British Empire: ­Heroes and Villains review – a poignant reminder of how history gets rewritten

This look at how the British empire has been portrayed over the past 60 years is a lesson in revisionism. Plus: The Great Literary Scandal: The JT LeRoy Story

In 1972, the BBC screened one of its most ambitious history series, The British Empire, an unflinching interrogation of imperialism that was 13 hours long, took two and a half years to make and cost £500,000. It was the sort of clear-eyed assessment that is desperately needed now, mired as we are in fake news, alternative facts, a culture of appeasement and a present that seems to be hurtling forwards, or backwards, at the speed of light.

What did the establishment make of this warts-and-all account of British imperialism? In The British Empire: Heroes and Villains, A Timewatch Guide (BBC4, 9pm), historian David Olusoga reveals how one former official of the Raj was so incensed that he launched a debate in the House of Lords viciously attacking the public service broadcaster. It turns out that the BBC was none too pleased either and had attempted to make the young producers glorify the empire. They refused and threatened to resign en masse.

Olusoga’s more measured assessment is less about the history, and more about how it has been presented (and misrepresented) to us. Trawling through the BBC archive to see how the British empire has been portrayed on television over the past 60 years, the British-Nigerian historian comes up with all sorts of curiosities.

Take a bizarre 1971 documentary called A Touch of Churchill, A Touch of Hitler, in which the actor Kenneth Griffith took on the most divisive imperialist of all: Cecil Rhodes. Griffith described him “looming” over the biggest gold field the world had ever known, then changed tack to tell of his burning love for a secretary called Neville Pickering, to whom he left his entire fortune. When Pickering became ill, Griffith observed with a sentimental expression: “[Rhodes] personally nursed and cherished him, while other money-grabbers seized the gold.” His conclusion regarding the man he has just described as “the worst of the power-hungry imperialists”? “You see, it is impossible to totally dislike Cecil Rhodes.” Eh?

Another clip from a 1998 Timewatch programme presented by Kirsty Wark debated the benefits of British rule in India. After enduring the historian Andrew Roberts praising “the young men of the Indian civil service” who dedicated their lives to India with “fairness, decency and astonishingly little interest in personal gain”, Wark turned to politician and author Mani Shankar Aiya with a twinkle in her eye and asked what he thought. “It’s sneering, snivelling, supercilious and silly,” he replied calmly. “It’s unhistorical and totally unworthy of a history don.”

The point of Olusoga’s guide, which unfortunately is a bit too diplomatic for such deeply divided and egregious times, is that history is never done, nor should it be. In the past 60 years, we have viewed the British empire in every way imaginable, from a source of great pride to one of deep shame. Nowadays, as Jeremy Paxman sourly notes in the 2012 documentary Empire, Doing Good: “We seem to be in denial.” If the world is as it is today because of the empire, then we need to do more than learn the lessons of history. We need to keep revisiting them. I shudder to think what the documentaries of the 2070s will have to say about now.

The Great Literary Scandal: The JT LeRoy Story (Storyville, BBC4, 11pm) says some strange things about now too. Here is the slippery tale of the abused, HIV positive southern American hustler whose mother was a truck stop sex worker and who, in the 90s, wrote a small amount of fiction based on his life that led to comparisons with William Faulkner and Truman Capote. The world went mad for the mysterious, chronically shy It boy who pitched up at readings in a blond wig and dark glasses and partied with Winona Ryder, Bono and Courtney Love. Gus van Sant gave JT Leroy an associate producer credit on one of his films. Madonna sent Kabbalah books. Eventually the truth was unmasked. JT LeRoy was Laura Albert, a New Yorker in her 30s who had been hiding in plain sight as JT’s cockney sidekick “Speedie”.

It’s a labyrinthine and infuriating tale, and the film is just as annoying. Albert, who is interviewed at length, comes across as a damaged and largely unchallenged fantasist who appears to regard the invention of LeRoy as a myth justified by creative impulse and her own abusive past, rather than a hoax. The tapes of phone conversations that LeRoy (or rather Albert) had with friends, followers and a psychologist over years don’t seem entirely real. Are they reconstructions? Apparently not, but then why did Albert record everything? Ultimately, what you’re left with is an account as hollow and unreliable as the story of JT LeRoy itself.


Chitra Ramaswamy

The GuardianTramp

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