Sunday, March 29, 2009

"The Jewel in the Crown"

Just finished watching the last episode of "The Jewel in the Crown," the fourteen-part serial produced by Granada Studios and first broadcast on British independent TV in January 1984. Based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, published between 1966 and 1975, the serial focuses on the last days of British rule in India. Peter McLuskie gives here the interesting context of the serial's broadcast and subsequent role in the debate over the deregulation of television in the late 1980's. 

Following a commentator on the serial, McLuskie describes "The Jewel in the Crown" as the least nostalgic and most troubled of the cycle of productions in the early '80's that looked back to the glories of the British Raj. The trouble, writes McLuskie, "may have less to do with the serial's overt politics and more to do with its form and style." This is an interesting statement, but it is also potentially a misleading one, for it implies that style is separable from its political content. 

The serial's use of voiceovers, flashbacks and newsreel inserts does unsettle the narrative arc, much as Paul Scott's novels are supposedly freighted with the use of multiple perspectives and collage-like narratives. My instinct, however, is to relate these modernist techniques to the serial's political content, specifically, the outsider figure of the homosexual, a trope that McLuskie makes no mention at all. A surprising neglect since the tortured figure at the heart of the serial, the only character who spans all fourteen episodes, is that of the villain and closeted homosexual Ronald Merrick. 

Merrick, played by Tim Piggott-Smith, is marked as an outsider not only by his sexuality, but also by his working class background and non-public school education. Like many outsiders, he both despises upper class privileges and yearns for them. As a police inspector and later a military intelligence officer, he performs the Empire's dirty work effectively because his belief in white supremacy has none of the troubled ambiguity that upperclassmen like Guy Perron (played by Charles Dance) and Sarah Layton (Susan Wooldridge) allow themselves to feel. To the extent the serial unsettles the narrative arc, it calls into question, exposes the underbelly of, the complacent story that Empire tells itself. 

If to pay attention to the serial's conscious design is to give credit to its political intentions, it is nonetheless important to see what makes this political message palatable to the eight million viewers who followed the weekly serial when it was first broadcast. To the more progressive section of the audience, the message bore the familiar cast of a well-known moral: power corrupts.

To both this segment of viewers, and the more general audience, it was also reassuring to see evil--focused in the person of the homosexual--punished. Merrick is not merely killed by Indian nationalists, he is cut up gruesomely in his bedroom. His Sapphic counterpart, Barbie Batchelor (played by Peggy Ashcroft), an elderly missionary and so also a social outsider, dies alone in a mental asylum. On the other hand, Guy Perron and Sarah Layton, the far greater beneficiaries of Empire, their heterosexuality established by their simmering romance, emerge from the throes of Indian independence not only unscathed, but with their virtue intact. 

Peggy Ashcroft and Tim Piggott-Smith
Photo from Goodman Associates


glbynum said...

Jee Leong,
I greatly apprecite your comments on this series, and your focus on the way it punishes homosexuals & places the gay male in the role of the super-evil character. (Another film that does this is "The Time Machine," a remake of an earlier film; the quasi-gay, or at least queeny, evil character is played by Jeremy Irons in what I thought was a tedious performance. The evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books (not the movies) is also pretty queeny; he talks like a drag queen.) I saw the "Jewel in the Crown" series when it was on TV in the 80's & really got into it, but didn't think through the punishing-homosexuals aspect of it. I really appreciate your doing that - you've helped me make sense of it better for myself.
I am so SICK TO DEATH of evil gay anti-hero characters. Not only are they offensive to me politically and personally as a gay man; they also are stupid cheap excuses for artistic creations.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Merrick is an interestingly complex character in the serial. Paul Scott, his creator, was an outsider too--bisexual, closeted, officer in India. The biographical roots of Merrick are intriguing.

Eshuneutics said...

A surprising and interesting turn this. 1984 was a difficult time in the UK. (Biographically, yes, this would be before your time in the UK). Thatcherism, after the Falklands, had generated real imperialistic concerns. "The Jewel in the Crown" appeared as a nostalgic drama, looking back to the days of British imperialism. Merrick is a disturbing presence in the series, not just because he is a homosexual, but because he is a sadistic homosexual. He is doubly transgressive equating male-to-male desire with pain. I think you have the tone exactly right: the fall of Merrick is placed against the exultation of the heterosexual romance. The press, at the time, swooned all over the handsome Charles Dance. Given Thatcher's hatred of the gay agenda, her appearance as the new Britannia of Victorian morals and the family, Merrick offered a terrifying and repressive stereotype. I wonder if the series would appear the same now?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Yes, Merrick is a sadistic homosexual. Thanks for adding that. His whipping of Hari Kumar (played by Art Malik) for sadistic pleasure--near the serial's beginning--is "counterbalanced" by good Guy's visit to Hari at the end of the serial, as if British fair play checks to see if the abused Indian is okay.

glbynum said...

In response to the second comment above - yes, that is interesting about Paul Scott & the biographical roots of Merrick. I don't think I'd have wanted to date Paul Scott, if he hated himself and other people as much as the Merrick character seems to suggest.