In the gilded palaces of Iran, royal life is stirring again. Counter- revolution? No, it's a dazzlingly glitzy soap-opera based on the life of the last Shah. Hester Lacey reports
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THE CLOTHES are glamorous to the point of being scarcely wearable. The hair is extravagantly coiffed and lacquered, and the make-up is laid on with a trowel. Attitudes are struck, and icy glares are exchanged across baroque furniture and fantastic expanses of thick carpet, in rooms so huge it takes minutes to cross them. Is it a re-make of Dynasty, or Return to Dallas? Neither. Rather, it is Iran's first attempt to create its own version of that modern cultural phenomenon, the glossy television serial.

This is, however, a soap with a difference, as its title, The History of the Revolution, suggests. The serial - which will have 104 episodes, each 50 minutes long, and will run for two years - is based on the life of the last Shah of Iran. It will cover the period from 1964 to 1979, up to and including the revolution in which the Ayatollah Khomeini took power. And in certain respects at least it will be utterly authentic: the programmes are being filmed in castles that were royal residences, with the original furniture and fittings still in situ, while the costumes come from wardrobes left behind by the fleeing Shah and his family.

It is, says Rose Issa, an independent curator of films and contemporary art from the Middle East, amazing that the serial is being made at all. "Until only recently, you couldn't mention anything that dealt with the Shah. It will be the first programme in 20 years to deal with the subject. Until recently, even the image of the Shah was forbidden." The Dallas- style clothes, she says, are spot-on. "It was a bit like that in Iran in the Sixties and early Seventies - an emulation of the West but with more glamour. They were very over-the-top in terms of make-up and clothes."

Entering the set, according to Shadi, the photographer who took these pictures, is an eerie experience. The main filming is taking place in the castle at Saad Abad that was the Shah and his wife Farah Diba's summer residence. Along with other royal castles, it is now preserved by the Iranian Ministry of Heritage as a museum. "It is a beautiful place with real antiques, paintings of the last queen, very expensive carpets," says Shadi. "There is a statue of Farah in bronze in the grounds and I photographed the actress who plays her in front of it." He also photographed the actor who plays the Shah, Reza Banafshe-Khan, in front of a painting showing the Shah at his desk. "The Shah was sitting at the same table, even the pens and pencils and photographs of his son were the same."

According to Hamid Naficy, Iranian film specialist at the media centre of Rice University in Houston, Texas, production in Iran is a lengthy process. "Every film or serial has to go through four to five stages of approval by the government," he explains. "First the idea has to be passed, then the script has to be approved, then a production permit has to be obtained from the government. Once the production is completed, then the film has to be approved, and many changes may occur at that stage." There are many rules that must be adhered to: for example, the actresses may appear to have luxurious Western-style hairdos, but their own hair is kept hidden under hats and wigs, the only way to film them which is permitted under Islamic law.

Rose Issa, who ran the recent Iranian film season at the National Film Theatre in London, says that the serial is a sign of a growing liberalisation in Iran under President Khatami (who attended the first day of filming of The History of the Revolution). "He used to be Minister of Culture and has a very liberal reputation," she says. "The Museum of Modern Art has brought out modern pieces collected by Farah and her team, and even Western art is on display. Even some Iranian artists who were supposedly proteges of the Shah are being brought out again. There is less fear and paranoia about the period of the Shah."

According to Television: An International History, the authoritative work on the subject published by the Oxford University Press, television did the Shah no favours in his lifetime. "Prior to the introduction of television, the occasional appearances in public had done nothing to damage the image which his subjects were supposed to - and in many cases did - have of the 'King of Kings, Shadow of God and Light of the Aryans'." However, once the Shah started appearing regularly on television, it became obvious that he was only human. "The nation discovered what hitherto had been known only in court circles - namely that the language and tone of voice of Mohammed Reza Pahlevi revealed him to be a parvenu who was not equal to the demands made by his office. Television did not bring about the fall of the Shah, but neither did it help him. It showed him as he was and thus made him vulnerable."

It's not certain how long it will be before this biopic is officially approved for public broadcast, but it's a fair bet that the Shah will be cast as the villain of the piece. Yet, if British responses to such characters as JR and Dirty Den are anything to go by, that merely increases the chances that The History of the Revolution will take its place among the all-time greats of soap history.

Additional reporting by Roshan Khadivi