Empire (2012 TV series)

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Series title in brickwork against cracked sand back
Genre Documentary
Written by Jeremy Paxman
Directed by John Hay
Roger Parsons
Robin Dashwood
David Vincent
Presented by Jeremy Paxman
Theme music composer Chris Nicolaides
Composer(s) Chris Nicolaides
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 5
Executive producer(s) Basil Comely (BBC)
Catherine McCarthy (Open University)
Producer(s) Julian Birkett
Cinematography Mike Garner
Editor(s) Andrea Carnevali
Running time 55-60 minutes
Production company(s) The Open University, BBC productions CoProduction
Original network BBC
Original release 27 February (2012-02-27) – 26 March 2012 (2012-03-26)

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 the legacy in the modern world.[1]

Episode one: A Taste for Power[edit]

Paxman asks how a tiny island in the North Atlantic came to rule over a quarter of the world's population. He travels to India, where local soldiers and local maharajahs helped a handful of British traders to take over vast areas of land. Spectacular displays of imperial power dazzled the local peoples and developed a cult of Queen Victoria as Empress, mother and virtual God. In Egypt, Paxman explores Britain as a temporary peace-keeper whose visit turned into a seventy-year occupation. He travels to the desert where Lawrence of Arabia is still remembered by elder tribesman that brought a touch of romance to the grim struggle of the First World War and the British triumph in Palestine that led Britain to believe it could solve the world's problems that haunts the Middle East to this day.

Episode two: Making Ourselves at Home[edit]

Paxman continues his story of Britain's empire by looking at how traders, conquerors and settlers spread the British way of life around the world by creating a very British home. Beginning in India where early traders wore Indian costume and took Indian wives and their descendants still look fondly on their mixed heritage which in Victorian Britain was frowned upon as inter racial mixing became taboo. In Singapore he visits a club, now open to all, where British colonials used to gather together, in Canada he finds a town of Scottish ancestry whose inhabitants proud of the traditions, have shops selling imported Scottish goods, in Kenya he meets the descendants of the first white settlers who were bitterly resented as pressure for African independence grew and he traces the story of an Indian family in Leicester whose migrations have been determined by the changing fortunes of the British empire.

Episode three: Playing the Game[edit]

Paxman traces the growth of a peculiarly British type of hero - adventurer, gentleman, amateur, sportsman and decent chap and the British obsession with sport. He travels to East Africa in the following Victorian explorers searching for the source of the Nile; to Khartoum in Sudan to tell the story of General Gordon, and to Hong Kong where the British indulged their passion for horse racing by building a spectacular race course and to Jamaica where the greatest imperial game of all cricket became a battleground for racial equality when the West Indies formerly always had a white captain replaced by a black man.

Episode four: Making a Fortune[edit]

Paxman looks at how the empire began as a pirates' treasure hunt robbing Spanish ships and ports using privateers such as Henry Morgan and grew into an informal empire based on trade and developed into a global financial network. He travels to Jamaica where sugar made plantation owners rich on the mistreatment of African slaves, then to Calcutta where British traders became the new princes of India. Unfair trading helped start the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi whose visit to Britain and the mill town of Darwen in 1931 is remembered by two women, who were children at the time, from Lancashire. The First Opium War when British trade in opium with the Chinese in defiance of Chinese law led to war and Britain's subsequent take over of the island of Hong Kong.

Episode five: Doing Good[edit]

Paxman tells the story of how a desire for conquest became a mission to improve the rest of mankind, especially in Africa, and in Central Africa he travels in the footsteps of David Livingstone, who although a failure as a missionary became a legend. A flood of Christian missionaries followed him and founded schools, one of which today has 8000 pupils. In South Africa, Paxman tells the story of Cecil Rhodes, a maverick with a different sort of mission, who believed in the white man's right to rule the world and took vast swathes of land for the British Empire, administered by small numbers of colonial officials, the District Officers, and arguably laying down the foundations for apartheid. In Kenya, conflict in the form of the Mau Mau Uprising between white settlers and African rebels brought bloodshed, torture, and eventual independence for Kenya and the break up of the empire in Africa.


A book "Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British" and a region 2 DVD "Empire" accompany the series.


The series has received some criticism in respect to its handling of the subject matter while trying not to offend. Associate editor of The Guardian, Michael White, stated that "the structure of the programme was ramshackle" and he found the narrative to be "episodic and superficial", stating that Paxman himself "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".[3] 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".[4]


  1. ^ "BBC One - Empire". BBC. Retrieved 2012-03-23. 
  2. ^ White, Michael (2012-02-28). "Jeremy Paxman's Empire: a wasted chance we need to take". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-03-23. 
  3. ^ Stuart Jeffries (2012-02-27). "TV review: Empire; David Hockney: The Art of Seeing | Television & radio". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-03-23. 
  4. ^ Wood, Nick (2012-02-29). "Empire: Jeremy Paxman trashes the Raj and scorns Queen Victoria". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2012-03-23. 

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