• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

TV review: The Birth of Empire shows the sun never sets on foolishness

This programme was so crammed with tales of British pluck and spirit and adventuring that I checked the credits to see if the presenter was actually Flashman.

I love the Flashman novels but do realise they're fictional and that brave chaps, dashing heroes and swashbuckling sorts don't often exist, yet this programme devoted an hour to convincing me I was wrong. Flashman lives, you bally devils!

This episode, the first in the series, looked at the creation of the British Empire via the famous East India Company. They had a monopoly on trade with the East and so grew to become 'the greatest company in the world', with their wealth rivalling that of Britain itself.

Although we may be disenchanted these days with mammoth companies, crazed for profits, Dan Snow presented a romantic view of the East India Company and lionised the brave British fellows who went forth in its service.

In his pristine khakis and floppy hat, Snow walked tall and cool amongst 'the natives' in India, telling wondrous tales of those 'early pioneers' and 'ragtag band of adventurers' who joined the Company and laid the foundations of Empire. There was not a whisper about exploitation or greed or aggrandisement. Do they expect us to believe that the Empire - any empire - could be built without such things? But no, Dan Snow's heroes were polite chaps who didn't land-grab but, rather, 'formed alliances' and so created the Empire 'by accident'. Yes, apparently those gallant souls braved the dangerous sea voyage purely for giggles.

His idealisation of the men of the East India Company continued, with extracts from their diaries and letters appearing onscreen in elegant sepia-toned copperplate accompanied by hearty voiceovers detailing fevers, drunken escapades and babies being rescued from snakes. Listening to this, I felt I was sitting round a Boy Scout campfire.

It was delivered against a backdrop of golden spices and molten sunsets, and topped off with a melancholy stroll through a cemetery to remember the British dead who couldn't cope with the rainy season.

I'm not one of those History Harpies who thinks the British Empire was evil but clearly it wasn't all good either, and that's why soppy claptrap like this sets my teeth on edge. Few things in history are so simple that they can have a label of 'good' or 'bad', but these nostalgia-clouded programmes encourage such partisan thinking. Hearing about the brave pioneers of Britannia may have some UKIP-types dabbing their eyes but will have others throwing their dinner at the screen. It prods people to take sides instead of genuinely learning about the Empire and coming to recognise it has shades of grey as well as pink.

History itself can seem like this: steadfast and sealed off. The endless rows of old books by revered professors give the impression that everything has been decided and set in cold stone. So if you're new to a subject it can be hard to get a foothold.

Say you wanted to learn a bit more about the Cold War. You'd soon find yourself venturing back to the Second World War to find out where it all sprang from. Then you'd have to reel back to the First World War before you could even begin to understand the Second. Before you know it you're stuck in the slog of Imperialism and Prussia and Kaiser Wilhelm when all you really wanted was a few Google Images of some cool hydrogen bomb detonations.

Even once you've found your way into your subject you find the ground shifts beneath you. Things are not what they seemed and the good/bad dichotomy is shown as nonsense. You learned at school of the Blitz spirit and everyone pulling together but now you know that the rich scarpered to Canada or their country estates. You read about the Battle of Britain and find that more than a few of The Few were Polish. Nothing is ever black or white, good or bad.

So, a proper study of the Empire would be exhausting but unless you're content with history in Mills and Boon style from the telly you'll need to make a start. However, every history book you pull from the shelf has been shaped and tweaked by an historian with his own opinions and prejudices. Tough. Until they invent a time machine we'll have to accept history through the filter of an individual historian.

But there is another way. To get into History, ignore the historians. You need a way into your subject, a soft and easy summary of the whole mess and then, once you're acquainted, you can zoom in sharp and specialise.

For those who want such an introduction to the Empire, read the Pax Britannica trilogy by Jan Morris. She's a travel writer so she isn't pushing a cause at you (although you may draw your own conclusions from the fact that she is a Welsh nationalist). Her books simply describe the story of the Empire in jewel-bright prose. She writes of exotic foreign kings who were drunk on 'raw spirit, meat juice and powdered pearls' and who ordered a banquet illuminated by 42,000 lamps and drank 'fire water in a gold carafe…with royal children crawling about the floor and a party of screaming dancing-girls'.

Getting to grips with 'British History' is crucial in the midst of our referendum campaign where the extremists on one side will tell you the Empire was butchery and those on the other will tell you it was glory. Wear your library card thin in making up your own mind.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

230181