IceTV has a wonderful page which shows new releases. And that's how I found The jewel in the crown a fourteen part television production of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet of five books. It recently aired on 7 Two, and if you are lucky they might repeat it.
The film quality is just awful (apparently it was shot on 16mm film). The sound is barely better. But once you've got over that you are in for a treat.
The adaptation by Ken Taylor is outstanding. Scott's Quartet is complex and uncomfortable in subject and form. Taylor has straightened out the storyline into a easier linear form more suited to screen. As you would hope — but not expect given the complex book and production by commercial television — he has retained the story. Astonishingly most of the literary devices make it into the screenplay; snakes, fire and stones have layers of meaning. Unlike modern scripts there is no forewarning of terrifying moments to milk them for maximum effect. So they hit you like an unprepared and vulnerable.
The series is set in India in the closing days of British imperialism. Gandhi, Nehru, the Burma campaign of World War II, independence and partition are an essential part of the background. UK viewers of the mid-80s knew about the progress of these events and some quick reading of Wikipedia would help modern viewers with understanding some of the currents in the story.
The acting is superb where it matters, although not without stagey moments. But when a small tilt of the head indicates a major betrayal the actors ensure you don't miss the allusion. Tim Pigott-Smith has the most demanding role. He convincingly plays a repressed homosexual intelligence officer who hates without mercy and manipulates those around him for the joy of it. Even to write it makes it sound like the worst sort of intolerant cliche, but Pigot-Smith pulls it off, even making you feel sorry for the man at times. As for the other actors, they are all fine: the enterprising young woman is enterprising, the dashing young Sergeant is dashing (well, until his own skin is on the line), the power behind the throne is suitably scheming. The film made stars of Art Malik (Hari Kumar) and Charles Dance (Guy Perron), confirmed the skill of Tim Pigott-Smith (Ronald Merrick) and Geraldine James (Sarah Layton), and gave wonderful roles to Peggy Ashcroft (‘Barbie’ Batchelor) and Eric Porter (Dmitri Bronowsky). The fame of the series led to work for many of its actors, so you often see a younger edition of a familiar face.
The scenery is to die for. The film benefits hugely from being shot at the right moment. If you tried to make this film today you wouldn't be able to find the war surplus items or the long views from the hill stations. They could be manufactured, but then everything would look too perfect. It's a strength of the film that the places look lived in and are just starting to become run down during the last decades of the Raj.
If this appears on television again, then set the PVR.