'Jewel in the Crown': the Raj recounted
Sound the trumpets, strum the sitars. Not since Sabu, the elephant boy, rode his lumbering steed onto the silver screens of the Western world has there been an entertainment more triumphantly heralded than the new Masterpiece Theatre series The Jewel in the Crown (PBS, premiering Sunday, Dec. 16, 9-11 p.m., and for 13 Sundays thereafter, 9-10 p.m.).
Based upon Paul Scott's four-novel epic, known under the umbrella title of ''The Raj Quartet,'' this 14-part, 15-hour series recounts the days of the Raj when colonial India was considered the jewel in the Empire's crown. It arrives in America flashing an International Emmy and extravagant praise from just about every British critic. For nostalgic Britons and Anglophiles it holds the same kind of fascination that ''Gone With the Wind'' held for Confederate buffs. But the rest of the world may react as I: It's good but not quite as good as its advance notices.
''The Jewel'' is just a jolly well-acted, superbly produced, exotic soap opera. As a matter of record, the recent HBO production, ''The Far Pavilions,'' although it had few literary pretensions, was picturesque enough to have sated many cabled Americans' appetite for Indian relish.
The focus of the miniseries is the last five years of the rule, 1942-1947, when the class-conscious order which the British had established was falling apart as independence drew near. Mr. Scott told his stories well - he zoomed in on individuals, pinned them to the landscape with his microscopic eye, then slowly pulled back to reveal his subjects struggling uneasily in their environment. Throughout the series as well as the novel, there are fascinating intimate stories of people trying to maintain their equilibrium in a tilting society. In most cases they are meant to be symbols - when an English woman is raped by an Indian, her rape is obviously meant to parallel - although in reverse - the rape of India by the British.
''The Jewel'' is a glorified bar of soap, wrapped in spangles and sequins, decorated with bangles and saffron-dyed silks. It is continuing daytime drama lifted to universality. Although produced by Granada Television, the same organization that produced ''Brideshead Revisited,'' this miniseries substitutes contemporary awareness for impressionist romanticism. Instead of the ''Brideshead'' focus on one class in British society, ''Jewel'' attempts to survey a whole range of British expatriate classes caught in the Indian quagmire - the military, the civil servants, the diplomatic corps, the pensioners, the public schoolers, and the private schoolers. While ''Brideshead'' featured breathtaking cinematography, ''Jewel'' seems to sneer insolently at the exotic landscapes as it too often limits itself to the claustrophobic interiors which were the playing fields of human relationships among the gameplayers of the Raj.
There's something for everybody in ''Jewel'' - true love, deep friendship, wholesome family life, as well as offbeat relationships. You name it and Scott provided some example of it in his scenario. At the same time, as he follows several characters through the intricacies of complex human relationships, he allows the world outside to play its part in their direction. As in most sprawling miniseries, ''The Jewel'' takes a bit of concentration at the start - the premiere runs for two hours in an effort to involve you so deeply in the stories that you will come back for the subsequent weeks.
A cast of marvelous actors brings the characters to life - especially good are Tim Pigott-Smith as Ronald Merrick, Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners, Geraldine James as Sarah Layton, and Peggy Ashcroft as Barbie Batchelor. But just about everybody in the cast plays his or her part impeccably, so it is difficult to single anybody out for special praise.
One note of interest: ''Staying On,'' a Granada production also based on a story in Scott's Raj Quartet, aired on American television a few years ago. It was a lovely film with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, depicting two older people who stayed on in India when the Raj was over. It was aired again in England last year as a coda after the series was finished. I urge Masterpiece Theatre to do the same here.