I fell into The Jewel in the Crown in 2008, when my then boyfriend was away for a month. Alone and with rare command of the TV remote, the 14-part series about the final years of British rule in India took hold of me in a way I have not experienced since. I say this having been so into Mad Men that I once watched 11 episodes in a day.
First broadcast in 1984, Jewel is an enthralling, devastating portrait of two countries locked in a crumbling relationship. In both intensity and scope, it outstrips every other drama about the British Raj, and even though it is anything but nostalgic, veined instead with reckless malevolence, corruption and racism, there is great beauty to the story, too.
Adapted from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels, the series, which won a Golden Globe, an Emmy and five Baftas, begins in 1942 – the year Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in Bombay – and ends five years later with Britain’s exit.
Scott’s novels move back and forward in time, to gather multiple viewpoints. The Granada TV version is mostly chronological, but both hinge on the rape of a young English woman (Susan Wooldridge) and its repercussions, not least what happens to the British-raised Indian man (Art Malik) who is falsely accused of the crime.
As the story unspools, it roams the continent and gathers dozens of other characters. Even so, the slow accretion of detail is riveting. It is hard to isolate performances – all are good and many exceptional – but I fell very hard for Geraldine James, as the enlightened daughter of a British officer who, though dutiful to her cold-hearted bitch of a mother, slowly begins to find her own way. Her will-they-won’t-they love affair with a young Charles Dance (in the role that made him famous) is nearly beyond bearing.
Jewel pulled in weekly audiences of nine million here, and when it arrived in the US, 11 months later, The New York Times advised readers “in search of indisputable quality… to set aside their Sunday evenings, brooking no interruptions”.
Americans must have taken the newspaper at its word, because 13 weeks on, guests invited to a swanky party that Diana Vreeland was throwing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the same night as the finale complained about missing it. As did a gentleman due to holiday that weekend in the Catskills. “Don’t worry,” said the hotel receptionist, when he called ahead to make sure they would be showing it in the communal TV room. “Yours is the 20th call I’ve received asking that same question.”