This British 1984 series, based on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, made a big splash when it aired, first in England, and then in the United States on Masterpiece Theater. While Scott’s four novels about English rule ending in India are each written as a series of flashbacks, the TV production moves forward chronologically. The first novel takes as its focus two star-crossed lovers, an English woman and an Indian man recently returned to India, who was educated in a top public school but finds in India that his race takes precedence over his gentleman’s upbringing.
The girl, Daphne, is intent on making her own way in India, and is impatient and disdainful towards the racism inherent in the British “Raj” system of government. While the British have a paternal interest in educating the Indians to be soldiers and legislators, they want the Indians to follow their agenda, letting them share privileges only as they feel they have earned them. Many of the British administrators are fair and humane, but many are not, and these see the Indians as being untrustworthy and childlike.
The books and the series start with Daphne’s involvement with the Indian man Hari Kumar, and their subsequent tragedy becomes the foundation of the next three books. Scott does this by keeping those events alive through having their story retold, so what they suffered is like a continuing thread in the midst of new events and new characters. Scott only spent a short time in India, but admirably captures the tone and detail of his characters, whatever their walk of life and however short their role in the series. A jailed Indian Congressman, a coldly efficient and sadistic English policeman, a young girl finding nothing of meaning in her role of debutante amidst English soldiers - all of these Scott allows us to know and to appreciate, but only in making his final point – that the play is “played out”. It’s interesting that the series was so popular on British TV, when the outcome is so depressing. Evidently there was no such thing as “for God and country”… it was all a terrible mistake. While the acting and setting in the series is excellent, the absence of any hopeful outcome, however guarded, left me feeling sadder for having watched it.