Julie Walters interview: Indian Summers - the sun sets on the empire

Cynthia (Julie Walters)

Cynthia (Julie Walters)

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Series Two of Channel 4’s Indian Summers returns this weekend and moves the story forward three years to the summer of 1935... We rejoin our characters at boiling point...

Julie Walters, who lives near Billingshurst, returns in her role as Cynthia Coffin.

When we last saw one of the main characters, Ralph Whelan, he was coming to terms with a son Adam he never knew about, while keeping alive his political ambitions to rise to the top of the British administration.

Now he’s seeing out the current Viceroy the Earl of Willingdon’s (Patrick Malahide) last summer in India, while vying to replace him. Ever the gambler, he invites Adam to live under his own roof as his house-boy, despite the fact he is now married to Madeleine (Olivia Grant), has a daughter by her - and she knows nothing of the connection with Adam. But all his hopes, friendships and assumptions are about to go up in smoke. Ralph’s Empire is about to come crashing down.

As for Cynthia Coffin - she has her hands full running the Royal Simla Club and trying to keep her beloved Ralph’s political ambitions on track. But a buried secret, that strikes at the heart of her relationship with Ralph, her son in-all-but-name, erupts midway through summer - threatening to wreck all her best-laid plans.

We managed to catch a few words with Julie Walters, who plays Cynthia...

Three years have passed since we last saw Cynthia. Where do we see her at the beginning of this series?

“Cynthia is cock-a-hoop at the start of the series. Good old Cynthia has come into money! She’s devastated at the thought of Indians being in her club, but she’s turned it to her advantage. Obviously for her it’s got its down sides, but she’s getting princes and wealthy Indians to pay huge amounts of money to come into her members only club, so she’s become quite wealthy, which shows in her costumes.”

The summer of 1935 sees many more cracks appear amid British rule in India and there’s a real sense that revolution hangs heavy in the air. How much does that attitude affect the goings on in the club?

“I don’t think, to begin with, there’s a lot of difference in the club, because the Indians that come into the club are clearly pro-British. But they are aware that in other places in the country there’s violence going on, and riots, so there is a slightly different atmosphere. It’s not quite the carefree place that it was in the first series, and the series progresses that feeling is amplified. The political temperature has gone up a little bit, there’s no doubt about that.”

At the beginning of the series the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon, is unwell and Henry’s chances to succeed him look fairly good. How is Cynthia involved in Henry’s power play?

“Cynthia is still a huge influence over Henry, in a motherly and manipulative sort of way. She sees it as an opportunity for him, and tells him: ‘This is your chance. Get Willingdon to go home, you stand in for him. Don’t be a fool, they’ll see how brilliant you are, this is the way you’ll get to be Viceroy a year early.’ Though, as you know, his wife has other ideas.”

What else do we learn about Cynthia this year?

“New things from her past definitely come to light. You see a bit more frailty in her, I think. She doesn’t change personality or anything like that, but, like everyone when crises come up, you see another side of them.There are other characters in the series that cause her to open up a bit more. She probably doesn’t want to but it’s what happens.”

How was it to be back out filming in Penang, Malaysia?

“It doesn’t feel like a foreign country where I’m on holiday now, like it did the first time I went out there. That’s rather nice - I can nip up to the shops without thinking I need to get someone to take me so I don’t get lost! And it was lovely seeing all the same people and the same crew. They were so thrilled to have us back and likewise I was thrilled to see them! I love Penang, going back lifts my heart. My husband and I found sometime to go over to Hanoi between filming, which was very interesting. And we visited an organic farm in Malaysia, which was great because we’ve got an organic farm back home.”

Have you had many people talk to you about the first series? What seems to be the most common reaction to Cynthia?

“It’s a mixture. People love her and other people come up and say, ‘God, she’s a bitch!’ I always defend her and say, ‘well it’s how she survives. Can you imagine that time, a woman on her own amongst all those people, a working class girl, she’s a survivor!’ People say she’s a bitch, but they say it with relish so they’re obviously enjoying her! Generally, it’s people saying ‘Will there be more? I can’t wait!’”

What is it about Indian Summers that you think sets it apart from other period dramas?

“First of all it is visually stunning. The landscape, the architecture, the locations, it all draws you in. The period is really interesting and little touched on, for a long time. It’s portrayed in a very Channel 4 way – a very real way. It’s edgy, it’s politically interesting, the characters are fascinating and the politics are revealed through their interactions with one another,. It’s also suspenseful. You want to be there when you look at that club, with people sat around there singing - you want to go on holiday there, it’s so beautiful. There’s something for everyone, the costumes are fabulous and the time is interesting. Looking at British people away from home is always fascinating. It’s an escape on one level but it’s also a really hard look at the way both the British and Indian people behaved at that time.”

What are you working on next?

“I’m doing another series for Channel 4, a four-part drama by Jack Thorne called National Treasure, which is about a very popular and much-loved public figure who is arrested for historical sex offences. I play his wife, Marie. It’s the story of how they deal with these accusations. It’s a really interesting and challenging part.”

Indian Summers returns to Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm.