British Serial Drama

Jewel in the Crown is a fourteen-part serial produced by Granada Studios and first broadcast on British independent television in January 1984. A lavish prestige production, Jewel in the Crown received immediate critical acclaim going on to win several national and international awards and in the process confirming Britain's excellence in the field of television drama. As well as receiving critical attention the serial also proved popular with British audiences. The first run averaged 8 million viewers a week, a significant figure for a "quality" drama on British television.

Based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, four novels published between 1966 and 1975, the serial focuses on the final years of the British in India. Set against the backdrop of the second world war and using the rape of an English woman as its dramatic centre, Jewel in the Crown charts a moment of crisis and change in British national history.

The serial should be seen in the context of a cycle of film and television productions which emerged during the first half of the 1980s and which seemed to indicate Britain's growing preoccupation with India, Empire and a particular aspect of British cultural history. Notable examples from this cycle would include A Passage to India (1984) Heat and Dust (1982), and the television drama The Far Pavilions (1984). These fictions were produced during, and indeed reflected, a moment of crisis and change in British life: mass unemployment, the arrival of new social and class configurations tied to emerging political and economic trends all conspired to destabalise and recast notions of national and cultural identity in the early 1980s. While often critical of Britain's past, these fictions nevertheless permitted a nostalgic gaze back to a golden age, presenting a vision of Empire as something great and glorious. These fictions seemed to offer reassurance to the British public, as cultural fetish objects they helped negotiate and manage a moment of social and political upheaval.

If these fictions were ultimately reassuring for certain sections of the British public, then Jewel in the Crown has been seen by at least one commentator, Tana Wollen, to be the least nostalgic and most troubled text in the cycle. However this "trouble" may have less to do with the serial's overt politics and more to do with its form and style. Paul Scott's Raj Quartet are fairly unconventional novels and were not wholly suited to the demands of serial form. Their use of multiple point of view and their elliptical, collage-like narratives were not easily adapted to a form based round linear progression, continuity of action and character and the promise of eventual narrative resolution.

The television adaptation was necessarily a more conventional rendering of the story, the narrative now flattened out and the events subjected to a more chronological ordering. Nevertheless, Jewel in the Crown managed to hold on to some of the formal complexity of the novels by employing voice-overs, flashbacks and newsreel inserts, techniques which tend to arrest narrative development giving the serial a heavy, ponderous quality. The adaptation, and Scott's novels, lacked the kind of character development and continuity that we have come to expect from the television serial. By the third episode the serial's central character Daphne Manners is killed off and only one character spans the whole fourteen episodes. This is the evil Ronald Merrick who dies in episode thirteen and only appears in the final part through flashback. However Jewel in the Crown managed to maintain continuity through a series of echoes and motifs: images of fire, the repetition of certain actions and events and the passing down of the lace Christening gown all helped to provide the serial with a formal cohesion that seemed to be lacking at the level of character and plot development. All in all, Jewel in the Crown proved to be a challenging text and demanded from its audience an unusually high degree of commitment and perseverance.

Although Jewel in the Crown was broadcast in 1984, with a repeat screening the following year, by the late 1980s the serial still had a high public profile as it became embroiled in debates about television, quality and the future of British broadcasting. This debate followed legislation calling for the deregulation of the British airwaves which in turn kindled anxieties concerning the fate of public service and quality television. In this debate, as Charlotte Brunsdon has pointed out, Jewel in the Crown, along with Brideshead Revisited, came to represent the "acme of British quality". Elsewhere Jewel in the Crown was being held up as the epitome of excellence. In 1990 the serial was screened at the National Film Theatre as part of a season called "Good-by to all this". Here Jewel in the Crown was described as the "title everyone reaches for when asked for a definition of 'quality television'". Jewel in the Crown came to represent what was at stake in the deregulation of the British airwaves. It articulated fears over what could be lost in the transition from a regulated, public service tradition in broadcasting to a more commercial, market-led system. Increasingly Jewel in the Crown was coming to represent the golden days of pre-deregulation quality television.

This serial then, had originally emerged as part of a cycle of texts dealing with anxieties over national identity. At a moment of radical change in British life these texts may have offered us a nostalgic vision of a glorious past. By the late 1980s the serial was referring to a more immediate past and a cultural identity bound to a broadcasting tradition of public service and quality drama. In both cases Jewel in the Crown has been able to articulate and represent the anxieties and the sense of loss felt by sections of the British public who were faced with the decline of a particular idea of national and cultural identity.

-Peter McLuskie

The Jewel in the Crown
Photo courtesy of Goodman Associates


Daphne Manners............................Susan Wooldridge
Hari Kumar
........................................................Art Malik
Ronald Merrick
..................................Tim Piggot-Smith
Barbie Batchelor
...................................Peggy Ashcroft
Sophie Dixon
........................................Warren Clarke
Guy Perron
............................................Charles Dance

PROGRAMMING HISTORY   1 120-minute episode 13 60-minute episodes

9 January 1984-3 April 1984


Brandt, G. "Jewel in the Crown: The Literary Serial; Or the Art of Adaptation." In, Brandt, G., editor. British Television Drama in the 1980s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brunsdon, C. "Problems with Quality." Screen (London), Spring 1990.

Robinson, A. "The Jewel in the Crown." Sight & Sound (London), Winter 1983-84.

Rushdie, S. "Outside the Whale." American Film (Washington, D.C.), January-February 1985.

Wollen, T. "Over Our Shoulders: Nostalgic Screen Fictions for the 1980s." In, Corner, J., and S. Harvey, editors. Enterprise & Heritage; Cross Currents of National Culture. London: Routledge, 1991.


See also Adaptations; British Programming; Miniseries