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BBC Empire – #4/5 – Making A Fortune – Jeremy Paxman



Empire is a 2012 BBC and Open University co-production, written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, charting the rise of the British Empire from the trading companies of India to the rule over a quarter of the world’s population and its legacy in the modern world

Episode Four

Paxman looks at how the empire began as a pirates’ treasure hunt. Privateers such as Henry Morgan robbed Spanish ships, largely in the Caribbean. Their naval expertise supported an informal empire based on trade and developed into a global financial network. He travels to Jamaica, where the production of sugar by Africa slaves generated the wealth of plantation owners; then to Calcutta, where British traders became the new princes of India. Unfair trading was a catalyst for the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, whose visit to Britain and the mill town of Darwen in 1931 is remembered by two Lancashire women, who were children at the time. The First Opium War was caused by British trade in opium with the Chinese, in defiance of Chinese law,; Britain’s subsequently took over the island of Hong Kong.


The series was criticised by some for its handling of controversial material while trying to avoid offense to numerous stakeholders and audiences. Associate editor of The Guardian, Michael White, said that “the structure of the programme was ramshackle” and he found the narrative to be “episodic and superficial”. He said that Paxman “was diffident charm itself”, as opposed to treating “the former subjects of empire with his customary … abrasiveness”. While White also found “the photography pretty as always”, he concluded that “the overall effect was curiously patronising, serving to reinforce the impression that the great man was basically on a jolly and going through the motions”.[2]

Stuart Jeffries, also for The Guardian, offered similar views, concluding that “Jeremy Paxman fails to argue strongly enough”. Nick Wood, for the Daily Mail, stated that Paxman’s approach was “all too predictably straight out of the cultural commissar’s lecture notes”, calling the series “cartoon propaganda”; Wood concluded that it “may be Mr Paxman, cowed like those poor dupes in 1897, was merely issuing a coded cry for help, hoping that a latter-day viceroy like the imperious Curzon, might free him from the mental chains of the Beeb’s script writers

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