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A journey into the British Empire

A journey into the British Empire

Comedian Al Murray tells us about his new Sky HISTORY series that looks at the legacy of the British Empire through the eyes of people in its former colonies

By Chris Miller, Feature Writer

He’s best known for his ultra-patriotic Pub Landlord character, but Al Murray has left that persona back home in Blighty to travel to some of Britain’s former colonies and find out more about the legacy of empire from those directly affected by it. In short, he’s attempting to answer the question in the new series’ title: Why Does Everyone Hate The British Empire?  



As in his previous history series Why Does Everyone Hate The English? and Why Do The Brits Win Every War?, Murray has assembled a stellar line-up of comedians to guide him through the (metaphorical) minefield that this question creates, and to give their own perspective on the events of the past and how they affect the present.


In India, he talks railways and the Koh-i-Noor diamond with comic Anuvab Pal (and there’s river-based nudity involved); in Jamaica, Chris “Johnny” Daley tells him about slavery, sugar cane and the real pirates of the Caribbean; South African stand-up Loyiso Gola offers his thoughts on gold mining and apartheid; and Indigenous Australian comedian Kevin Kropinyeri spills the truth about Captain Cook and the land grab Down Under.


Murray is a true history buff – an Oxford history graduate, in fact – and the comedian and the historian in him combine for the approach to this series. It’s a tricky subject, perhaps even more so than those in his earlier series, but one he handles delicately. Everyone in Britain, Murray included, has their thoughts on the Empire, so giving a voice to the people of the former colonies provides us with insights we don’t normally get. And talking to comics means there’s always another joke around the corner…


The series begins at 9pm on Monday 23 October on Sky HISTORY HD (CH 131). We asked Murray to give us his thoughts on the British Empire, what he’d learned about himself from making the series and what he thought viewers might take away from it.


There’s a meme going around about how often men think about the Roman Empire. How often do you think British men think about the British Empire?

I don’t think they think about it much at all, if ever, and what’s clear when you look at history is that not many people throughout British history gave it much thought at all. Certainly by the end of the Second World War it was a thing the public were not interested in one bit, which is ironic given how much the Empire had contributed to the British war effort. Being the centre of Empire meant for most people it didn’t happen here, so having an imaginative grasp on it wasn’t necessary. What was fascinating going to India, South Africa, Australia and Jamaica is they’re thinking about the British Empire possibly even less.


Would the Pub Landlord exist without the Empire?

The Pub Landlord would tell you it’s the other way round: without a pint at the end of a long day’s empiring, would the British ever have ended up controlling one fifth of the world’s surface?


What could you say to the Pub Landlord that might make him question his feelings for the British Empire?

Nothing. Mainly because he sees changing your mind as some kind of madness, and admitting to having feelings as a defeat. But the British Empire to him is a vibe more than anything else, a time when we were great, best not ask too many questions.


How much do you think the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian influences British thinking on Empire?

I think that scene pre-empted a lot of the way the argument has ended up running: it’s essentially an argument that talks about “civilising” people, something that people tend to run a mile from these days! The railways always feature in discussions of Empire and seem to be seen as part of the positive balance sheet but, as we found in making the India episode, when you nose around in that subject you find it’s more complicated than being a simple “pro”. Like pretty much everything in life.


So the Romans brought roads, wine, sanitation, peace etc… What did the British Empire ever do for the countries it colonised?

The boring answer is it made them the largest part of the first wave of globalisation – not that anyone called it that – and the footprint that went with that most of all was the English language. Kind of in the same way that Latin became the established language of law and diplomacy and learning in Europe long after the Roman Empire was gone.


What’s the most important thing you learned on this journey looking into the British Empire?

The thing I learned most from the programme is the British Empire is a different story in every country it existed, often wildly different, and a one-size-fits-all way of looking at it (a) is dishonest, really, (b) gets you nowhere in understanding it and (c) isn’t interesting.


What job would you have done in the British Empire?

My guess is I’d have gone somewhere and succumbed quickly to malaria. The attrition in ambitious young men (mainly) going abroad to make their fortune was appalling, and I have a feeling a faded forgotten headstone in Kolkata would have been my lot.


What is the one takeaway you'd like people to have from this programme?

I feel like the answer to that has to be a curry.


What do you think the current attitude in Britain towards the Empire is – positive, shameful, or indifferent?

There is a debate in the UK about Empire that seems pretty heated, but I do wonder sometimes if it’s one of those debates between tiny opposing sides that hasn’t drawn anyone else in much, which partly goes back to the fact that people didn’t think about Empire much anyway. When people say they weren't taught about it at school, or that kids should be taught about it at school, I think they’ve forgetting the basic fact that you’re not taught much history anyway, and that no one really remembers anything much they were taught at school. I don’t now remember any physics or chemistry, but no one writes angry newspaper columns about that. So I think indifference is the main tone, but the people having the debate will be annoyed with me for saying that.


Is it possible to be proud of the British Empire?

People find it in themselves to be proud of all sorts of things, so yes. It’s not something I’ve ever felt though.


When is Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate The British Empire on TV?

The four-part series Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate The British Empire starts at 9pm on Monday 23 October on Sky HISTORY HD (CH 131), when all episodes will be available in On Demand.


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