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19 February 2015

From Pagford to the Punjab: Sunday night rivals The Casual Vacancy and Indian Summers both fall short

J K Rowling adaptation The Casual Vacancy and Channel 4's Indian Summers lack something for our critic.

By Rachel Cooke

The Casual Vacancy
BBC1

Indian Summers
Channel 4
 

I can’t tell if this adaptation of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (Sundays, 9pm) is an improvement on the novel – I haven’t read it. If it is better, as some suggest, I can only imagine how clunky the original must be. Halfway through the first episode and already worn out by all the unsubtle ways in which its writer, Sarah Phelps, was trying to signal that the Cotswold village of Pagford has an underbelly darker even than Evgeny Lebedev’s beard, I began to wonder why the director hadn’t just hired a biplane. It could have trailed a banner above Pagford’s honey-coloured roofs: “WARNING – THIS VILLAGE IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS!” Not only would this have saved a lot of time, money and acting talent; it would also have been a good deal less patronising to us, the poor, feeble, simple-minded viewers.

Pagford is a Midsomer Murders kind of place. The sun is always shining, the better that people might drive their vintage cars with the top down, and every five seconds another Great British Character Actor strides into view. Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Julian Wadham, Simon McBurney: the full repertory company is present, plus the obligatory blazers, wigs and bow ties. Turn a corner, though, and you’ll find yourself in Shameless. Here is a shop selling naughty lingerie; here, a thug pointlessly destroying a schoolboy’s bicycle; here, a weeping junkie returning home after a night in the cells. And who’s this? It’s Samantha Mollison (Keeley Hawes), the proprietor of the aforementioned lingerie store. What’s she doing? Hmm. In her kitchen, she’s shoving her considerable breasts in the face of her boring solicitor husband, Miles (Rufus Jones). “Go on!” she growls. “Grab a handful!” And then something much ruder that I will leave to your imagination for now.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy turns on the struggle for the future of Sweetlove House, a drop-in centre that caters for the needs of the residents of Pagford’s Chatsworth – sorry, I mean Fields – council estate. Samantha’s social-climbing parents-in-law, Howard (Gambon) and Shirley (McKenzie), want it to become a luxury spa: they would rather the poor stayed out of sight. Alas, there is opposition on the parish council. Previously, this was led by the do-gooding Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) but now poor Bazza is dead and the race is on to fill his seat. Who will succeed him? The hapless Miles? (At least council meetings will afford him a brief respite from Samantha’s breasts.) The dastardly Simon Price? Or the local head teacher, Colin Wall? All we know for sure at this point is that Shirley’s quilted Barbour is going to see a lot of action in the coming days, that Samantha will likely have to deploy the odd thong and that Michael Gambon will continue to shout his lines tonelessly, in the manner of a Speak & Spell machine that finds itself unaccountably stuck in a long and possibly endless run of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever.

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The trailer for Indian Summers.

The Casual Vacancy is up on Sunday nights against Indian Summers, Channel 4’s expensive new series about the Raj. As awful as the former is, it’s not going to be too triumphant a slap-down. Indian Summers is beautifully acted and directed and looks intensely lush (it’s set in Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas); you could file your nails on the gently shining cheekbones of Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who plays the gorgeous, pouting Ralph Whelan, private secretary to the viceroy. Still, there’s something missing. The script by Paul Rutman (Vera, Agatha Christie’s Marple) doesn’t convince. It feels ersatz, a quality I attribute to its desperate desire to succeed as an epic and to its fiercely held but ultimately misguided conviction that it is telling us something thrillingly new about the social class of those who ruled pre-independence India (the inclusion of non-posh types is hardly a revelation; Ronald Merrick, played by Tim Pigott-Smith in The Jewel in the Crown in 1984, was not from a privileged background, either, and this was the source of his sadistic antagonism towards Hari Kumar).

Still, rather amazingly, there are another nine episodes to go. It could yet bloom. I’ll report back later, pink gin in hand. 

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