Last night's viewing - Afghanistan: The Great Game, BBC2; The Queen and I, ITV1

 

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The Independent Culture

Television histories don't usually spend a lot of time establishing their presenter's credentials. Unless they've really gone populist and handed the job over to Richard Hammond, we're supposed to take it for granted that the person on screen actually knows what he or she is talking about.

But credentials can always be slipped into these things in one way or another. It didn't exactly hurt, for example, that we saw Rory Stewart greeting some dinner guests in Pashtun at the beginning of Afghanistan: The Great Game, or that snapshots of his solo walk across the country, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, were flashed on to the screen from time to time. The implication was clear: Stewart is himself a contemporary equivalent of the Victorian scholar-adventurers he was talking about, a man prepared – literally – to walk the walk and talk the talk.

I imagine some rival historians of Afghan history can match his immersion in the country's culture and terrain, but I bet there aren't many who could view the fatal abandonment of Kabul at the end of the first Afghan war from a perspective as intimately knowing as Stewart's. When he was serving as a deputy governor in Iraq for the Coalition, he also found himself besieged by enraged locals and offered safe passage in return for a surrender of arms. He thought it was a trap and decided to fight it out. But Major-General Elphinstone accepted such a deal and lost his entire army, bar one ragged survivor who made it to Jellallabad. Different countries entirely, of course, but Stewart's experience makes it tricky to dismiss him as an armchair pacifist.

He is at pains here to rub salt into the wounds of history. When he says, of the prelude to the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1839, that "the hawks decided the answer was regime-change" he wants us to be in no doubt at all about the contemporary lessons to be drawn from all previous great-power incursions into the country; that we're simply repeating the follies of our forebears. The reasons seem to be much the same too, a stew of imperial paranoia and ignorant simplification that always foments into violence. A dodgy dossier was used to provoke the first British attempt to subdue Afghanistan – and the campaign was conducted with an imperial swagger that is curiously reminiscent of the Americans on the march, carrying with them every comfort of home. The 16th Lancers took a pack of foxhounds with them into Afghanistan in 1839.

What we have repeatedly failed to understand, Stewart argues, is Afghani pride in resistance. "We have accepted poverty," said a member of the royal family, "because we want to be free." You wondered whether the reverse might be true too; that they fetishise freedom (and pride) because they don't have anything else. But either way it's bad news for foreign invaders, whether their intentions are punitive or evangelistic. Afghan children grow up knowing about a battle that we would prefer to forget – the Battle of Maiwand in Helmand in 1880, when the British Army was defeated with the loss of nearly 1,000 men. That engagement persuaded General Roberts that discretion might be the better part not just of valour but of statecraft too. "Offensive though it may be to our pride," he wrote, "the less they see of us the less they will dislike us." It's almost certainly true 130 years on.

The Queen and I was a programme of Platonic and unimprovable dullness, consisting of home-movies of Her Majesty visiting her subjects and her subjects being reduced to that bovine state of wonder that she always seems to induce in people. As well as the archive footage those who had taken and appeared in the films were interviewed about their "magical memories" – randomly shuffling the words "gracious", "wonderful", and "flawless complexion". I lapsed into unconsciousness after about 15 minutes.

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