“Did the British do anything good in the 70 years they spent here?” Jeremy Paxman asks an elderly cigar-smoking Egyptian gentleman. “I think no..” comes the response after a couple of seconds. The fact that the man in question is sitting in the Cairo Croquet Club, of which he has been a member for 55 years, might make the conversation sound like a deleted scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but when he tells our host that “all Imperialism is bad”, you can’t help but disagree. Britain was never officially in Egypt, but with the Suez Canal just across the desert, the army spent a lot of time ‘on patrol’ there. How did we get away with such shenanigans? “It was all one big bluff” explains Paxman, which will probably annoy the ancestors of anyone who was brutally oppressed..
The Beeb usually only commission three-part miniseries for historical content like this, but Paxman is obviously a special case. Having written a good-deal of literature on Britain’s more recent history, our late-night politician-botherer is in his element here and it’s soon clear that Empire will be something a little bit special. Whether he strong-armed the BBC into it or vice-versa is unclear, but the corporation’s factual standard-bearer rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck into a vast and complex era of political, social and cultural history, like it’s a giant episode of Newsnight. Obviously he doesn’t hassle the poor bloke watching croquet in the same way he would an expense-fiddling U-turning politician, but his habit of playing Devil’s Advocate is a useful one, even when it’s tempered by a touch of humble charm.
Here he deftly crams more subjects into the hour than you’d usually find in a episode of University Challenge, seamlessly shifting from origin stories of how India came into British hands to Lawrence of Arabia and the Suez Crisis. A flexible approach is necessary for such hopelessly intricate subject matter and with Paxman’s rarely seen talent for Gonzo journalism coming to the fore, this looks like it could be a historical gem which skillfully traces the Empire’s rise, fall and legacy.