Monday, 9 September 2013

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free (SHUUUT UUUP!)

So, a while ago someone made a throwaway comment about a friend wearing a pith helmet looking like Don Estelle from 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'. And that set me to thinking about David Croft and Jimmy Perry's less appreciated sitcom. Yes, they wrote 'Dad's Army', and we'll try to forgive them for 'Hi De Hi', but apparently the BBC, when considering during 2012 what shows they could repeat, took one look at 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' and decided that it basically could never, ever be shown again.

Now. Some of this is perhaps down to the treatment of transvestite gunner 'Gloria' Beaumont (although M*A*S*H got away with it), but I am sure that the main reason is Michael Bates' character, Ranjit Ram. Michael Bates is a white man (albeit of Indian ancestry) playing an Indian, complete with blackface (well, brownface, but still - not even Ben Kingsley could get away with that these days). Bates may have grown up in India and speak fluent Hindi, and the character may well be a largely sympathetic one, but he is still a figure of fun, and there is a bit too much of the aura of the 'Black And White Minstrel Show' about him. And fair enough - this is 2014, after all. But watching a couple of episodes tonight on YouTube, it strikes me that there's actually a deeper malaise at the heart of the show. It made me think back about the series and the way I had laughed at it as a young boy. I was eight when the series started, and nearly 16 when it finished, and by 1984 it was already a creature of another era, somehow belonging to the 1970s and 'Love They Neighbour' era, rather than the 'Alternative Comedy' of the 80s that seemed to speak to me and my generation. But in fact it was actually far older than that. The reason that 'Dad's Army' and 'Hi De Hi' felt authentic was that even in the 1970s and 80s they were period pieces, harking back to the 1940s and 50s, and Perry and Croft were obviously writing it based on their own experiences of that time. 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' was as much a creation of the 1940s and 50s as Anthony Eden, rationing and Brylcreem. And looking back on it, it seems to me no accident that this was the time of the retreat from Empire - the unravelling of a world-spanning power that before the war had stood for 200 years and people expected to last for many more. In a peculiar way, the programme is its own unwitting testimony to that era, and why the Empire was doomed.

Consider this: Ranjit Ram is a devotee of Britain. He speaks fluent English (albeit with plenty of dialect thrown in), he is in, or attached to, the British Army, serving the British Empire, fighting Britain's war against the Japanese. He even sings 'Land of Hope and Glory' during the closing credits of every episode (and is told to Shut Up in no uncertain terms by Windsor Davies' Welsh sergeant). Today, you'd have to ask the question; how much more British could he possibly be? He'd pass the Tebbit Test, and probably even most of the hoops that the Home Office makes prospective Britons jump through. And yet, when he says "We British" - and this is quite uncomfortable to recall today in 2014 - the 1970s studio audience laughs at his pretension to be something that he is, as far as they are concerned, 'evidently' not.

Empires rise and fall, and how and why they do is to me an interesting question. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers took an economic perspective, arguing that Empires rise to the point where the cost of defending and policing them outweighs the benefits, and he looked at Spain, Britain and the United States in those contexts, but what he didn't really examine was their social and political make-up. The most successful western empire that we know of, and the one that all western empires (even the Muslim ones) have ended up harking back to, is the Roman Empire, but for all of its classical columns and boys doing their Latin prep at Eton, it's belief that like the Romans they were spreading "civilisation", the British Empire was of a fundamentally different character to the Roman Empire, because the Romans were altogether more inclusive in a way that the British Empire never was. The Roman Empire progressively gave its citizens the same rights wherever they were, and allowed free movement throughout its borders. It tolerated and incorporated local religions and co-opted local elites. Yes, it could be ruthless with dissent, but provided you accepted a minimum standard of 'Romanness', it didn't matter whether you were Italian, Syrian, or even British (ironically, a by-word for barbarism in Rome). The British Empire did some of those things as well, but it never accepted Indians, Africans or even its American or Australian colonists as being on a par with the citizens of the motherland. There was no British equivalent of Augustus inviting the Gauls to send senators to Rome - no members of parliament for Calcutta West or Hong Kong - remember this was basically the straw that led to American Independence, which should have been the wake-up call for Britain. And as for an African leader, like Septimus Severus - the idea of a Nigerian prime minister would have been unthinkable for a 19th or even 20th century Briton.

So today, when Ranjit Ram says "We British", it's that mocking laughter that breaks my heart. Never mind any of the geopolitical arguments; that laughter is the reason why the British Empire is rightly confined to the history books, and the series is best confined there too.

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