sat 24/08/2019

Empire, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Empire, BBC One

Empire, BBC One

Jeremy Paxman's riveting history of the empire on which the sun never set

Was there nothing good the British did here? Jeremy Paxman in India

The scene is ineffably English. The thock of mallet on ball, the clack of ball through hoop, the gentle sun adding a benediction. A senior gent in natty English threads looks on from the pavilion, a member of this club for 55 years. Everything is just so, apart the setting: Cairo. “Was there nothing good the British did here?” wondered Jeremy Paxman. Apart from croquet. “All kinds of imperialism is bad,” ventured his host with a wily smile.

Technically Egypt wasn’t part of the empire. We just hung around there for 70 years to keep an eye on the canal connecting the tiny island called home with the large pot of gold called India. Long after the first Consul-General departed, Egyptians finding themselves in England would make their way to Bournemouth to spit on his grave.

If he sounded appalled he also looked furtively impressed

With Paxman on the bridge, Empire has embarked on a six-hour voyage into our past. It aims to test the argument that the British sowed nothing but sorrow and mayhem as they conquered the globe. A BBC man might be assumed to nurture pinko guilt about the pink bits of the map. Particularly one who always looks mildly disgusted by powermongers and politicians. But it’s clear that Paxman does not lug a sackload of modish Anglo-Saxon attitudes about our blood-stained history of conquest and oppression. As he toured the monumental symbols of British dominance in India, he seemed if anything in shock - that a small country fired by both greed and a civilising imperative could at one point hold sway over a quarter of the world’s population. He called it a gigantic confidence trick, an enormous bluff, and if he sounded appalled he also looked furtively impressed. If not as impressed as the Daily Mail celebrating Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee procession with a special edition printed in gold ink.

Watch a clip of Queen's Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession

This first episode dealt with the spread of British power, from the acquisition of India through to the ignominious flight from Palestine. As he made his way around the haunts of Empire, he had the same question for everyone he met. What did the British ever do for you lot? We met His Highness Gaj Singh II of Manwar-Jodhpur (Eton, Oxon), whose ancestor got an astonishing palace out of it. By a fireside in the Sinai desert an admirer exonerated Lawrence of Arabia of the British betrayal: “In this land,” he said through gritted teeth and an interpreter, “nobody ever keeps their promises.” And then on to Jerusalem, where the hotel housing the British headquarters was blown up in 1946. An ancient Israeli woman who had once scouted the premises and told the terrorists where to plant their bombs could not be persuaded by Paxman that the Jews owed the Brits a debt of thanks for the Balfour Declaration. “We were satisfied,” she said in the very hotel where 65 years ago she’d helped to kill 91 people. “It was a mission. It was a symbol of the British here. And we hit it.”

There are other reasons to make a date with Empire beyond Paxman’s clear, uncluttered narrative. This is a landmark series at which money has been hurled, and it shows in gorgeous cinematic production values. Chris Nicolaides’s lush soundtrack and Mike Garner’s magnificent photography both make the most of peach sunsets and epic architecture. And through it all Paxman strolls in a blue linen shirt, trying not to look as if he’d have once blended in seamlessly as an instrument of imperial ruler. No hopping on desert donkeys for him, and only desultory clapping at the polo in Jodhpur. None of that monkeying around patented by Andrew Marr. He kept his hands in his pockets.

And at the death there was something you don’t hear from Paxman. Walking along the wall freshly erected by the Israelis to keep the Arabs out, he recalled a previous wall on which had been daubed the words “Tommies go home.” “Beneath it someone wrote, ‘I wish we fucking well could.’” Riveting television.

 

Comments

What a one sided programme which smacked of Monty Pythons What have the British done for us ? I hope Jeremy enjoyed his duty frees

Gentlemen, this was the first episode and was titled "A Taste of Power". The series is extremely 'balanced', and the final episode, "Doing Good", goes into the benefits that Empire brought to the world.

That's as may be. But what we were looking for was balance throughout - not just at the end as an add-on. I do hope we will see some attempt to assess conditions in those countries that made up our empire before our arrival. Also, to put it in the wider context of a power struggle between the European powers and how they treated their 'possessions' so differently - witness the Germans and their genocide in South West Africa against the Herrero tribe. After all, if we had lost the Battle of Blenheim, then England today would be just a small island off a Europe dominated by the French. America would have been French, as would India and much of the former British Empire. Equally, French would now be the 'lingua franca' of the civilised world rather than English. We really do have much to be grateful to John Churchill for.

If you had taken the time to watch the whole series you would realise that they have chosen to take a thematic approach. I actually thought that it is scripted with great humour and balance. There is only so much one can fit into an hour long program.

A depressingly mean-minded, perjorative and dispiritingly one-sided view of one of our country's most extra-ordinary achievements. There was no attempt to place unfolding events in any historical perspective: no attempt to quantify the benefits we undeniably brought to many, hitherto, violent and savage tribes, including those practising cannibalism; no suggestion that conditions in many territories were radically improved, including the abolition of thugee and sutti in India - schools, roads, hospitals, railways built and the rule of law established - or that this was much appreciated by the local populace, many of whom for the first time were now permitted to live their lives in relative peace and harmony. What a sad, shameful production by a smug, arrogant and self-satisfied individual with a permanent sneer on his face.

What a dissapointmernt. No mention of the first empire - North America (though that might feature in a later episode). To do a documentary about Indian history and not mention the East India Company was something of an achievement! The causes presented of the Mutiny were particularly vague and no real background to the reasons why the British intervened in Egypt. However he was right to touch on the mess we made, and allowed to develop in Palestine, though I would be interested in whether the former Jewish terrorist had any appreciation about this country's efforts against Hitler between 1939-45 .

i live in a wee scottish town called fergus in ontario canada i know the bbc were filming here 2011 i thought it was for a doccumentary called the Empire series can you help me as i would like to find out when we might get to see it over here thanks to anyone who can help

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