Gurinder Chadha says teachers afraid to teach about British Empire

Bend It Like Beckham director says teachers are too afraid to teach children about the British Empire that inspired her new ITV drama that features Indian characters and Poldark-style topless scenes

  • Gurinder Chadha says Indian characters are nothing like The Jewel in the Crown
  • Reveals Indian characters’ lives and loves are as important as white counterparts
  • Admits she never imagined seeing Indians in period costumes on primetime TV 
  • Writer and director of ITV’s Beecham House hopes it will compete with Poldark

The writer and director of ITV’s new Sunday night drama Beecham House said teachers are too afraid to teach children about the British Empire.

Gurinder Chadha, who is best known for writing and directing hit 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham and The Viceroy’s House said she thought teachers avoided the topic as they were ‘frightened of telling the truth’ in multi-cultural classrooms.

Speaking to The Radio Times Ms Chadha said: ‘Most children in British schools aren’t even told now that there was an Empire, that the British ruled India – of course it’s wrong.’ 

Ms Chadha’s last project, Viceroy’s House, dealt with the end of the empire and partition in India – told from the point of view of the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten and his wife Lady Mountbatten.

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Gurinder Chadha (pictured) who is the director and writer of ITV’s Beecham House, says having Indian characters wearing period costumes on primetime TV is ‘flipping radical’

The director also revealed that she never imagined seeing Indian characters at the forefront of primetime British TV. 

Speaking to Radio Times, she reflected on how scenes featuring topless males could help Beecham House compete with Poldark. 

Get ready for an Indian summer: The cast of new ITV drama Beecham House, which starts in June and promises to spice up your Sunday nights. Pictured left-right: Bessie Carter as Violet, Lesley Nicol as Henrietta, Marc Warren as Samuel, Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika, Gregory Fitoussi as General Castillon, Tom Bateman as John Beecham, Dakota Blue Richards as Margaret, Goldy Notay as Bindu, Amer Chadha-Patel as Ram Lal, Trupti Khamkar as Maya, Leo Suter as Daniel, Shriya Pilgaonkar as Chanchal and Viveik Kalra as Baadal

The creative said: ‘The most exciting thing is simply having Indians in period costumes on primetime British TV – where their lives and loves are as important as their white counterparts. 

‘That’s a flipping radical thing. That’s something I’d never have imagined seeing when I was watching The Jewel in the Crown.’

And while she tried to steer away from a Poldark-inspired topless scene, it appears she eventually caved.

‘It’s always like, ‘Take your shirt off, come on, get them to take their shirt off,’ so we did resist some of that, but it has set the bar in terms of period dramas, I have to say,’ Gurinder admitted. 

Gurinder’s new drama Beecham House has all the richness and drama of India – and is based at a point of history – the end of the 18th century – that few of us know much about. 

The 59-year-old, who prides herself on having created the Bend it Like Beckham phrase, argues it’s wrong that British children aren’t taught the truth about the Empire. 

‘The relationship Britain has with India is strong, but we’re at a time now where we’re looking at history in a new way,’ she said. ‘People don’t necessarily have to take sides in this show, no one is wholly good or bad. The whole thing is complicated.’

Sultry: Set in 1795, as Britain and France were vying for supremacy on the subcontinent, the series centres on John Beecham (Tom Bateman) and his dysfunctional family. Bateman, pictured in the show in a Poldark-style topless scything scene within the first half hour

The six-part drama was filmed in India for six months, with additional scenes at Ealing Studios. Set in 1795, as Britain and France were vying for supremacy on the subcontinent, the series centres on John Beecham and his dysfunctional family.

John, played by Tom Bateman, who made his name in The Tunnel in 2013 before cementing it as Dr Jekyll in 2015’s Jekyll And Hyde and Rawdon Crawley in last year’s Vanity Fair, is a former soldier with the British East India Company who left because he was so appalled by its profiteering and exploitation, and now runs his own export business.

We meet him as he moves into a palatial home on the outskirts of Delhi, an area that’s under the influence of the French East India Company led by General Castillon, played by Gregory Fitoussi – the devilishly handsome window dresser Henri Leclair in Mr Selfridge. 

Gurinder (pictured) admits she was surprised by how sexy Beecham House is and that she’s unsure how audiences will react

The drama addresses the racism of the English residents and portrays the atrocities they committed, as one Englishman tries to do good regardless of the behaviour of other Europeans.

While the context for the drama is complex and challenging, the story still offers lightness in the form of love, humour – and even a topless scene in the first episode.

Gurinder admitted she’s unsure how audiences will respond to the steamy episodes: ‘I’m not comfortable seeing lots of sex on television and I will turn it off or fast forward it.

‘When I wrote Beecham House it was pretty chaste. But once I started filming, it was a shock for me how sexy and sultry it all is.

‘When I started shooting scenes with Tom and Leo and some of the female cast, the sexual chemistry between them was so potent that it became a very different show.’


Tom Bateman as John Beecham

Best known for: Murder on the Orient Express, Da Vinci’s Demons, Jekyll and Hyde

Leading man: Tom Bateman as John Beecham, who is disillusioned after working for the powerful East India Company. He goes on to earn his fortune by trading fairly

TV heartthrob: Bateman as Giuliano Medici in Da Vinci’s Demons, left, and in Jekyll and Hyde, right

Tom Bateman, 30, plays rugged ex-soldier John Beecham, who is disillusioned after working for the powerful and controlling East India Company. He goes onto earn his fortune by trading fairly with local craftsmen.

ITV said he is ‘determined to escape his previous life’ and is ‘haunted by his past’. John Beecham is also caring for a child named August, although her father and mother are not known. 

Lesley Nicol as Henrietta Beecham

Best known for: Downton Abbey

Heading upstairs: Lesley Nicol as matriarch Henrietta Beecham, centre in black, pictured with left-right: Baadal (Viveik Kalra), John Beecham (Tom Bateman) and Violet (Bessie Carter)

Fan favourite: Nicol as fierce cook Mrs Patmore, pictured right with Amy Nuttall as Ethel Parks

Lesley Nicol, 66, charmed fans as fierce cook Beryl Patmore in Downton Abbey – and now she’s back to take a more central role as Henrietta, mother of central character John Beecham.

Nicol told the Daily Express it was a ‘complete shock’ to land the role in the prime time drama.

‘I’m unusual casting for this, because I never get to go upstairs! It’s taken a long time and I say thank you to all the people who went, ‘I think she might be able to do it’.’

On the comparison to Downton Abbey, she added: ‘The only comparison I can see is it’s a house with servants.’

Dakota Blue Richards as Margaret Osborne

Best known for: Skins, Endeavour, the Golden Compass

Love interest: Dakota Blue Richards as Margaret Osborne, pictured with Bateman as Beecham

Star maker: Dakota Blue Richards became known to British audiences as timid and androgynous Franky Fitzgerald in star maker TV series Skins, pictured

Child star: Richards as Lyra in 2008 film The Golden Compass, left. Right, at a 2018 event

After making her debut in the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass opposite Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards became known to British audiences as timid and androgynous Franky Fitzgerald in star maker TV series Skins.

In Beecham House Richards, 24, plays the role of Margaret Osborne, who catches John Beecham’s eye while working as his neighbour’s daughter’s governess.

Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika

Best known for: Lion, Begum Jaan, Hawaizaada

Shrouded in mystery: Pallavi Sharda as Chandrika, a character about which little is known 

Bollywood beauty: Australian-born Sharda opposite Ranbir Kapoor in 2013 film Besharam

Australian actress Pallavi Sharda, 29, has built an international film career, with Australian and Bollywood film credits to her name.

The star also appeared in Oscar-nominated film Lion, starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel.

Little is known about the character of Chandrika but she is seen looking suspicious in one of the promotional shots.

Marc Warren as Samuel Parker

Best known for: Wanted, Band of Brothers

New life: British actor Marc Warren plays Samuel Parker, who leaves the East India Company

British actor Marc Warren plays Samuel Parker, who leaves the East India Company with John Beecham’s long-lost brother Daniel (Leo Suter) to join the family at Beecham House.

Warren, 52, has previously appeared in TV shows including Hustle and films including Wanted and Band of Brothers.

Bessie Carter as Violet

Best known for: Howards End, Les Miserables

Looking for love? Bessie Carter, left, as Violet, a friend of Henrietta Beecham’s. Her head appears to have been turned by John Beecham’s friend Samuel Parker (Marc Warren), right

With just a handful of film and TV credits under her belt, Carter, 25, could be set for a breakout role as Violet, a friend of matriarch Henrietta.

Though little is known about her character, promotional images suggest there could be a connection with John Beecham’s friend Samuel Parker (Marc Warren).

Leo Suter as Daniel Beecham

Best known for: Clique, Victoria

Building bridges: Leo Suter as John Beecham’s long-lost brother Daniel Beecham, right

Period drama pedigree: Leo Suter as Drummond in the hit ITV series Victoria starring Jenna Coleman

Daniel, John Beecham’s long-lost brother, arrives at Beecham House after leaving the East India Company.

A promotional image hints at a potential link between Daniel and nursemaid Chancal (Shriya Pilgaonkar).

It’s Downton Abbey meets Jewel In The Crown

‘You can tell an awful lot about a time through table manners,’ says Beecham House co-creator Shah Husain, who reveals there is a moment in the first episode that tells us as much about the social politics of early 19th-century India as a series of lectures.

We see the hero John Beecham entertaining his mother to dinner at his fine residence in Delhi. Local delicacies are served, which, much to his mother’s evident horror, Beecham consumes in the local style, using his hands. In that brief scene is writ large the trajectory of British India over the next century, the relentless manner in which the imperial order sought to impose its own social habits on a long-established civilisation.

‘It’s a subtle moment,’ says Husain, who describes herself as ‘etiquette adviser’ to the series. ‘Nothing is said but it simultaneously demonstrates that Beecham is sympathetic to Indian ways and shows how revolted many of the English were by them.’

In Beecham House, Bateman plays John Beecham (above), an English adventurer with a secretive past trying to make his way in the early 19th century, just before the Raj

When writer and director Gurinder Chadha approached her with an idea to make a ‘Downton Abbey in India’, Husain spent the next six months putting some flesh on that most basic of skeletons. Her plan was to set the series in the years before the Raj, when India had become a wild west frontier for greedy European adventurers.

‘I felt the whole era had more parallels with the modern world than you might think,’ says Husain. ‘It was all about massive conglomerates fighting each other for a larger share of the new world trade. In that turmoil, one or two preferred to fight fair.’

Not least the series’ hero. Husain based Beecham on Thomas Metcalfe, an ancestor of her English husband. Metcalfe was, she says, a different kind of Englishman in India. He harboured a genuine love for the country and was anxious to treat it fairly. Unlike the unscrupulous commercial imperialists of the East India Company. At one point in the early 19th century, accounting for a third of world trade, the company was making fortunes exploiting India. With its own private army, it imposed its rule over much of the country before being effectively nationalised in 1858, when its possessions and territories were absorbed into the Empire.

Husain felt one of the most revealing ways to demonstrate Beecham’s sympathy towards the locals on screen was in his attitude to his servants. Upholding employee rights was not high up the political agenda of the Raj. Others were less tolerant.

‘You can see that in the manner in which his mother treats his staff,’ says Husain. ‘She is immediately hectoring and bullying.’

Husain has also tried to get it right in presenting Indian royalty. ‘A princess, for instance, wouldn’t have had her feet touched. Yet you watch Western dramas about India and we are forever presented with people prostrating themselves and for some reason touching their feet. It’s nonsense. And there wouldn’t have been any of that walking backwards going ‘Salam’ you so often see in Raj movies. Things were way more informal.’

Not least when it came to eating dinner, and using hands instead of cutlery. 

Beecham House starts later this month on ITV. 

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