This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th February 2015.
Indian Summers: Sunday, Channel 4
Reginald D. Hunter's Songs Of The South: Saturday, BBC Two
Thanks to a lifetime of constant disappointment, I admit I'm prone to making massive, unfair presumptions about things I haven't actually experienced for myself. That's why, before I'd even seen it, I rashly presumed that 1930s period piece Indian Summers would be a ponderous and starchy affair: a prissy Merchant/Ivory knock-off. Actually, it's rather engaging.
Hyped as Channel 4's most expensive ever drama, and scheduled up against JK Rowling's similarly class-focused The Casual Vacancy on BBC One, it can't afford to fail. On the evidence of its first two episodes – there are ten in total – it appears to be succeeding on its own intriguing, languid terms.
Granted, certain characters haven't quite clicked yet. Alice, the sister of smoothly chiselled Private Secretary Ralph, is presumably intended as the moral, tender heart of the series. So far this role has been defined by winsome glances and little else. And Dalal, who last week took a bullet during a botched assassination attempt on Ralph, feels rather limp for such a prominent character.
Ralph himself is more interesting, largely on account of his darker traits. A typical child of Empire in his patrician attitudes towards the Indian people he's been sent to govern – this week he was quick to dismiss Ghandi's peaceful nationalist cause as a terrorist movement – he nevertheless adores his adopted country. It would be all too easy to present these toodle-pip colonialists as outright villains. But the underlying political thrust of Indian Summers is more nuanced than that.
An effective note of intrigue was maintained throughout the episode when it transpired that Ralph had a prior relationship with his would-be assassin. Indian Summers is rather adept at teasing such mysteries.
Practically everyone in the show is nursing a secret of some sort. It remains to be seen whether their revelations are worth the wait, but I'm particularly intrigued by Julie Walters as the colourfully named Cynthia Coffin, a scheming, fag-smoking East End matriarch and charismatic hostess who appears to be ruling an entire subcontinent by pulling Ralph's strings. It's an interesting reversal of the class system back home, where a woman such as Cynthia would never be granted such authority. It's a ripe old role for Dame Julie, and she tackles it with enigmatic relish.
Production-wise, Indian Summers glistens with a sticky, inescapable heat. The chaste sex scenes may be gently torn from the pages of Mills & Boon, but the show isn't lacking in sun-kissed atmosphere. It's a promising saga.
The balminess continued in Reginald D. Hunter's Songs Of The South, a thoughtful three-part travelogue in which the droll African-American comic explores the origins of American popular music.
To a wonderful soundtrack of bluegrass and country, he began by travelling from Kentucky to Tennessee. The highlight was his detour into the uncomfortable realm of minstrelsy – white singers performing in blackface – where he encountered the argument that Stephen Foster's minstrel standards, which often sound offensive from a modern standpoint, were actually fairly liberal and progressive for the time.
Hunter gently dismissed this theory as a retrospective attempt to “lend dignity to a fiction created by a white man”, while concluding that minstrelsy is an important, albeit difficult, part of the American legacy and shouldn't be swept under the carpet.
An avuncular and sanguine guide, Hunter's almost poetic sincerity elevates this series beyond the bland triviality of most celebrity travelogues.