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Rhodes (BBC1), a great adventure on the part of the empire-builders at Television Centre, began with a sunrise and a bold epigraph. "I have considered the existence of God," said the voice of Martin Shaw, "and decided that there is a 50-50 chance that God exists. Therefore I propose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, what would this God want from the world? He would want it well run." Alan Parker's soundtrack surged in rapturous approval. Then, in case one epigraph wasn't enough, you were given another - Rhodes's youthful statement of intent, a mission that was to include "the bringing of the civilised world under British rule and the recovery of the United States of America.

For American audiences I suppose this will read as a rebuke to imperial hubris, but for British audiences, of whatever political complexion, it is likely to offer a different thrill - whether guilty or unabashed. It is the thrill of a limitless confidence about one's moral place in the world, an unquestioning patriotism that can now only be replicated as an act of political calculation. And, as if that double epigraph was evidence of an uncertainty about such volatile material, you were also given two beginnings - the conferring of an honorary degree in Oxford, which neatly provided the occasion for an explanatory biography and the pursuit of the infatuated Lady Radziwill, who corners the older Rhodes in his Groote Schuur study and admiringly proceeds to tell him the story of his life.

Of the two devices, I preferred the former, if only because Frances Barber's accent is an affliction from which you find yourself eager to escape into the bush. But once it plunged into the boy's own adventure of Rhodes's early life in the South African diamond fields, Anthony Thomas's script knew exactly what it was about - an African Western, complete with natural disasters, bar-room face-offs, lynch mobs and the frontier spirit. The details are subtly distinct - from the British insistence on dressing for dinner to the origins of Kimberley in a tangle of one-man mines - but Rhodes is unquestionably the white hat here, charming in his eagerness and energy. Playing the young Rhodes, Joe Shaw (the star's son) is fortunately cast for his first big role, the occasional awkwardnesses of his performance disappearing into the impetuous zeal of the character - a young man who brings to the diamond industry a prescience and courage his colleagues can't match.

Last week Paul Johnson suffered another of his attacks of intellectual incontinence - attacking the drama as further proof of television's pathological desire to smear all Great Englishmen. Mr Johnson's research into the matter doesn't appear to extend to opening the Radio Times, which would have told him that this is an eight-part series, rather than four parts, as he wrote in his piece. And, though I have only watched the first episode so far, it is also difficult to square his account of determined character assassination (including paedophilia, no less) with the ambivalent portrait actually presented. True, Rhodes stares rather fixedly at the pretty son of the Governor, but without Johnson's apoplectic gloss this gossamer insinuation would have been virtually invisible (the scene lasts something under two seconds). True, too, that Rhodes isn't the plaster saint Johnson seems to want; he is a complicated figure, one whose larger ideals can mean local compromises, such as damaging his competitor's machinery to ensure control of the industry. But that they are ideals, not just a cynical disguise for opportunism, is undoubted. If anything, indeed, this promising blend of adventure and history could be said to have tried too hard to present Rhodes in a flattering light, to its own cost as drama - Aylward, the digger against whose violent racism Rhodes makes an isolated stand, is depicted with the sort of performance that leaves flecks of spittle dribbling down your lapels. Set against this caricature of foaming rage even Paul Johnson might look like a reasonable man.