Wednesday 21 November 2018

John Boland: Empire of the smug -- Paxo versus the Pax Britannica

Full of attitude: Jeremy Paxman visits India and questions the arrogance of his British ancestors in Empire
Full of attitude: Jeremy Paxman visits India and questions the arrogance of his British ancestors in Empire

If you google BBC One's new five-part series, Empire, which began this week, the first thing you'll encounter is a Daily Mail headline fuming that "Paxman's Sneer Goes Global: He Trashes the Raj and Scorns Queen Victoria".

The accompanying article furiously maintains that whereas a TV series on the British empire should be focusing on "railways, the rule of law, a modern civil service, playing cricket and polo and an end to barbaric practices", all that Paxman has come up with is "cartoon propaganda" -- leading the paper's apoplectic writer to conclude: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

Certainly, Empire's first episode was full of attitude, but that's an inevitable outcome of hiring the combative Paxman as scriptwriter- presenter, and for those not afflicted by a Little Englander mindset it made the programme all the more engrossing.

Anyway, Paxman had given a prior indication of his overall stance when he remarked to the Radio Times last week: "Nobody wants to be ruled by foreigners, do they?"

In a future episode he'll be getting around to Ireland, the occupation of which he views as "an unashamedly imperial venture", but he began the first instalment in India, casting a beady eye on how a little island on the western fringe of northern Europe acquired this vast and exotic crown jewel.

It achieved this feat, he argued, because of its "greed and lust for power". ("How did such a small country get such a big head?" he wondered in passing.)

And it accomplished it by means of a "gigantic confidence trick" whereby the mere insistence of superiority -- in force, in majesty, in pomp -- was sufficient to convince the people it was colonising of such superiority, despite the fact that a mere 6,000 British officials held sway over 200 million people.

This, Paxman asserted, helped to explain "that arrogant, self-satisfied look you see on the faces of so many British imperialists".

At a croquet club in Cairo, he asked an elderly and distinguished-looking Egyptian member if the British had done anything good during their 70-year occupancy of that country.

The man reflected for a second before saying, "I think... no. Nothing." Paxman persisted: "Nothing?" Then the old gent conceded: "Well, maybe croquet."

The programme was full of such diverting moments and of provocative ones, too, such as when the presenter wondered whether Britain's recent fondness for going to war was because it was trying to compensate for the fact that 200 years of empire-building had finally evaporated in a mere couple of decades.

Somewhat less riveting was I'm in a Boy Band! (BBC Two), a phenomenon described by Ronan Keating as "a ball of energy and fun to look at", though he acknowledged, "sometimes it's as much fun to watch it fall apart". He should know.

The programme, however, never quite got round to defining what constitutes a boy band, though amid all the Boyzones, Westlifes, Take Thats and other recognisably boyband lineups, it also namechecked the Beatles and the Four Tops, which seemed to be pushing things a bit. Why not the Kinks, then, or the Stones or the Doors? We weren't told.

It took all of five minutes before boyband manager Louis Walsh appeared in this documentary, which was about the same length of time before he featured as the main guest on RTÉ Two's Craig Doyle Live, which began a twice-weekly slot this week.

It's a mere three months since Doyle hosted the calamitous and deservedly short-lived The Social on the same channel, but such is RTÉ's determination to find a suitable light entertainment outlet for this never-off-our-screens advocate of a particular satellite provider that it has devised yet another format for him.

Actually, it hasn't. Minus The Social's forlorn set, this is the same mixture as before -- unfunny smart-aleck quips from the host and a couple of D-list panellists, and then fawning interviews with celebs whose inordinate lust for the limelight should preclude them from ever having the opportunity to bask in it.

Such strictures, alas, belong to an ideal world. In the real world of RTÉ television, constant exposure to the likes of Louis Walsh and Gerald Kean is the norm and if they're not on Tubridy's Late Late or Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show you can be sure they'll be slavishly indulged in some other programme.

And thus the presence in Doyle's show of Walsh, who took his awestruck host to task for having once "slagged off" the Walsh-managed duo, Jedward. "I learned my lesson," Doyle said, and I listened in vain for any trace of a sardonic tone that might somehow have made this reply even vaguely palatable.

The six-part serial, Six Degrees (BBC One), is notable for being a rare drama undertaken by BBC Northern Ireland. That, though, is the best I can say about this week's opening two episodes, which introduced us to a peculiarly unappealing sextet of Queen's undergraduates as they boozed their way around Belfast and, when they weren't actually insulting each other, indulged in aggressive banter.

The makers were clearly aiming to engage the viewers in the lives of these people, but I found it all quite charmless.

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