ITV drama Beecham House is set in the late 18th century in India. But is it based on a true story?
In 1795, an English man named John Beecham has just arrived at his magnificent new home in Delhi. As former employee of the English East India Company, he is determined to strike out by himself and make a living as a trader – but nothing is that ever simple.
Here’s all you need to know about the historical roots of the Tom Bateman series.
Is Beecham House based on a true story?
Beecham House is not based on a true story. At least, the character of John Beecham did not exist, and nor did his interfering mother Henrietta, nor his womanising brother Daniel, nor the English governess Margaret Osbourne. There was no scheming French General Castillion, and no wealthy neighbour Murad Beg, and no baby boy of mysterious parentage called August.
But while the story is fictional, the drama does actually feature several real-life characters, from Emperors to military leaders. On a broader level, Beecham House is also true to the history of Delhi, India and the East India Company.
What is the history behind Beecham House?
“I think the interesting thing was choosing that period, 1795,” creator and director Gurinder Chadha said at a press screening in London. “Because most people have a particular idea: so India was colonised, and then there was the Empire, and then there was Gandhi and then there was the Struggle and whatever. People don’t generally know the beginning of how that relationship started.”
By the 18th century, the once-vast Mughal Empire was in decline in India. It had begun to disintegrate into provinces and small states, and although the Emperor Shah Alam II (played in Beecham House by Roshan Seth) remained on the Mughal imperial throne in Delhi, his power was limited.
So as the Mughal Empire crumbled, the British East India Company stepped in to consolidate its position and take control.
What was the British East India Company?
The East India Company was originally formed in 1600 to trade and make money in the Indian Ocean region. Though its focus was initially on trade, in the 18th century the Company began to seize more and more power.
Over time, lines between commercial and political dominance had become blurred in India as European trading companies moved in, establishing coastal outposts and competing with each other for trade and control. The British East India Company increasingly flexed its military muscle, clashing with the rival French East India Company.
How were the French involved?
With the decline of the Mughal Empire, French had also decided to intervene in Indian political affairs to protect their interests by forging alliances and taking military action. However, the French were not as successful as the British, and in the second half of the century its Company declined and and was ultimately abolished.
The Company later made a comeback, but then came the French Revolution and the reboot was unsuccessful. However, that still left a heavy French presence in India.
“What really fascinated me was the mechanics of how India became part of the Empire,” Chadha explained. “And in that, what became very clear was that it really was a battle between the British and the French… but the problem was, in 1795, of course the French revolution was happening in France and so suddenly there were French armies and French generals in India, but no government, and so a lot of them became mercenaries to work for the Maharajas who were also standing by to take power – because it was the end of the Mughal Empire as well.
“India had been ruled by Mughals like Shah Ahlam for hundreds of years, and so that was coming to an end, so the Hindu Maharajas were standing by… it’s the idea was that India was up for grabs, and what was going to happen.
“And I was fascinated by that idea of the continuation of the hundred year war between the French and English, continuing on Indian soil.”
How did Britain consolidate power?
At this key moment in Indian history, the British East India Company was taking power and moving well beyond its original purpose. The British government, in turn, was taking an increasing role in the Company, passing a major parliamentary Act in 1773 to bring it further under the control of the state.
The British were still working to increase the extent of the territories under their control, using private armies (with many native Indian soldiers) and puppet leaders, and assuming administrative functions. By 1803, eight years after Beecham House is set, the Company had a private army of about 260,000.
But the British Crown did not officially impose direct rule until 1858, when it established the British Raj. The Raj lasted until 1947, when India gained its independence.
“I think we’re all at a time where people want something fresh about the story between India and Britain,” Chadha said. “We all, I think, want it. I think this is a story about what happens in international commerce, and when cultures come together, when cultures meet.”
Is John Beecham based on a real person?
“He’s based on a lot of diary entries,” Bateman said. “There are a lot of real characters in it, but Gurinder and Paul [Mayeda Berges, co-writer] mashed together a lot of diaries of men who did go and have relationships, get married, have kids and stuff like that. And men leaving the East India company as well because of what they saw.
“So he is effectively real – but there is no one John Beecham.”
“Anyone that could be a historical figure in it, is,” Dakota Blue Richards added. “So the Emperor, and Begum Samru is a real person.”
In the drama, we meet Roshan Seth as the blind Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. We also meet Begum Samru (Lara Dutta), a real woman who existed in 18th century India and was the head of a professional and highly trained mercenary army.
How can I watch Beecham House in the US?
Beecham House airs on PBS Masterpiece on Sundays at 10/9c.
This article was originally published in June 2019