The British East India Company extended its power through India from 1757 to 1858, after which the British crown assumed rule from 1858 to 1947. Creator-director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) has set her 6-episode British-Indian drama Beecham House in the middle period of the Company’s growing dominance, around 1795. “It was a time when India was literally up for grabs. It was the end of the Mogul Empire and the British had a strong presence but only really as a trading company, because they were only interested in business. France also had a presence, and Napoleon had an interest in India. The maharajas were very conscious that the Mogul Empire was beginning to wane,” says Gurinder.

She adds, “What really fascinated me was the mechanics of how India became part of the Empire. And in that, what became very clear was that it really was a battle between the British and the French… but the problem was, in 1795, of course the French Revolution was happening in France, and so suddenly there were French armies and French generals in India, but no government, and so a lot of them became mercenaries to work for the Maharajas who were also standing by to take power – because it was the end of the Mughal Empire as well. This is a story about what happens in international commerce, and when cultures come together, when cultures meet.” But that’s just the when. It’s the who that is most important in this story…

A full house

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John Beecham (Tom Bateman, Vanity Fair’s Rawdon)

The series follows rich, mysterious ex-East India Company soldier John Beecham in his attempts to establish a home in Delhi. He buys a grand house in the city, and starts setting himself up as an independent trader who’s more of the Fair Trade persuasion than the exploitative East India Company. But a soldier doesn’t become that rich without some dirty deeds along the way, and it won’t be long before the veneer of respectability begins to crack at Beecham House. “He’s inherently a good man who’s trying to do the right thing, but he’s been through the wars. He left the East India Company because he didn’t agree with the way they did things which, at the time, was very bold. He knows exactly what the consequences could be of his actions but he goes ahead anyway,” says Tom.


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Chanchal (Bollywood actress Shriya Pilgaonkar) 

The household servants are the first to start whispering when they see John’s son August, and rumours start flying that the child’s beautiful nursemaid Chanchal is really John’s secret wife and the child’s mother. Innocent Chanchal is full of the spirit of adventure, and determined to do a good job… and John isn’t the Beecham boy who catches her fancy. “She is the nursemaid for the baby, and everyone else comes second, in her mind. She’s quite uninhibited considering when Beecham House is set. She doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. I like that she is flirty! Gurinder describes her as ‘saucy’, which is my favourite new word. She has a lot of layers,” reveal Shriya.


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Miss Osborne (Dakota Blue Richards, Lyra in The Golden Compass)

Governess Miss Margaret Osbourne, who works for one of John’s Indian neighbours, connects instantly with John before his family arrives. He finds her to be a taste of home away from home. “She has a real sweetness and an openness to her. She tries to see the best in people even when they’re quite horrible to her. She’s been abandoned by her brother in India, and there’s a mention of a fiancé at one point. She’s obviously been mistreated in the past, and she’s very adamant she won’t be mistreated again,” says Dakota.


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Henrietta Beecham (Lesley Nicol, Downton Abbey cook Miss Patmore) 

John’s overbearing, strongminded mother Henrietta comes to Delhi determined to see her son safely married before he falls prey to local temptations (whoops, possibly too late there). “On the face of it, she’s a respectable, god-fearing, upper middle-class woman, very conservative,” says Lesley. “She’s not easy to be around because the whole experience has thrown her so much. Suddenly she is in a household with dozens of (unknown) servants, the food’s all wrong, she gets bitten by mosquitos, she will not wear anything cooler even though it’s baking hot…” Spare a thought for those poor servants who’re about to have to learn to massacre the meat and veg to English tastes.


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Daniel Beecham (Leo Sutter, Edward Drummond in Victoria) 

John’s handsome, slutty younger brother, Daniel – a soldier in the East India Company – is the kind of charming rogue who has to be dragged by the ear from the nearest brothel or pub. Unlike John, he has no qualms about exploiting the locals, and no intention of paying the consequences. “He has enjoyed being a cad, and revelling in the sort of lawless nature of the East India Company at that time,” says Leo. Despite the fact that they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, Daniel believes that John owes him something, and bears quite a lot of resentment toward him because of that.


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Violet Woodhouse (Bessie Carter, Evie in Howard’s End)

Scheming Violet has come out to India all the way from Britain at Henrietta’s invitation. She has her eye set on becoming the lady of Beecham House. “The only goal for Violet, as it would have been for all young women at that time, was to be married. She’s clearly got fire and courage to have gone on that journey, and she’s loyal to Mrs. Beecham. She’s just a product of the society she has grown up in – she sings at the piano, and she cares about material things and getting married because that’s what is expected of her. It’s not her fault,” says Bessie. Unfortunately, Violet comes off as a bit of a stick in the mud – like Henrietta, she’s inclined to reject all things Indian, which won’t endear her to John.


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Chandrika (Australian actress Pallavi Sharda)

Chanrika sets a cat among the pigeons when she arrives at Beecham House unannounced and acting every bit as mysterious as John does while steamrollering over his family’s objections. “People really don’t like her when she first arrives because she exudes authority and takes ownership of Beecham House. She’s there for one reason only, and that’s to fulfil a duty that she believes very strongly in. The politics of the house, as far as she’s concerned, are beneath her,” says Pallavi. “Her father is a powerful man, and she has a connection to John Beecham, so she’s quite entitled, but she always feels confident to voice her opinion and you don’t really expect that so much for women in that period.”


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Benoît Castillon (Grégory Fitoussi, the swoonworthy Henri from Mr Selfridge)

French mercenary General Castillon serves Emperor Shah Alam (played by Roshan Seth, Aarfin’s dad Darius in Indian Summers) and he’s on a bit of a hair trigger. “He’s a man of power, he’s been in three wars and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He has a huge ego, and he wants to be respected, but at the same time he has a lot of frustrations and he has a temper,” warns Grégory. He believes firmly that John is an undercover agent for the East India Company, looking to extend their reach even further. “He’s convinced he has to protect the Emperor from John Beecham. At the time, the English were trying to get lots more in-roads into India, so that’s why he’s suspicious. They didn’t really know who was friend and who was enemy. So, my character is a little bit paranoid.”


Deli Downton

The stage is set for plenty of upstairs-downstairs drama at Beecham House. “A couple of years ago, Paul [Mayeda Berges, Gurinder’s husband and co-writer] and I were writing this movie, Viceroy’s House, which was set during the end of the British Empire. With a movie, you have to wait for ages for anything to happen, so while we were waiting, I said to Paul, ‘All this research we’ve done, we could write a TV series’, and that’s where the idea originally came from,” says Gurinder. “Downton Abbey was very popular at the time, and I had always loved Upstairs Downstairs, so I thought I’d like to do my own version of one of those shows with a twist.”

Watch Beecham House S1 from Thursday, 13 August on M-Net (DStv 101) at 22:00 or on Catch Up.


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