Gurinder Chadha: 'British schoolchildren aren't even told there was an Empire'

Anita Singh
Gurinder Chadha  - AFP

British children are no longer taught about Empire because well-meaning educationalists are “frightened” of discussing the subject, Gurinder Chadha has suggested.

The British-Indian director of Bend It Like Beckham was talking ahead of the launch of her new ITV series, Beecham House, which is set in 18th century India and follows the exploits of a former officer with the East India Company.

Chadha’s last project, Viceroy’s House, explored Partition and the end of Empire through the eyes of Lord and Lady Mountbatten. But she worries that the history is unknown to schoolchildren today.

“Most children in British schools aren’t even told now that there was an Empire, that the British ruled India,” she told Radio Times. “Of course, it’s wrong.”

Asked if that was because educationalists want to avoid giving offence in multicultural classrooms, Chadha replied: “Yes, they’re frightened of telling the truth.”

Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville as the Mountbattens in Viceroy's House Credit: Kerry Monteen

Beecham House provides a benevolent view of the men of the East India Company, with the French portrayed as the villains of the era as they vied for control of the country’s trade.

Chadha, who wrote and directed the drama, explained: “History is how you interpret it. I’m sure there will be historians who will take issue because what I’ve made is a drama, not a documentary. If I wanted to be 100 per cent accurate, I’d make a factual series for the History channel.

“This is Sunday night drama. You can’t lie, but you can look at what’s been presented in the past and offer an alternative interpretation.”

She added: “It’s an adventure and a love story. But - hopefully - if you’re open to it, a story about today. Because John is an immigrant, looking for a better life. And it’s about nationhood, so it has obvious connections with now.

“The most exciting thing is simply having Indians in period costumes on primetime British TV - where their lives and loves are as important as their white counterparts. That’s a flipping radical thing. That’s something I’d never have imagined seeing when I was watching The Jewel in the Crown.”

Beecham House, which begins on Sunday, is set in 18th century India Credit: Nicky Johnston/ITV

In an effort to turn her leading actors into screen heart-throbs, Chadha encouraged Tom Bateman and Leo Suter (who play brothers John and Daniel Beecham) to go shirtless. “So we’re competing with Poldark!” she said, adding that she had reframed one shot after “realising, when looking down the lens, how ripped one of the actors’ bodies was when he took his shirt off”.

The series has also been dubbed “the Delhi Downton” because it looks at the lives of characters above and below stairs. Much of the series was shot on location in Rajasthan and Chadha said one of her biggest problems was finding horses that could perform.

She said: “In Britain, we have period-trained horses that do things like pulling carriages. In India, horses are polo ponies. So, in 99 per cent of scenes where there are horses and carriages, the horses wouldn’t pull anything.

“If we do another season, we need to either send the horses to drama school, or put some on the boat from the UK.”