Review - Paxman's very own confidence trick

24th February 2012 at 00:00

"Were you glad to see the English go?" Jeremy Paxman says. He is basking in the quiet sunshine of a Cairo croquet club.

Next to him, an elderly Egyptian man in flat cap and tie does not pause for thought. "For sure," he says, and draws on his cigar.

"We weren't all bad, were we?" Paxman presses. "Was there nothing good they did here?" The Egyptian shrugs and looks to the heavens. "I think, no," he says, finally.

This conversation is notable because Paxman's questions appear to so directly contradict his general position during the first episode of Empire, his new BBC series.

Barely has the programme begun when he is referring to the British empire as "a gigantic confidence trick", and its empire-builders as "arrogant" and "just a bit unhinged". No Niall Ferguson he. This is not the programme to watch if you want to hear about bequeathing the world roads and railways.

Paxman's imperial history begins in 1763, when European powers carved up the world. The Duke of Bedford - "a stubby, arrogant little man" - negotiated control over India for Britain. There is no mention of the fact that the East India Company had effectively been colonising India for 150 years already.

Indeed, while the Indian mutiny is covered in relative detail, there is no reference to its most significant outcome: the transfer of Indian governorship from private company to Crown. Instead, we have a romp through post-mutiny pomp and circumstance. One viceroy, for example, acquired his ceremonial robes from a London theatrical costumer.

Leaving Queen Victoria bestriding India like an unamused behemoth, Paxman shifts abruptly to Egypt, where Britain was keen to protect access to India via the Suez Canal. Pith-helmeted soldiers came, saw, posed for photos by the sphinx, but never officially conquered. Instead, they named Egypt a "protectorate", introducing croquet and governing by stealth.

Paxman then moves north. With barely a pause for breath, the British conquer and withdraw from Palestine, and the empire begins to fall apart. Except that is not exactly how it happened. By 1948, when Israel was established, India was already independent. Without its jewel, a crown is nothing more than a slightly odd-looking hat. Yet Empire merely leaves India dangling from the hand of the Queen Empress. Gand-who?

This selective storytelling is a shame, because Empire is a worthy enterprise. And Paxman is an affably cynical, cliche-avoiding guide. Next to him, the flat-capped Egyptian puffs again on his cigar. "You are very welcome here now," he says.

Empire starts on BBC One on 27 February at 9pm.

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