Indian Summers: Julie Walters interview

Cynthia (Julia Walters)
Cynthia (Julia Walters)

It’s the summer of 1932. India dreams of independence, but the British are clinging to power. In the foothills of the Himalayas stands Simla; a little England where the British power-brokers of this nation are posted to govern during the warmer months.

Set against the sweeping grandeur of the Himalayas and tea plantations of Northern India, Indian Summers tells the rich and explosive story of the decline of the British Empire and the birth of modern India. Revealing a tangled web of passions, rivalries and clashes that define the lives of those brought together in the shadow of the mountains, this is a summer which will change everything.

We spoke to one of its stars, Julie Walters. . .

What was the attraction of Indian Summers?

“I read the scripts and thought, this is seriously interesting. I loved Cynthia and I was intrigued by her relationship with this young man, Ralph [Whelan, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes]. And they had Anand Tucker to direct… The whole thing was very attractive.”

How much did you know about the Raj before taking on the role of Cynthia?

“Not a lot. There was The Jewel in the Crown and Gandhi, but I didn’t know anything about the real lives, especially working class folk being out there. In my head, things about the Raj had been about upper class people ruling over the Indians. I spoke to [series creator] Paul Rutman about it, and he said that just wasn’t true. He sent me a couple of books, Plain Tales of the Raj and Women of the Raj, which were very illuminating. The majority of people out there were ordinary people, because it offered them a good life – the money was better out there.”

What do you think of Cynthia?

“To get a part like Cynthia is heaven at my age. She’s a Machiavellian personality, which I found really interesting: her morals are based on her practical needs rather than right and wrong. She does things that aren’t right but utterly believes they are. She knows everybody’s secrets. And I love the entertainer side of her. She’s great fun, as well as having this darker side.”

How does a working class girl come to be a doyenne of the social scene?

“Paul and I worked out that she was an East End girl who would have gone out to India at about 20 years of age with her young husband, a soldier in the British army. She would have worked for Ralph’s parents and looked after him and his sister when they were little. Then they got into breeding horses, which gave them some social standing, and she would have worked at the club, probably as a barmaid, until he retired and they came to run it.”

Her destiny seems heavily entwined with Ralph’s. Is it fair to say her future depends on his success?

Yes, he’s the only child she’s ever had, in a sense. He probably had more contact with her than with his mother. If he’s successful, it reflects on her, but she wants it for him as well. She does love him and he loves her. She’s taken care of problems he’s encountered on his rise.”

Her attitudes towards some of the Indian characters will be pretty shocking for modern audiences. Were those scenes hard to play?

“No, because I don’t have those feelings but they were absolutely prevalent in that period. It’s about her keeping her position of power, which depends on British rule: that ignorance and arrogance that “we’re better than them” was commonplace. The racism grew the more power the British had out there – at the beginning, they embraced Indian culture. Cynthia adores her servant, Kaiser, but their roles are very carefully defined – they don’t cross any boundaries. If anything happened to him, she’d be devastated.”

Is it more fun playing a character who’s a bit of a monster at times?

“Definitely. It’s not a side we want to acknowledge as human beings: it’s darker and more hidden, so it’s more interesting to look at. And it’s in everyone, up to a point. “

Cynthia is queen bee of the social scene – did you perform the same role off-screen?

“No, I’m not the right age for that! We did have little get-togethers, but I’m too old – I like going to bed…”

Indian Summers starts on Channel 4 next Sunday (February 15) at 9pm