Those palaces! Those costumes! Those elephants! You won’t find a more gorgeous series all summer than this sumptuous Masterpiece romantic melodrama (made available earlier this year to PBS Passport members) set in late-1700s India, before the British ruled the subcontinent.
The Brits, and especially the militarized East India Company, are seen as a threat in remote Delhi, where they’re trying to preserve an endangered way of ancient life. Which is why English trader John Beecham is greeted with suspicion, despite having renounced and fled his former employer, when he moves into a grand estate. Cutting a dashing, pre-Indiana Jones figure in his fedora and flowing duster, Tom Bateman is handsome but stiff as the impossibly noble Beecham, a man of mystery and unassailable dignity.
It might help put everyone’s mind at ease if John would only reveal the origins of his mixed-race infant son, but that’s a tragedy for another time (backstory exposition alert in Episode 4 of 6). Beecham House is a beautifully shot, traditionally told historical soap about cross-cultural intrigues. It picks up steam when John’s life, and that of his loyal but gossipy staff, is upended after his disapproving mother (Downton Abbey‘s Lesley Nicol) arrives from London with a gold-digging companion (Bessie Carter) and a disgraced former colleague (Marc Warren). They’re soon followed by John’s rogue soldier brother, Daniel (Leo Suter), an incorrigible flirt who helps make Beecham House a very full and busy house.
While his mother kvetches about the heat and local customs and food, even giving the servants British names (which rightly rankles John with her appropriating racism), our hero risks the enmity of a French captain and the allegiance of the local emperor as he works to secure a necessary and lucrative trading license. Plots, schemes and double-crosses surround John on all sides, and yet it’s hard to argue when his cavalier brother describes him as “the dullest man in Delhi.” Thankfully, an English rose of a governess next door (Dakota Blue Richards) disagrees, setting up even more messy triangles.
A word of caution: As with Jane Austen’s Sanditon earlier this year, British network ITV canceled Beecham House after one season, so if you want a happy ending, stop watching several minutes before the end — the Taj Mahal is your cue — to avoid an ill-advised cliffhanger.
Beecham House, Series Premiere, Sunday, June 14, 10/9c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)
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