Google the word Ottoman and you are more likely to be presented with a long list of storage chests than an empire that stretched from Baghdad to Budapest by way of the Bosphorus. And what’s more, in living memory (should you have, say, recently celebrated your 100th birthday) this last great Islamic empire still existed, more or less. Rageh Omaar, writer-presenter of The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors, was understandably eager to give his new series a more contemporary relevance however, and he managed that admirably with a simple roll call of the modern-day states – none of them currently trending on TravelSupermarket – that were once subsumed within the Ottoman Empire.
Moving in an anti-clockwise direction from Tunisia, the empire also included Libya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and the Balkans. And while Omaar was careful not to oversell his central thesis that “if you don’t understand the Ottomans then you don’t understand the modern transformations in today’s Balkans and Middle East”, it was an eye-watering list of contemporary trouble spots, many of them reported on by Omaar in his previous role as BBC News war correspondent – the so-called “scud stud”.
It was the victors of the First World War, France and Britain, who carved up the sprawling carcass with little concern for ethnic realities, settling it on thoroughly unstable tectonic plates. But why, wondered Omaar, have the Ottomans vanished from the history of modern Europe? Certainly when I started school in the 1970s, I can recall no mention of their existence, but then perhaps for the post-imperial Britain of that decade, having inherited Turkey’s mantle as “the sick man of Europe”, it was all too close to home. More likely, this absence was because modern, defiantly secular Turkey had turned its back on its own Ottoman past, a history with which it is currently busy catching up. Omaar showed us clips from one of the region’s most popular TV dramas, Magnificent Century, an epic set in the court of the potent Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.
Omaar claimed that 200 million people are glued to this show, which must put it on a par with Downton Abbey. On which subject, I wonder how the presenter felt when he realised that his series was going out in the same time slot as Downton and Homeland. Was It Something I Said?, yet another comedy panel show (this one based, with great originality, around quotations), had on the other hand been hand-tooled to inherit Homeland’s audience, not only going out directly after the new adventures of Carrie Mathison, but also featuring actor David Harewood – Homeland’s now blown-to-smithereens CIA director David Estes – as guest quotation reader.
Host David Mitchell has, of course, been recently conducting a media discourse with Fast Show creator Charlie Higson over whether or not comedy panel shows are blocking other, rather more expensive forms of television comedy. Higson was a guest last night, so the timing of that spat makes you cynically wonder whether it wasn’t merely pre-show publicity, or whether Higson had a genuinely bad time recording last night’s opener.
Mitchell’s riposte has been that panel shows are often more funny than scripted comedy, a view to which I’m not unsympathetic, especially when Richard Ayoade was holding forth last night, effortlessly neutralising supposed team-mate Jimmy Carr. Did I write neutralise, or did I mean neuter? These macho cockfights are the reason why female comedians give such shows a wide berth, and needless to say, all six panellists were male. Mitchell had even grown a Mumford-lush beard, while Carr appeared to be in the process of growing one – it was as if their faces were actively leaking testosterone.