Cecil Rhodes was the 'Colossus of Africa', a man after whom two countries were named. Now he's regarded as little more than a monster. So why is the BBC spending pounds 9m on an epic new drama about him? Antonia Feuchtwanger reports

WHEN Antony Thomas was a boy growing up with his grandparents in South Africa, he was taken to see the statue of Cecil Rhodes in gardens near the Cape Town parliament, facing north across the Dark Continent.

"It was like being a young Catholic boy taken to see the statue of a saint. For my grandparents Rhodes was a symbol of everything that was fine about their tradition and everything that was noble about being British. I was taught to thank God in my prayers every night for making me English."

Thomas, now one of Britain's most distinguished and controversial documentary film-makers, visited the statue again a few weeks ago. "Streaks of bird lime have made Rhodes's face an extraordinary mask and rust has dug a channel in his side. People who walk by hardly notice the inscription: 'Your hinterland is there'."

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), once prime minister of the Cape, controller of the world diamond monopoly and much of the world's gold production, a man after whom two countries were eventually named, seems forgotten in the land whose history he shaped.

White rule is over in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is president. Northern and Southern Rhodesia have long since become Zambia and Zimbabwe. English- speakers have emigrated in droves from the territories Rhodes dreamt of peopling with Anglo-Saxons. Even De Beers's diamond monopoly may soon be undermined.

But on a vast ranch near Johannesburg, the supposedly cash-strapped BBC has just finished filming an epic, nine-hour drama based on Rhodes's life. The series, directed by the television veteran David Drury, is to be broadcast next autumn. It took six months to shoot, at a cost of around pounds lm an episode, and is - at least according to the BBC - one of the most ambitious pieces of original historical drama ever made for British television.

One could argue that Rhodes offers more obvious audience appeal than other recent period pieces, Pride and Prejudice included. It stars macho Martin Shaw - Doyle in The Professionals - and looks like a western: dashing slouch-hatted horsemen confronting hordes of half-naked warriors, against a backdrop of vast, dusty plains and late-19th-century mining camps full of prospectors and prostitutes. Yet it has taken over 11 years for Rhodes to reach production, because of the political and financial difficulties of filming on a grand scale in a country out of bounds to foreign actors and crew for so long.

The series is no hagiography of the man once called the "Colossus of Africa". Thomas, who wrote the script, rebelled against his conservative upbringing, supported the African National Congress in its armed struggle against apartheid and left South Africa after his film-making activities led to "coarse interrogation" and imprisonment.

In 1970 his fascination with Rhodes developed when he directed a documentary on him called A Touch of Churchill, a Touch of Hitler, described by the Daily Telegraph as "a brilliant speech for the prosecution". Rhodes was portrayed as a man who had elbowed his way to a fortune in the no-holds- barred melee of the Kimberley diamond rush. He had tricked African rulers out of their lands and gold. His men had gunned down their armies and run his great adversary, the Matabele king Lobengula, into the veld. By the 1970s, Rhodes, racist and imperialist, could be shown only as a monster.

EVEN JUDGED by the standards of his own day, Rhodes had his failings. He was heavily implicated in the famously bungled Jameson Raid on the Transvaal in 1895, helping to trigger a bitter war in which tens of thousands of Boer and African civilians were killed. And then there was the mystery of his relationship with the Princess Radziwill, convicted of fraud, who claimed to be his fiancee.

For Thomas, directing the documentary was "very painful. It reverberated back to my early childhood. I felt self-disgust because Rhodes was part of my own identity." Thomas found himself searching through Rhodes's own letters to learn more.

He was amazed to find that when Rhodes arrived in Africa at the age of 17, a vicar's son with a weak heart and lungs, still dressed in his half- outgrown cricket flannels, he was an oddly perceptive and sensitive young man, obsessed by fairness. What was more, Rhodes seemed full of respect for black people. The cotton farm Rhodes's brother was trying to establish in Natal when the young Cecil came out to join him included land belonging to a local chief. "Legally, Rhodes could have taken it, but at the age of 17, he refused," Thomas says.

"This was a man who went on to seize over 600,000 square miles of Africa - and 25 years later, at the time of the Matabele rebellion, shouted to his men: 'Kill all you can everything black.' How dare people in Britain be so ignorant of someone like that?"

In 1983 Thomas, by then well-known for his controversial documentary Death of a Princess but untested as a drama writer, took his ideas to Zenith, an independent TV production company. Despite Thomas's intention to stick closely to the historical record, the subject was a sensitive one. Seven years on from the Soweto riots, the struggle against apartheid had become increasingly violent. Nelson Mandela was still behind bars. International pressure on P W Botha's regime was intensifying and the British actors' union Equity banned its members from performing in South Africa.

For Martin Shaw, who was approached to play the lead at that time, filming in South Africa would have been out of the question for reasons of conscience. "I didn't go to demos that turned violent," he recalls, "because I think they add to the anger that causes the tyranny. But I would not buy South African produce."

The obstacles to shooting the series in what was - given the settings and numbers of extras required - the only feasible location, seemed insuperable. But by 1990, economic and diplomatic pressures, rising violence, falling white living standards and President F W de Klerk's own change of heart, had changed everything. The release of Nelson Mandela demonstrated that the world's last racial oligarchy was coming to an end.

Thomas obtained the approval of the ANC for the script, which the party said "got to the roots of the long history of exploitation and dispossession in South Africa". More surprisingly, and even after four professors of Afrikaans had read the script, the white government said it had no objection to filming - lending credence to Thomas's claim to have avoided the extremes of hagiography on the one hand and left-wing hatchet job on the other.

But despite these endorsements, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation, riven with doubts over its future in a fast-changing political landscape, dithered over whether to join Zenith and the BBC in a project of such epic expense. If the BBC had not committed itself to financing production last spring, without SABC or other partners, the final chance of making Rhodes might have been lost.

SHOOTING finally began in May 1995, on a ranch selected for its varied scenery, around 30 miles from Johannesburg. But the production's problems were far from over. "When a foreign crew arrives to make a film about your history, there's bound to be speculation, especially when they come from a country which is - to put it mildly - severely implicated in your past," says executive producer Scott Meek.

The producers were worried that black actors might be reluctant to take part. The award-winning black actor and musician Washington Sixolo, for example, had few illusions about Rhodes: "I know he exploited our people. The exploitation came from the way Lobengula [the Matabele king played by Sixolo in Rhodes] trusted him." But once the potential cast read the scripts, parts of which are in the Ndebele language with subtitles, word went out that this was, as Thomas puts it, "an OK production".

A few South Africans, however, took more convincing. When casting the mighty Lob- engula, director David Drury was surprised to find that one actor had brought a friend to the audition.

Drury outlined the role, emphasising the parallels in the script between the court of Queen Victoria, which two of Lobengula's chiefs visit in a bid to overturn Rhodes's claim to their country, and the kraal of their own king. The "friend" stared sternly at the director as he admitted he had not actually done the historical research in person, and eventually spoke: "It was so. That was as it happened." The embarrassed actor explained afterwards that his friend was a direct descendant of Lobengula. The family, it seemed, was checking the production out.

Others may argue that history has been tampered with for the sake of political correctness. Such was the director's concern to give Lobengula dignity that details described by contemporary witnesses, such as the old British sailor's cap the king wore and the large condensed-milk tin he used as a throne, were dispensed with.

But there was a danger, Thomas and Drury were agreed, of a cleaned-up Lobengula becoming comic, which would have distracted from his terrifying power. A truly PC Rhodes might have cut the scenes of brutal executions ordered by Lobengula altogether; as it is, the series treats them with more regard for liberal sensitivities than one finds, for example, in the 1950s children's book The True Story of Cecil Rhodes in Africa, which emphasises the king's taste for burning whole families alive and tossing their bones over a cliff.

FOR WHITE South Africans, however, the most contentious issue was not the rights and wrongs of deposing a ruler like Lobengula but that of Rhodes's sexuality. Even Queen Victoria had been moved to ask Rhodes whether he was a woman-hater, and the answer ("How could I hate a sex to which Your Majesty belongs?") was longer on tact than revelation. Rhodes never married. He surrounded himself with a coterie of handsome young men who were excluded if they became engaged.

Just after the gigantic Witwatersrand gold reef was discovered, Rhodes is known to have dashed back to Kimberley to nurse his dying friend Neville Pickering, thus losing the chance to buy two farms which might have given him some of the same clout in the world's gold market as he already had in diamonds. At Pickering's funeral, according to witnesses, Rhodes appeared on the edge of madness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the aspect of Rhodes which most fascinated the South African press. "It is true you show Rhodes in a gay bar in Kimberley?" a local reporter demanded. Someone in the cast is supposed to have joked, in a reference to a notorious New York club, "Yes. It's called the Mineshaft."

Despite his tough-guy image, Martin Shaw had no difficulty with this side of Rhodes. "If I had to play a man in love with a sheep I'd just look lovingly and lustfully at the sheep. That's why I'm an actor. Rhodes loves other men rather than women but does not consummate that sexually - that's the way I played the role."

Thomas's verdict is more complex. "I don't like people calling this series The Gay Cecil Rhodes. We think of Victorian times as being a period of prudery and repression. But there wasn't the modern need to categorise people by their sexuality."

Thomas has just interviewed Ronnie Currey, grandson of Rhodes's secretary Harry Currey, who believes - on the basis of an unpublished 75-page letter from his grandfather - that Rhodes resorted to visiting low-life women in Kimberley. But after 16 years of imaginative sympathy with Rhodes, Thomas's own verdict is: "I do not believe he ever had sex, just profound relationships with young men."

Thomas adds: "I was in the Kimberley Club when we were thinking of filming there and this awful man, the secretary I think, asked me: 'Are you going to say Rhodes was queer?' I said: 'Well, if turning your back on your career to nurse someone who's dying, day and night for six weeks, makes you queer, then he was queer. And I wish I was exactly the same.' "

He hopes the series will spark off a historical debate about a man he feels it is monstrous to ignore. In Britain, accustomed to the relentless debunking of nearly every traditional hero from Drake to Churchill, the cold eye the series casts on Rhodes's achievements will come as no surprise. But conservative South African whites may be in for something of a shock. Now that the South African Broadcasting Corporation has at last bought the rights to screen the series, local viewers will find that a few myths have been knocked on the head.

Major Allan Wilson, for example, a soldier laid to rest near Rhodes's own grave, was typically depicted in engravings singing "God Save the Queen" as his doomed Shangani Patrol held out to the last man against the Matabele. The latest research, however, suggests he actually committed suicide. Rhodes shows Wilson putting a bullet through his head.

Sixolo says: "This series is going to be an education to a lot of people who are going to learn how black people were exploited. It will be an eye-opener." But the most immediate effect of filming an epic story in a country cut off for so long from the mainstream could be the chance it has given to local cast and crew to perform to international standards. If the country's spectacular scenery and turbulent history attract more film-makers in the future, that opportunity could be the beginning of something important.

"We were demonstrably making every effort to involve black crew," says executive producer Meek, although the most senior was a second assistant director. "In the past, black South Africans were not given access to the infrastructure that would allow them the skills. But we took trainees where we could."

The local cast, according to Martin Shaw, were amazed to be asked for their ideas, rather than simply told what to do.

Sixolo says: "It gave every actor, and I'm talking about the black actors here, a new way of working. Local directors, usually white because black directors have not been long in the game, give more instructions. But with David Drury we discussed thoroughly with him exactly what to do. I appreciated that very much."

For Meek, himself involved with the project for over 10 years, one of the most moving moments came on a day that could have been the worst of his life. Soon after a replica of the town of Kimberley had been built, a bush fire broke out on the veld, beyond the reach of professional fire- fighters. Meek took the next plane to Johannesburg, arriving in the early hours of the morning to find the fire was out. About 120 tents in the mining encampment had been lost, but the town was safe. As cast and crew staggered in for a cold beer, the soles of their shoes still smoking from stamping out the flames, team spirit flickered into life. "It was: 'We're the Rhodes crew, we can do anything!' " Meek recalls.

He adds: "I know people who work in film are self-selecting. But when I saw how constructively black and white South Africans worked together, then I thought, 'Yes, it is possible to have a functioning multi-racial society here.' " It is not the epitaph Cecil Rhodes would have expected.

! 'Rhodes' will be shown on BBC1 next autumn.

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