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


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The Independent Culture

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.