Was He a hero of his age, or one of history's greatest scoundrels? Although generations of Britons took the former view of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist who dreamed of a white- man's Africa stretching from Cairo to the Cape, the BBC is firmly inclining to the latter in a pounds 10m biographical epic which is to be one of the highlights of its autumn TV schedule.
The nine-hour long, four-part serial, which will be formally unveiled this week, portrays him as a hypocritical money-grabber whose principal sexual interest was in young boys, and, most of all, as the founding father of apartheid.
Yet it also explains why his contemporaries were so fascinated by this character who lived and dreamed on the grand scale.
Martin Shaw, who rose to television fame in the Seventies as Doyle in The Professionals and is currently starring in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband on Broadway, plays Rhodes. He accepted the part, which could well bring him the Best Actor prize in next spring's Bafta awards, with relish.
"He was an extraordinarily complex man," he says. "His emotional intensity was unparalleled. He had many of the same characteristics as Hitler, Napoleon and Saddam Hussein."
Yet for a character so dramatic, perhaps the largest figure in British colonial history, Rhodes has received surprisingly little dramatic attention. The scriptwriter of the BBC's Rhodes, Anthony Thomas, offers a possible explanation: "We turn our backs on him historically because he is too embarrassing to deal with.
"Hitler described him as the only Englishman who truly understood Anglo- Saxon ideals and destiny. It is too chilling to think of how Hitler empathised with him."
Born the son of a Bishop's Stortford clergyman in 1853, Cecil Rhodes went to South Africa because of adolescent ill-health, founded the De Beers diamond empire, became one of the world's richest men, entered politics, rose to be Premier of Cape Colony in 1890, and then ran into history's buffers five years later when he sanctioned the Jameson Raid - a pre- Boer War strike at the Afrikaners of the Transvaal by English-speaking settlers which was as big a military fiasco and political disaster as Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He was forced to resign and died at 49 in 1902.
He succeeded, however, not only in having Rhodesia named after him, and the Oxford scholarships from which Bill Clinton, for one, benefited, but in giving loud voice to his dreams of a white-controlled African continent, beginning with enforced segregation in South Africa itself; he allowed the newspapers he controlled to publish openly racist views and he set up the first black reserves, the forerunners of the "tribal homelands".
Thomas, who wrote the script of Death of a Princess, the 1977 dramatised documentary on a Saudi execution which caused a diplomatic crisis, is a South African liberal who was banned from his own country until 1990, and his portrait of Rhodes is enriched by his own feelings: his views have come full circle.
"For my grandparents, who were Edwardians, he was a symbol of everything that was fine about their tradition, and everything that was noble about being British," he says. "I was taught to thank God every night in my prayers for making me English. He was the patron saint of my childhood.
"I remember standing in the Cape Gardens to see his statue, and feeling the same reverence a Catholic child might feel if they were being taken to see a statue of the Virgin. He had that kind of importance in our lives."
His beliefs changed rapidly when he was asked to direct a documentary on Rhodes in 1970. His research not only shocked him profoundly, but also inspired him into wanting to tell what he now insists is the real story.
"The weeks and months I spent studying biographies, letters, speeches, diaries and articles became a descent into evil," Thomas says. "He stole one million square miles of Africa. His imperial notions were very much a facade. He was primarily driven by personal ambition and a craving for wealth.
"What is dreadful about him is the nature of his journey. When he set out for Africa he had this understanding and respect for the landscape. But he was willing to adopt the racist policies of the Afrikaners in their most exteme form."
Martin Shaw's son Joe, aged 23, and fresh out of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, gets an early career break in playing Rhodes as a young man; Frances Barber plays the one woman who figured in his life, the neurotic Russian aristocrat Princess Catherine Radziwell, whom he declined to marry; and Ray Coulthard plays his young assistant Neville Picketing, who dies from septicaemia, to Rhodes's frenzied grief.
The drama unambiguously asserts that beautiful young men were his sexual passion.
One might think that the portrayal of a South African figure who is racist, corrupt and money-grabbing all on a titanic scale, and homosexual into the bargain, might not go down too well in that country, but the series has already been bought by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It was shot in South Africa itself, with more than 100 South African actors, and 10,000 extras.
The last time any film was made in the country on that sort of scale was in 1964, when Michael Caine and Stanley Baker stiffened their upper lips at Rorke's Drift and beat back the massed warriors in Zulu.
Times have changed.
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