"In 1975," Tim Pigott-Smith recalled, "a friend rang me up on the phone and asked if I was familiar with 'The Raj Quartet.' I said, 'What kind of music do they play?'

Five years later, Pigott-Smith was asked about the quartet again. By then he had read, rather than listened to, the quartet, a series of four novels by Paul Scott, drawn against the background of colonial India. And when he heard that the novels were to be turned into a television series, Pigott-Smith, with a string of roles as hard-edged soldiers behind him, knew that he was meant to play Capt. Ronald Merrick. The producers of the series felt the same way. "The bet part of my life was rather easy to come by."

The 15-hour TV adaptation, titled "The Jewel in the Crown" after the first of the quartet's four volumes, begins tonight with a two-hour episode on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre and continues into early spring with 13 more hour-long installments each week.

The film revolves around the rape of a young Englishwoman, which stands as a metaphor for the treatment of India by the British. Shot extensively in India, the series spans the five years before the country's independence in 1947.

Susan Wooldridge is Daphne Manners, the victim. Merrick, a police superintendent with a mean streak as wide as the series is long, launches a relentless hunt for Hari Kumar, a young Indian played by Art Malik, whom Merrick believes to be guilty of the assault.

Others prominent in the cast include Dame Peggy Ashcroft as an elderly missionary; Judy Parfitt, who plays an Englishwoman living in India, and Wendy Morgan and Geraldine James, her daughters.

Masterpiece regulars will remember Pigott-Smith as Capt. Hardy in "I Remember Nelson" and as Brendan Bracken in "Winston Chruchill: The Wilderness Years." He's also taken a turn at Shakespeare, as Angelo in "Measure for Measure" and Hotspur in "Henry IV, Part I." The 38-year-old character actor has done extensive theater work, including the portrayal of Dr. Watson in "Sherlock Holmes," which was staged at the Kennedy Center a decade ago, as well as in London and on Broadway.

">'Jewel in the Crown' is the biggest exposure I've ever had on television," he said. "Merrick is the pivotal character. It's unfair to say he's the leading character. But the story develops in two parts, and he's the link between the two. In England, he was a source of intrigue and detestation" when "Jewel" played on British television early this year. "He was the man you love to hate. I think of him as the man you hate to love."

Pigott-Smith, whose stern villain's visage folds into an easy smile in casual conversation, loves the ambiguity he sees in his character. "The British audience got caught in a split between loving him and finding him contemptible," he recalled. "In Episode Seven, for instance, Merrick's been burned pulling a friend from a burning jeep. When he tells the story, he reveals a set of twisted motives for pulling the man free. You can't admire or despise him. He often does the right thing for the wrong reason."

Fueling Merrick's fire is his own victimization by the British social system. Despite his military trappings, he is a policeman, not an officer and a gentleman. "He is from a grammar school, a clever boy who could not go to private school and went instead to a state school," said Pigott-Smith. "That's why he is in the police rather than the army."

Merrick, in turn, takes the contempt he feels the upper class has poured over him and ladles it over the Indian. "He really believes the Indian boy is guilty and beats him to get a confession," said Pigott-Smith. "The irony is that the boy has been to a private school in England. The fact that my character believes the boy to be guilty makes the beating a tragedy rather than a melodrama."

The class tug-of-war gets a yank in another direction when Merrick, who loses an arm in saving the fellow from the fiery jeep, is decorated for his bravery. Now he has a lever of his own to use against the upper class. "After all," said Pigott-Smith, "you can't keep a hero down, can you?"