Last Night's Viewing: Queen Victoria’s Last Love, Channel 4 Justified, 5USA


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The Independent Culture

Every year at the court of Queen Victoria, the royal household amused itself with "am-drams": costumed aristos created tableaux inspired by well-known paintings and stories.

Sometime around 1890, the photographic record shows, an Indian man appeared as a servant in the background of one such image. Within a few years, however, Abdul Karim was centre stage, seated on a throne, as the King of Egypt. This fantastic detail, from Channel 4's engaging documentary Queen Victoria's Last Love, reflected Karim's rising real-life status as the favourite servant of the elderly Victoria. Arriving at court in 1887 as a mere table-hand, he soon became the Queen's Hindustani teacher and beloved "Munshi". She gave the young man houses at three of her residences, and signed her letters to him "Mother".

Great Britain was gripped by Islamophobia, exacerbated by its imperial forays in the Islamic world, but the Empress defended Karim from anti-Muslim prejudice. This sounds remarkably enlightened for the 19th century, until you learn she loved her servant so much that she wrote to the Viceroy of India, recommending he ban a rival Hindu festival.

Karim's improper, irresistible rise infuriated the household, who did everything in their power to undermine him. The Queen was deterred from awarding him a knighthood on her Diamond Jubilee only when her doctor threatened to declare her insane. After she died in 1901, Karim was banished to the lands he'd accrued in India.

We know about Victoria's former favourite, John Brown, thanks to Billy Connolly. But this was an intriguing, rarely told final chapter of the Queen's life, narrated in the genial tones of Geoffrey Palmer. The Munshi was not the wronged gentleman one might imagine, but a creature of raw ambition. "Pompous, conceited... A pain in the arse," was one historian's assessment.

Does the name Raylan Givens mean anything to you? Because, if not, you've been missing out on one of TV's great non-guilty pleasures. Justified is buried unjustly in the backyard of the freeview schedule on 5USA, where it attracts little of the attention that's showered on its rivals. Think Don Draper's cool? Wait till you see Timothy Olyphant wear a stetson.

Raylan (Olyphant) is a quick-on-the-draw US marshal, created by novelist Elmore Leonard and doubtless descended from fellow federal lawman Seth Bullock, whom the actor played in Deadwood. After shooting one too many crooks on his Miami beat, Raylan was banished to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, at the start of series one.

Justified started out as a straightforward genre proposition with a superior script, a cowboy story transplanted to the present day. But with two and a half series under its gunbelt, it has become far richer than that. Speaking of transplants, last night's episode began with Dewey Crowe, Harlan's daftest thug, waking in a bath-tub to be told that an evil male nurse had removed his kidneys, and would sell them back for no less than $20,000. Dewey, desperate for cash, duly went on a brilliantly ineffectual crime spree.

This is a show with familiar thrills, regular showdowns and/or shootouts. But what sets it apart is the bullet-quick banter. To judge by its residents' colourful vocab and sharp wit, Harlan must be the spot where the family trees of Al Swearengen and Roger Sterling intertwine. What do you know about kidneys, Raylan asked the evil nurse's sidekick. "They're the Cadillac of beans," he replied.

Series two boasted an extraordinary, Emmy-winning antagonist in redneck matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale). This third run features a glut of villains vying for screen time, but it remains Hall of Fame-worthy stuff. If you've yet to make Raylan's acquaintance, invest in a box-set immediately.