Beecham House ITV, 9pm, last night ****

WHAT on Earth did we ever do with our Sunday evenings before male actors tore off their shirts to reveal sculpted chests glistening with sweat?

The latest to selflessly exploit their own bodies in the name of light entertainment was Tom Bateman, star of Beecham House, ITV’s new drama.

Not that he gave up his modesty easily. It was a whole 20 minutes before his character, John Beecham, joined the proud tradition fostered by Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy and Aidan Turner’s Poldark. For a horribly long while it seemed as if the custom had died, but then balance was restored and viewers could relax into the tale of an eighteenth century English trader embarking on a new start in Delhi.

Created by Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) and Paul Mayeda Berges, Beecham House has been dubbed the Delhi Downton Abbey. At first sight, the two dramas have a lot in common. Set in palatial homes with gossipy servants, check. A host of strong women vying to rule the roost. Check. Elephants …. Er, we’ll let Beecham House have that one.

READ MORE: This isn't Downton Abbey - no offence

Every now and then an elephant trumpeted its presence just to remind the viewer that they were not in Kansas, or Yorkshire, any more.

The most exotic beast to be found in Downton’s precincts was the awkwardly named Isis, the yellow Labrador. In Beecham House everything was lavish, sumptuous, and larger than life, including a few of the performances.

We met Beecham as he stumbled on a robbery and saved a rich man’s life. Cut to three years later and the Englishman was arriving at his new home in Delhi, a pile that made Downton look like a single end in Dennistoun. Clearly, he had been busy making money those few years. Perhaps he invented a powder that eased the symptoms of colds and flu.

But wait. There was talk of him being a former soldier and working for the giant East India Company. That was all behind him, Beecham assured a suspicious emperor. He was not in the business of stealing business from anyone. All he wanted to do now, he swore, was trade fairly and live peaceably in this beautiful country.

There did not seem much chance of that happening. A conniving Frenchman, General Castillon (Gregory Fitoussi from Spiral) wanted Beecham off his patch. Beecham’s mother arrived in town, with a young woman in tow that she reckoned would make a perfect wife for her son. Plus, there was a baby in the house that announced itself as often as the elephant. Said baby was “not fully European”, as one of the servants put it. A little more should be revealed in the second of six instalments, showing tonight.

READ MORE: Damien Love's pick of the week

No wonder Beecham, in a bid to relieve his tension, whipped off his shirt and hacked away at some innocent shrub.

Bateman, last seen in another period drama, Vanity Fair, is often mentioned as a future Bond, alongside Scotland's Richard Madden and several others.

Bateman has the physique to step into Daniel Craig’s swimwear. His delivery is slightly off at times, though, as if he is genuinely surprised to find out what is at the end of the sentence he is saying. It does not help that the production has a bad case of the mumbles, that curse of contemporary TV drama.

There is one thing missing from Beecham House, something essential if it is to truly be the new Downton Abbey, and that is a sense of humour. Beecham’s mother, played in a nice twist by Lesley Nicol, aka Mrs Patmore in Downton, is nicely tetchy but she is no Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.

Still, it is early doors and the mix of history, setting, and intrigue whispers potential. And if General Castillon should feel the need to take off that stifling uniform one night, who would blame him?

Continues tonight, ITV, 9pm