Last night's viewing - Empire, BBC1; David Hockney: the Art of Seeing, BBC2

 

Could the BBC have found a more imperial presenter for Empire than Jeremy Paxman? I doubt it, frankly. He's been burnished by years in the Newsnight chair to a high gloss of viceregal self-assurance. As the opening sequence of his new series demonstrated, he can even arch an eyebrow at British imperium itself: "How did such a small country get such a big head?" he asked scornfully as he began an episode devoted to the British exercise of power. The big head, it turned out, was a necessary condition rather than a consequence. In India, fewer than 6,000 British officials held dominion over 200 million people, an improbability achieved partly by classic divide-and-rule techniques but also by means of a dazzling confidence trick. Visiting Government House in Calcutta – an imposing relic of Imperial India – Paxman argued that the classical facade was an instrument of authority. By looking as if they were entitled to run the country the British ensured that they would continue to do so: "It helps to explain that arrogant, self-satisfied look you see on the face of so many British imperialists," said Paxman, who more than once appeared to be offering us a helpful reconstruction of a Victorian sense of manifest destiny. He's grand enough to interview a maharajah in his palace and make it look as if he's the one giving the audience.

For the Victorians, the bluff didn't always work. Paxman visited the ruins of Government House at Lucknow, besieged during the Indian mutiny and only relieved after horrible suffering on both sides. And while it's not impossible to find impressive residues of empire – in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta or the Sandhurst precision of the Madras Regiment's parade ground – the impression mostly given here was of a kind of fairy-tale evaporation, the clock striking 12 and the grandeur vanishing instantly. Visiting the Durbar parade grounds in Delhi, once the site of the grandest of all imperial displays, Paxman found a scrubby wasteland and a caretaker who neither knew nor cared what once happened there. Even more entertainingly, he bumped into a blazered old gent at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, who doggedly refused to yield an inch to historical nostalgia. "We weren't all bad, were we?" asked Paxman. "All kinds of imperialism are bad," replied the man. "Did they do nothing good," pressed Paxman, beginning to sound a little pleading now. The man paused for thought: "No... nothing."

It wasn't obvious that Paxman felt much different, for all the yearning in his question. This wasn't one of those histories of Empire that proudly recounts how many miles of railway line were laid on the Indian subcontinent or rolls out a fourth-generation Anglophile to hymn the British sense of fair play. It began with an acknowledgement that "much of the Empire was built on greed and a lust for power" and concluded with the shambles of Palestine, a tale of incompatible promises made to both Arab and Jew and an ignominious retreat from the responsibilities of Empire. Global power, Paxman seemed to imply, in a programme that was more opaque in its argumentative line than it needed to be, all too often comes down to the power to make a historic mess of things.

The Culture Show's enjoyable David Hockney: the Art of Seeing began with a sunrise, Andrew Marr and a rather more famous artist simultaneously trying to capture a garish Bridlington dawn on their iPads. The film that followed showcased Hockney's latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, as well as his frantic energy as an artist and talker. "We're all on our own," Hockney said at one point, meaning our vision of the world is so subjective that no two of us see the same view. But it captured an odd solipsism about his conversation too. He scarcely needs anyone to ask a question or listen to the answer. He just needs a green light to go.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all