TV blog: Beecham House

Benjie Goodhart / 20 June 2019

A lavish new Sunday night drama takes us to 18th-Century India. Plus, the best of the rest of the week’s TV.

Beecham House, Sunday 23rd June, 9pm, ITV

India. A Westerner walks down a dusty path and hears a commotion. He investigates, and spots a man in a bejewelled turban being violently robbed by a bandit, who is about to kill him. So the Westerner shoots and bandit, and introduces himself to Mr Jewelled Turban. His name is John Beecham. He’s a good-looking fellow, with a baggy shirt and a beard They’re two-a-penny in India these days. But John Beecham isn’t on a gap year, and it isn’t these days – it’s the late 18th century. And – whoops – John Beecham has just been shot in the chest.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out a couple of things here: Firstly, this all happens in the opening minute of the programme, so don’t be all upset about spoilers. Secondly, John Beecham’s not dead. You can tell that because he’s called Beecham, and the show is all about the Beechams. Also, because he’s exceptionally handsome. You don’t go casting exceptionally handsome men in roles where they die after 45 seconds. There would be uproar. People like me, you could feed slowly into a blender before the opening credits, and no-on would bat an eyelid. Apart from me, obviously. But John Beecham? He’s here for the long haul.

Indeed, he’s already been the subject of feverish tabloid excitement about the state of his abs. He’s more Poldark than Poldark himself, if you can overlook the fact that there are more elephants here than in Cornwall. The ‘he’ in question is Tom Bateman, and he is both annoyingly handsome and annoyingly good in this role.

Three years later. A huge house – or small palace, take your pick – in Delhi is being made ready for the arrival of a mysterious new master. There is feverish excitement. Nobody knows who the new master is. Apart from us, obviously. It’s going to be handsome John Beecham. And so it proves. Only it turns out he has a baby with him. There is panic – the staff have only prepared one bedroom. What a terrible dilemma. If only there was a way for about 45 employees to find space and make up a bed for an infant in a 100-room house.

There’s another shock in store: John Beecham speaks to them in Hindi. And, despite looking like a young Indiana Jones (long coat, broad hat, stubble, tough) he is sensitive and respectful in his dealings with all the staff. Of course he is!! If our hero behaved as the Brits really carried on in India, we’d have a gluttonous, murderous racist as our Sunday night hero. We’ll take the sanitised version. Thanks all the same.

And it turns out John Beecham really is very sanitised. He loves India. Positively comes over all misty-eyed and swoony when he talks about it. He’s left the East India Company because he doesn’t like their crude and unfair trade practice. He wants India to be self-ruled and prosperous, like absolutely no Brits felt 200 years ago. He’s also gratifyingly Bohemian; he likes art, and jewellery, and he’s had a baby with – pass the smelling salts – a local lady (who, conveniently for the plot’s love story, seems to not be around). He also likes doing the physical labour – no effete Raj snob, our John – which gives him the occasional excuse to get all sweaty and rip off his shirt.

Anyway, all of this happens pretty quickly. The rest of the programme features him meeting everyone from unscrupulous mercenaries to wealthy neighbours, comely governesses to old business partners. It all trots along at a decent lick, and there’s already plenty of intrigue and excitement. But what is really impressive here is the scale of the production. It’s absolutely stunning. There are palaces, markets, huge casts of extras, even elephants. Beecham House itself looks like a smaller version of the Alhambra, complete with marbled paths, fountains and heavenly gardens. The whole thing’s a visual feast – and that’s not even including the abs.

Life of Pies, Monday 24th June, 7:30pm, BBC One

There’s a fairly thin selection of programmes available to preview this week. I could have gone for the BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury, but neither of us would have found it an edifying experience, a middle-aged man pretending to know about drum’n’bass or grunge or whatever. There are two programmes presented by Piers Morgan on ITV, one where he meets a psychopath and one where he meets Lord Sugar. But why would I do that to myself? I could have written about BBC Two’s Windrush documentary, but it’s raining outside and life is depressing enough, and in this eternally drab and grey summer I felt like we could all do with a lift.

And nothing gives a lift quite like a pie, am I right? You can keep your positive outlooks and self-help gurus, if I want cheering up, give me something – anything – encased in pastry, and I’m pretty much guaranteed to be right as rain. This puts me in mind of our ‘nurse’ at school, who was firmly of the belief that a cup of tea could cure anything. You could literally go to her with a limb hanging off by a thin strand of skin and she’d pop the kettle on and see how you were after a milk-and-two-sugars. Well, as she was with tea, so I am with pies. There’s pretty much nothing a pie won’t make better.

Discover our tempting pie recipes

As such, this half-hour documentary, featuring a look at the annual British pie awards, was just what the doctor ordered. Every year, the awards take place in Melton Mowbray, the world’s Pork Pie capital, and are fiercely contested by businesses, bakeries and butchers up and down the country. As one judge puts it: “Electing a Pope has nothing on this.” 

As a nation, we spend £1.2 billion annually on pies, and I’m only responsible for around 2-3% of that. They’ve been making pork pies in Melton Mowbray for over 200 years. As one local pie-shop owner explains: “When in Melton, it’d be rude not to go home without a pork pie.” I think he may have meant the exact opposite of what he said, but you get the idea.

This gentle, wry documentary looks at some of the contestants as they gear up for their moment in the spotlight. There’s Tom Deakin, a butcher from Derbyshire, who is as sturdy and ruddy-faced as a butcher in a children’s book. He’s also a farmer, and there’s a rather unsettling sequence where we watch him choose the specimen for his lamb pie, from a selection of candidates gambolling about in a field. I’m not sure I needed that level of detail.

Then there’s enthusiastic Zainab Bilal from Blackburn, who has managed to start her own small business making pies in spite of being a science teacher and mother of five. Perhaps we should get her in to sort Brexit?! Still, she can’t do everything – her jokes are absolutely shocking! (I know, I know, glass houses etc). And there’s last year’s overall winner, Turner’s Pies of Bognor Regis. No team has ever won the grand prize two-years-running, so the pressure is on.

This is a glorious slice of British eccentricity at its best. In a hectic modern world where one apocalypse or another seems to be right around the corner, to retire into the comforting embrace of pastry and filling, vicars and vegans, is an oasis of simple pleasure.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 22nd June

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, 9:35pm, ITV: Dilemma time: Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan have a long-running feud, which could make this interesting. But, on the other hand, it would involve having to watch Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan. For an hour.

Sunday 23rd June

Trevor McDonald’s Indian Train Adventure 1/2, 8pm, ITV: To get viewers in an Asian frame of mind before Beecham House, McDonald boards the opulent Maharajas Express for an eight-day tour of India, witnessing its riches as well as its terrible poverty.

Monday 24th June

The £1 Houses: Britain’s Cheapest Street, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Return of the series following a revolutionary scheme in Liverpool whereby people can buy derelict houses for £1 provided they have the means to renovate them.

Tuesday 25th June

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, 9pm, BBC Two: Historian David Olusoga unearths previously unseen government files that suggest that the Windrush scandal has been 70 years in the making.

Wednesday 26th June

The Trans Woman Athlete Dispute with Martina Navratilova, 9pm, BBC One: Ahead of Wimbledon, Martina opens the Pandora’s Box on one of the most contentious issues of today, meeting trans women, scientists and sporting officials in a bid to get a handle on this complex ethical issue.

Thursday 27th June

The Sheriffs Are Coming 1/4, 8pm, BBC One: New series following the work of High Court Enforcement Officers as they try to retrieve money owed to successful claimants. All sounds a bit Channel 5.

Psychopath with Piers Morgan, 9pm, ITV: In this one-off doc, Morgan meets Paris Bennett, a psychopath who murdered his 4-year-old sister when he was just 13. ITV’s insatiable fascination with lurid, gruesome crimes continues unabated.

Friday 28th June

Glastonbury 2019, 7:30pm, BBC Two: The BBC kicks off three days of coverage from the festival. Best watched from the comfort of an armchair, with a chilled drink, and the knowledge that you have running water nearby and a bed that isn’t 65% mud.

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