When “Beecham House” opens, the year is 1795 and a lone carriage is driven through the wild countryside on the outskirts of Delhi, India. At the front of the carriage is John Beecham. His guards sit close by, with their guns at the ready, looking out for strangers and bandits. A grand mansion is being prepared for a new master.
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Brave and honorable, but haunted by a dark past, John Beecham (Tom Bateman) is an Englishman who left home to seek his fortune in India. The appalling profiteering and exploitation carried out by The British East India company led him to resign from military service, and he travelled across the country learning from its craftsmen and seeking a better way to trade.
The house prepared, John takes up residence in the grand mansion on the outskirts of the city. The staff are shocked to discover that their secretive new master is not only English but has also arrived with his infant son August, a baby of mixed parentage. John is hoping to make a fresh start with his baby son, but he carries many secrets, including the identity of August’s mother, and he is determined to keep them to protect his family.
After John settles into Beecham House, he travels to the docks to meet his mother Henrietta (Lesley Nicol) and is surprised to discover that she has travelled with a companion, Violet (Bessie Carter).
John’s mother has braved months at sea on the passage from England in the hopes of reuniting her family and bringing her sons home. Her husband was condemned to a debtors prison in Australia long ago, and her last hope is that John has been successful and become rich like the nabobs that have become so famous in England.
India is a culture shock for Henrietta, but as the woman of the house she wants to know everything that is happening and is determined to maintain what she sees as proper British standards. Henrietta is a proud woman who can clash with other strong personalities, but she only wants what is best for her family and is fiercely protective of them, especially John’s son, baby August.
Life in Beecham House is about to become a whole lot more complicated.
Lesley Nicol, “Downton Abbey’s” flavorful cook Mrs. Patmore, plays Henrietta Beecham in the period drama “Beecham House.”
Below, the actress shares about her role and experience working on the new series.
The six part series Beecham House premieres in the US on March 1, 2020 on PBS Passport and with the PBS Masterpiece Channel. “Beecham House” premieres on PBS Stations June 14, 2020.
What can you tell us about your character Henrietta?
LN: She’s John’s mother, but they haven’t seen each other for 12 years so he’s totally different from last time she saw him. He’s older, wiser. She has two sons and they’re both in India. There’s definitely a base love that they all have for each other. But Henrietta is challenging, there’s no doubt about it, and he’s not been quite ready to tell her everything that’s going on in his life when she turns up.
On the face of it she’s a very respectable, god-fearing, upper middle class woman, very conservative. She comes over to India on a very long boat trip with her companion Violet who’s played by Bessie Carter. They have this hideous journey and when they arrive they’re completely pole-axed because everything is so foreign to them.
She is tough, but she’s from a very narrow world. Her brother took her in after her husband – a gambler and a drinker, was sent to Australia. But her brother died. So that’s one of the reasons for coming to India, as she’s all alone.
And suddenly she’s in a household with dozens of servants, the food’s all wrong, she gets bitten by mosquitos, she will not wear anything cooler even though it’s baking hot. It’s a different religion, it’s all completely foreign to her. But what’s nice about this character and the arc of her journey is that she does learn and adjust.
Did you do any research into the Georgian era?
LN: I did actually because I didn’t know this period. It’s earlier than I’m used to. I read quite a lot, I did a bit of digging because I wanted to know what it would have been like for her. There weren’t many white women in India at that time. The white men often formed liaisons with Indian women so Henrietta was the outsider in every sense really.
I found the political element quite fascinating. About the East India Company and the corruption and the bad behaviour of that time. John Beecham is trying to form a business, but he finds it hard because everyone is terribly suspicious and there are people trying to derail him.
But what I like about this series is that all the characters are on a journey. Henrietta and Violet are. The staff in the house are because they have this man turn up who they don’t know and it changes their household completely. Everybody is having a major shift, whoever they are.
Beecham House is drawing comparisons with “Downton Abbey,” partly because it’s about the servants as much as the landlord of the house.
LN: I don’t think it’s any more comparable than that really. It’s a different period, a different country. It’s a house with servants and people upstairs but it’s a whole different tone, a whole different feel to it.
People still talk about the costumes in “Downton Abbey” and it’s the same here although this time I have to say the men come off better than the women! They look gorgeous in these sexy clothes, and me and Bessie turn up in very heavy fabrics because that was the fashion. Whereas the Indian girls looked fabulous.
Why do you think viewers love period dramas so much?
LN: I’m in America at the moment and they get doubly excited about it here! I don’t know why that is any more than you do. Whether it’s period drama or any other kind of drama, what it’s got to be is a good story with brilliant design and brilliant costumes and production values. Just a period drama on its own is not enough. It has to be really well told. If you’re interested in the story and it looks gorgeous, then that’s a good combination.
Did you know any of the other cast members before?
LN: I had met Bessie (who plays Henrietta’s companion, Violet) a couple of times because she’s the daughter of a dear, dear friend of course, Jim Carter (Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey). She came on set [to Downton] once or twice and she came to see my one-woman show so I’d met her briefly a few times. It was completely out of the blue to be cast together, and my very good fortune because she is terrific. She’s a very good actress but also a really great youngster to hang around with. She’s smart, she’s respectful of everybody, she knows exactly how to behave. She’s gorgeous.
What was the experience of working on the series like overall?
LN: It was brilliant although it was quite crazy. I was doing Downton Abbey the movie at the same time so I spent most of August and September doing the interiors for “Beecham House” at Ealing Studios which was a bit weird because we used to do “Downton” the TV series there.
And then they all went off to India, but I had to keep coming back for “Downton.” In the end I flew to India three times. There was a lot of flying. And then at the end my husband joined me and we went for a little jaunt around a few places in India to top it all off. Everyone said, ‘Gosh you’re going to be so tired’, because it had been a really busy year already, but the fact is I had such a great time and it was no problem.
I got myself in good shape for it, and you sleep when you can sleep, and I didn’t fall to pieces at all – until I got home! And then I did fall to pieces. But my idea of heaven is doing two great jobs at the same time so I’m not complaining.
What was it about the character of Henrietta that attracted you to the role?
LN: It was a number of things, actually. I was very attracted to the fact it was a different kind of role for me. This character gave me something meaty and very different from what I’ve been doing.
And I absolutely love India. I did a movie there ten years ago called West is West, so to go back was a huge draw. Director Gurinder Chadha was another big draw and I knew they were getting top people on board for cast and crew, and it’s ITV primetime, so what’s not to like! It was a lovely thing to land on the doorstep.
Read more about “Beecham House” and watch the trailer here.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll especially like our post about Block Printed Fabrics in the Georgian Era, Downton Abbey’s Cast in other Period Dramas, and the Best Period Dramas: Georgian Era List.