Henry Lloyd-Hughes interview: From The Inbetweeners to the last days of the Raj in Channel 4's Indian Summers

Lloyd-Hughes takes his first major leading role as an ambitious Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India in the epic new 10-part drama

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The Independent Online

'It's only the lads," says Henry Lloyd-Hughes of the people most likely to approach him in the street. "It's a very specific demographic of 14- to 24-year-olds. If I see them gearing up to approach me, I spare them the embarrassment. I oil the cogs a bit, saying, 'Selfie, or it didn't happen'."

His fans might so far be a niche group – namely fans of E4's smash-hit sitcom The Inbetweeners, in which he played the bully Mark Donovan. But that could be very different by the time this weekend is over. As we sit down for lunch together, Lloyd-Hughes is enjoying his last few days of relative anonymity before his first major leading role as Ralph Whelan, an ambitious 30-year-old Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers.

It's a role for a big personality and Lloyd-Hughes's is as big as any of his onscreen aliases, including one David Miliband. Playing alongside his brother Ben (in the role of Ed, naturally) the pair delivered myriad awkward facial expressions in the More4 docudrama Miliband of Brothers, during the real brothers' own battle to the Labour Party top spot in 2010.

Since then, Lloyd-Hughes has gone on to have supporting roles in Anna Karenina, British party film Weekender and will appear later this year as Charles Bovary in a new film adaptation of Madame Bovary. He has also appeared in countless stage productions, most notably the first run of Laura Wade's Posh.

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Lead role: Lloyd-Hughes stars as an ambitious 30-year-old Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India in Indian Summers (Channel 4)

One of the most successful new writing ventures in the Royal Court's history, and later adapted for screen in the 2014 film, The Riot Club, the play centres on a fictional version of the Oxford Bullingdon Club. It's a tale of decadence and elitism and its success, Hughes argues, hinges on our very British preoccupation with class.

"We are obsessed with looking up or down," he reckons. "We like Top Boy and we like Downton Abbey. Give a shit about the middle class. We are interested in people who care less than us. Who are perhaps more debonair. More risky. More dangerous. That play made audiences feel uncomfortable because most people think they hate those sorts of posh characters, but deep down they also really love them."

We meet at the end of a strange week in which shadow culture minister Chris Bryant and the singer James Blunt have been exchanging a series of open letters, after Bryant suggested that the British entertainment world was being dominated by those from public schools and needed fewer Eddie Redmaynes and James Blunts and more Albert Finneys and Glenda Jacksons.

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While a run of period dramas has required some research, Lloyd-Hughes likes to take a visceral approach to his work (Buki Koshoni Photography)

"Generalising about people based on class is a very crude way to do business," says Lloyd-Hughes, who was educated at St Paul's, but was the only boy in his year not to go to university. "I truly believe that everyone is different and we should respect that. I went to an expensive school and my name's Henry Lloyd-Hughes, so who's going to believe that I'm actually quite middle class and boring?"

Having lived in Hackney for almost 10 years, Lloyd-Hughes married his long-term girlfriend in 2014. A journalist and avid Arsenal supporter, she regularly reminds him to turn on Match of the Day – a fact that he announces with irrepressible pride. "We also have a joint fantasy football league!" he says, before launching into a list of his many other extracurricular interests.

A QPR fan, Lloyd-Hughes has starred as a guest on the podcast dedicated to the club and boasts that his sister once played for the club's women's team. He also set up his own cricket club, 'The Bloody Lads', with a group of friends (those with caps for the club include actor Rafe Spall and various music-industry types). "Other people have yoga and therapy, but listening to the cricket and watching QPR are the things I set my watch by. When I'm shooting on location, eight hours ahead of my wife and friends, these are things I use to stop me from feeling lonely." Lloyd-Hughes also takes an active interest in music and was once the lead singer in an indie band, Adventure Playground, which he formed along with his cousin Fred Macpherson (now of the band Spector).

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Indian Summers is the most expensive drama in Channel 4's history

The pair, along with Ben, appeared in a school production of Grease, with Henry cast in the role of Kenickie. These days, however, he seems to be more on a Rhett Butler trip, in a full-length woollen overcoat and impressive moustache. The coat he attributes to a role in an undisclosed film project; nevertheless, he's a man with sartorial chops.

He effuses about the Valentino men's show, at which he sat on the front row, in Paris the week before. He tells me the story of the multi-coloured Dries van Noten jumper he is wearing, bought almost a decade earlier and treasured as one of the first purchases he made after his first job. Beneath the high-fashion Clark Gable exterior, however, is a certain humility.

"I found school quite hard. I wasn't very academic. Don't get me wrong, I played by the rules. I liked wearing uniform and having lots of mates. I just didn't like having to study subjects that I wasn't necessarily interested in or very good at. So the idea of going back into a classroom didn't appeal to me. I didn't go to drama school because I knew there would always be that one guy saying, 'And now we have to do Jacobean dance...' And my big fear was continually failing the term on Jacobean dance."

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Lloyd-Hughes says of the British class system: 'We are obsessed with looking up or down' (Buki Koshoni Photography)

Jacobean dance or not, Lloyd-Hughes's career has hardly suffered. While a run of period dramas in recent years has required some research, he likes to take a visceral approach to his work. "It's the feelings that get highlighted on the script and noted in the margins. I'm not one of those dicks who's going to correct another actor on the fact that people didn't walk a certain way in 1852."

That said, when he discovered that the British Library had an archive of documents from the days of the Raj, the temptation to mine the resource for his role in Indian Summers was strong. Lloyd-Hughes and Nikesh Patel, who plays Aafrin in the show, spent weeks reading the personal diaries of senior officers stationed in India.

"I'm not a history buff and I trust the writer and the director to be correct about all of the details. I just wanted to understand the world that my character occupied."

To prepare for his role, Lloyd-Hughes took the peculiar step of volunteering with the Civil Service for several weeks. "I wanted to know what kind of person did that job. Not just did that job, but felt a calling to serve the British Empire."

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Lloyd Hughes with Julie Walters who stars as Cynthia in Indian Summers

With the arrival of Indian Summers, Lloyd-Hughes's profile may well soar. It is the most expensive drama in Channel 4's history and Lloyd-Hughes's first leading role. That, and the fact that he will star opposite the incomparably brilliant Julie Walters, were a cause of anxiety to Lloyd-Hughes. When I ask if he was phased by the show's heavy subject-matter, he says: "This isn't a soft-focus look at the glorious lives of those living in the Raj. The storyline is rippled with the end of Empire. The characters are clinging on for dear life and there is blood on their fingers."

The results are beautiful and harsh. The chintz of British colonial rule collide with the brutal reality of life for the indigenous population at the time and the effect is arresting.

"This isn't set in 1900 or even 1920, when business was booming and the Empire was reigning supreme," says Lloyd-Hughes. "It's set in 1932, when cracks have been showing for a long time and things are beginning to fall apart. There are baddies everywhere, but don't worry, the goodies will win. The question is whether my character is one of the goodies..."

'Indian Summers' begins on Channel 4, tomorrow at 9pm

Jewels in the crown – before Indian Summers, the best film and TV about the Raj

The River (1951)

Made after independence, Jean Renoir's adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel is nonetheless one of the most subtle and moving portrayals of the relationship between Westerners and Indians. His subjects are an English family – the father working in the jute factory, his long-suffering wife and their five children. The oldest is 14-year-old Harriet (Patricia Walters), an adolescent becoming ever more aware of sexuality. Renoir depicts the death of a child in heartbreaking fashion. He also shows how the family members' personalities are changed by their environment. They learn patience and perspective. One of Martin Scorsese's favourite films.

The Jewel in the Crown (1984)

Granada's celebrated Paul Scott adaptation is set during the dying days of the Raj – and that is what gives it its edge and pathos. Tim Pigott-Smith gives a memorable performance as the sadistic but conflicted British police officer who victimises the highly-educated and urbane young Indian man Hari Kumar (Art Malik), falsely accused of rape. The drama probes intelligently away at the bad faith and self-loathing that the Indians and the British somehow manage to bring out in one another. There is also a winning performance from Peggy Ashcroft as the former missionary Barbie Bachelor.

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Heat and Dust follows the scandalous love affair between a married English woman and a dashing Indian prince (Alamy)

Heat and Dust (1983)

The Merchant Ivory team was sometimes accused of making stilted and overly-arch costume dramas. This was one of their best films. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, adapted from her own prize-winning novel, offers a double perspective on the Raj. Partly set in the 1920s, it follows the scandalous love affair between a married English woman (Greta Scacchi) and a dashing Indian prince (Shashi Kapoor). Counterpointing the Twenties scenes is the contemporary part of the film, looking at the experiences of the woman's grand-niece (Julie Christie) in the very different India of the early 1980s. The two parts mirror one another. They reveal the immense changes in social attitudes after the end of the Raj but also examine the way that old prejudices remain.

Gunga Din (1939)

Hollywood wasn't much interested in the nuances of Indian-British relations during the Raj. RKO's main intention in making this Rudyard Kipling adaptation was to provide an action-driven ripping yarn. It is a buddy movie in which three British soldiers and an Indian water bearer combine forces to thwart the villainous, Kali-worshipping Thuggees. Writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur bring plenty of wisecracking dialogue to the film which, incongruously, was shot on the plains of California, a very long way from the real Khyber Pass.

Geoffrey Macnab

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