Britain is charmed by TV's 'Jewel in the Crown'

Not since the ''Forsyte Saga''' of the 1960s has a British television serial received as much acclaim. On Tuesday, April 3, people all over this country stayed home to watch the final (and 15th) hour of Granada Television's production of ''The Jewel in the Crown.''

Based on four novels by Paul Scott known collectively as ''The Raj Quartet,'' the episodes tell the story of the British Empire in India from its height until the riots that led to independence in 1947.

The series has been acquired by WGBH in Boston for broadcast on ''Masterpiece Theatre'' early next year. It has also been bought by the CBC in Canada and by other countries from Australia to Finland, the Netherlands to Zimbabwe.

The series climaxes a period here of awakened interest in India and the glittering days of the Raj. First came the Oscar-winning film ''Gandhi,'' followed by the American TV series ''The Far Pavilions'' (from the book by M.M. Kaye), with its long procession of elephants and princesses.

Then, for the past three months, in one two-hour and 13 one-hour episodes, British sitting rooms have become viewing stands from which to catch glimpses of the British way of life in India before the sun finally set on the empire.

India itself was described as the jewel in Queen Victoria's crown - the shining example of greatness and wealth in her oveseas possessions.

In the Paul Scott novels, the older generation's air of ruling-class superiority over the ''uncultured'' Indian masses is contrasted with the more outgoing approach of the youth of both races who seek equality. The books draw out the steady unrest of an India no longer satisfied with being under British rule and develop the theme through the lives of its characters.

In the television production, each episode is a cameo glimpse into characters' attitudes and backgrounds. In often slow-moving scenes (compared with the ''trick-a-minute'' filming of many TV programs), the atmosphere and emotion of the era are relived.

At a special advance showing of the final episode at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London, series producer Christopher Morahan and co-director Jim O'Brien described how it all came about.

''I seem to have been working on this since time began,'' the comfortably elegant Mr. Morahan said with a smile. ''But it is only three years and three months since I started. I did a feasibility study in the summer of 1980 and at Christmas we were rehearsing - in England, in the snow. Then, for the next 41/2 months, we set off for India.''

The cost of the production ended up at (STR)5,600,000 ($8 million). That was 40 percent over the original budget but has already been paid for by resales.

Only about one-fifth of the production was filmed in India. The rest was done in England - including scenes of the Indian Bibighar Gardens (actually filmed at Horwich near Manchester) and the final train journey to ''Ranpur,'' shot in Aylesbury.

Co-director O'Brien, talking about the casting, noted that the aim was to choose actors and actresses who had not been overexposed on screen. ''We were lucky enough to place our faith in a wonderful cast,'' he said.''

The main roles are taken by Charles Dance, Geraldine James, and Tim Piggott-Smith, as well as the better-known Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Eric Porter (who also starred in the ''Forsyte Saga'').

The mood of all those associated with the production has been one of unity. Actor Charles Dance described the cooperation of the directors, ''who were prepared, ready, and able to present the day's work in a way already concrete. They worked in tandem. It was incredible that in all the time of working together there was barely a cross word said. We were like a really good, happy family.''

This unity shows in the creation of a beautifully prepared and presented series. American viewers have a treat in store.

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