’s entire story is the playing out of a revenge fantasy with a whole range of objects – including Guy, who, he learns, attended the same school as Colonel Layton and Hari Kumar. And he’s astoundingly successful at it. Even his injuries in the explosion operate to his advantage: they make him a hero (at least, to the Raj). Aided by a photographic memory, Merrick is a genius at manipulation. At first you marvel at the layers of psychology Scott applies to the character; then you realize that they all work in the same direction – to demonize him. The combination of his deviousness and the injury that leaves him with a warped face and an artificial arm makes him a thoroughgoing villain – Professor Moriarty, or a joyless Richard III. In a drama that offers so many complex characters who linger in the mind, Ronnie Merrick is the only one audiences are primed to hiss at. Even Mildred Layton, poisonous as she is, is too intriguing to be merely a monster – or a device. I don’t think this is a serious issue in the novels, where in some way he deflects almost every other character, but it’s a dramatic one in the series, and a marked difficulty for the actor. Pigott-Smith responds with withering, twisted line readings that are so self-conscious they sometimes feel anachronistic, as if he were in a Pinter play. Pigott-Smith is unmistakably talented, but maybe he has the wrong kind of talent for the part. How would a young James Mason have played it, or Laurence Harvey? Is there a way to counter the melodrama in the conception of the character?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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