Review: Lost love in the time of empire

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At one point Ruling Passions - Sex, Race and Empire (BBC2) appeared to suggest that buggery is a condition of employment in modern Kenya. "Even today," said an old woman emphatically, "if a man wants employment from the white people he has to agree to be done from the back - even now, even now, even men." She urged discretion on the camera crew. There was a young boy next door, she said, and she didn't want him to overhear - presumably because the knowledge wouldn't greatly assist his interview technique. I didn't believe the old lady and neither, I suspect, did the production team, so it was a bit difficult to understand why this startling claim had been left in the programme. Were we meant to take it at face value? Or was it an example of the damage done by empire, a genuine sense of sexual grievance which had grown misshapen over the years? Or simply an acknowledgement that racial prejudice is rarely a one-way street?

Whatever, it served as a useful reminder of the dangers of anecdotal evidence when used as a historical tool. Personal experience is powerful on television precisely because it is at odds with the blurring simplifications of history. The people you see aren't mere statistics, but living witnesses; their stories have the unique grain of a fingerprint. It's true that they can sometimes exemplify a dusty historical hypothesis or even contradict the official account, but it will always be slightly risky to assume that this one testimony can stand for many.

The producer of Ruling Passions has been quoted as saying that the series runs "counter to some of the more rosy perceptions of the Empire". I don't know where he's been for the last 30 years but the last time I encountered a "rosy perception of Empire" it was driving a Morris Oxford and didn't have long to live. From A Passage to India to The Last Days of the Raj the idea that Empire had a sexual pathology has been a commonplace rather than a deep dark secret. In truth, Ruling Passions is more in the business of confirming our worst fears than overturning complacent assumptions, something it does fairly effectively once it closes in on details.

The masculine prejudices of the times, about women who did and women who didn't, were never likely to be sweetened by the addition of easy authority and racial contempt. The most moving story was that of Martin, a young Englishman who was posted to Bombay and fell in love with Pauline, the daughter of the family he took lodgings with. His suspicions were first aroused when the secretary of the gymkhana club requested him not to bring Pauline to functions anymore. Martin finally confronted the family, asking whether they had any Eurasian blood, and their silence was an immediate answer. "If you put that question to an Englishman," he wrote in his diaries, "he would knock you down." He called off his engagement at once but a year later was still recording his desolation in private. This episode was filmed with a bit of Our Tune reconstruction - lovers walking along the beach and so on - but it brought home the way in which private emotions became part of the Empire too, subject to the same rigid discipline, the same permanent anxiety about insurrection.

Game On (BBC2), Andrew Davies's new sitcom, was a late casualty of the Benn / McClellan fight. I was planning to reserve judgement on this, having been slightly taken aback by the callowness of episode one. But, as it happened, the plot involved an unfortunate joke about a boxer going into a coma and the BBC decided it was wiser to broadcast episode two instead. This raises the nice question of whether transmission of the joke is directly linked to McClellan's health. I'm not thinking of Andrew Davies when I say I hope they feel able to run it next week.