It’s fair to say that my expectations of Beecham House (23 June, 9pm) were quite low, even before I starting watching it. Once I knew that its writer and director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) had based her show, which is set in India in the late 1790s, on Downton Abbey, I knew the omens couldn’t be good: time, perhaps, to burn a cleansing twig of sage in my office while chanting a selection of Clive James’s best lines. In truth, however, I’m not sure that anything could have prepared me for this parasoled parade of cliché and desperation. “You must try this mull-i-ga-taaaaaw-ny soup,” says a stupid young woman called Violet, lifting a silver spoon from a bowl. “These py-jaaaa-mas are so much more comfortable in the heat,” says a raffish young man called Daniel, lounging in a shirt that’s open almost to his navel. Next week I expect there’ll be a gym-kha-na. Everyone will watch it from – say it loudly and very, very slowly – the ver-an-da of a bung-a-low while picking at the ked-ger-ee they’ve been served for lunch.
But let me set the scene. Beecham House is the grand new Delhi home – it looks, somewhat unconvincingly, like the kind of posh hotel where they guild the kulfi with gold leaf and there’s a shop selling Mulberry as well as saris – of John Beecham (Tom Bateman), who is basically Ross Poldark with added chutney. John used to be a servant of the East India Company, but thanks to his ethics (capital E) and, possibly, the fact that he previously enjoyed a secret marriage to a beautiful young Indian woman (she’s dead now, but we get lots of exotic flashbacks shot through the discreet gauze of a mosquito net), he has now set up on his own as a trader. He wants to flog all the beautiful things that are made in India but, like some floppy-haired gap year Sloane, he will do this without exploiting the natives.
Naturally, John has his secrets (capital S). Upstairs, in a nursery, is his half-Indian baby son, August, the name of whose high-born mother no one must ever know. But he’s also preposterously open and touchy-feely. When his servants (a comic Greek chorus that seems at times to have come straight out of some dodgy Seventies sitcom) give him advice, as they do freely, he doesn’t tell them to scarper. He listens and nods his head. John, we understand, is patient and wise. But then, he needs to be. First, there is his dissolute brother, Daniel, whom he and his ultra-loyal best friend, Samuel (Marc Warren) recently tracked down to a brothel (in a scene I must have seen 50, or even a hundred times before, the half-clad women squealed and scattered at his arrival). Then there are the girls who are busy fighting over him: a governess called Miss Osborne (Dakota Blue Richards) and the aforementioned Violet (Bessie Carter). Finally, and most importantly, there is his mother, Henrietta, newly off the boat from Southampton (or somewhere).
Before her arrival on screen – the excitement was definitely not building – I wondered who would play this gorgon, the colonial equivalent of Maggie Smith’s dowager duchess in Downton. Penelope Wilton? Eileen Atkins? But, no. As the crowds parted at the dockside, who did we see fanning her face and pulling at her bombazine gown but Lesley Nicol, the actor who most recently played Mrs Patmore, Downton Abbey’s stroppy cook. I laughed out loud at this, and for the next hour had to keep telling myself that, no, she was not about to take a copper bowl and a whisk from her trunk, the better to show the “natives” how to make a decent sponge.
Mrs Patmore – sorry, I mean Mrs Beecham – is not a cook, or anything like one. She is grand lady who requires smelling salts at the sight both of a scorpion and of her baby grandson, and who seems also to be an opium addict on the side (Mrs Patmore’s only addiction was to gossip). Still, on this score, surely, she has come to the right place. Daniel will be able to keep her fully supplied, one imagines, for which reason it cannot be too long before she, too, is wearing py-jam-as and staring, glassy-eyed at a courtyard fountain as if it were running with the finest champagne.