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Beautiful 'Beecham House' Arrives on PBS
June 14, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Most period dramas set in India dwell at least in part on the suffocating effects of British colonial rule.

Beecham House, which has its broadcast premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), to a certain extent, flips that scenario.

The lushly filmed six-episode drama, seen here as part of the PBS Masterpiece series, takes us back to 1795, when India maintained a tenuous autonomy while Britain and France were jostling over who should control its riches.

In Delhi, where Beecham House is set, France momentarily has the upper hand.

French General Benoit Castillon (Grégory Fitoussi) has the ear of Delhi’s Indian ruler, so when our British hero, John Beecham (Tom Bateman, top), asks for a trading license, Castillon is confident he can get the request blocked.

France’s fear, and India’s, is that Beecham operates as a front for the East India Company, the notorious British outfit that got rich by plundering, among other things, India’s resources.

Beecham worked at one time for the company. He has since quit, denouncing its greed, and struck out on his own, with a promise of trading Indian goods fairly.

But to do that, he needs the emperor to grant him the trading license, without which he can’t legally swap a bowl of basmati rice.

If most new businesses fail for lack of sufficient startup capital, Beecham doesn’t seem to have that concern. As the show opens, he’s moving into a Delhi palace maintained by dozens of servants that makes the Last Exotic Marigold Hotel look like a kiosk.

We don’t know exactly how he got the palace, or the money. We also don’t know the story behind an infant he brings with him. Beecham House clearly intends to fill us in on these and other facts one at a time, keeping its own pace.

By the end of the first episode we do meet Beecham’s mother, Henrietta (Lesley Nicol), who has traveled from Britain seemingly to complain about the heat and the food. And pretty much everything else.

She does have one positive agenda item, which is getting John interested in Violet Woodhouse (Bessie Carter, top), the daughter of an old English friend.

Beecham House also plants at least three other English people in 18th century Delhi: Samuel Parker (Marc Warren), an old pal of John’s who has also left the East India Company; Margaret Osborne (Dakota Blue Richards), an adventuress working as a valued governess; and Daniel Beecham (Leo Suter), John’s fun-loving brother who is currently recuperating from a gunshot wound suffered in service of, yes, the East India Company.

The Brits aren’t exactly the “upstairs” contingent of Beecham House, since they have varying degrees of success and power. But most of the Indian natives definitely comprise a downstairs.

The leader is Begum Samru (Lara Dutta), who seems to be the Indian equivalent of the butler. He’s unfailingly polite and deferential and like the other household staff members, he sees more than he lets on.

He also sets his eye on a girl. Refreshingly for an 18th century story, the women here have some power and some will to exercise it. So a number of subplots weave themselves into the John Beecham mystery and quest.

Beecham House has the lavish visuals we expect from Masterpiece, as well as the deliberately paced storytelling and mannered presentation. Hard-core PBS viewers may have seen it already, as it aired back in March on PBS’s Passport service, but right now it’s a pleasant addition to the broadcast lineup.

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