The comedian and history buff speaks to us about his new four-part series
Both ‘Why does everyone hate the English?’ and ‘Why Do the British Win Every war?’ were big hits – what made you decide to tackle the British empire next?
Well, the Empire’s legacy is a big topic of current debate. It’s a subject we felt would allow us to do what we’ve done with the other programmes, which is to discuss history but with some humour. The debate surrounding the Empire is so siloed; I mean in this country you’ll read one newspaper column which says why the empire is bad and another which says it’s not that bad. And the two sides are not talking to each other. But we thought that the people who never get talked to in this debate are the people from these countries. I mean how much more colonial can you get? British people arguing about the empire without involving any of the people from those places! We thought that the format of having a comedian from each country we focus on discussing the empire with me was a really agile way of doing things. We’re always thinking, what do we do next? How do we approach these topics? It’s not a Simon Sharma documentary. I meet a South African guy and he immediately says “Why the f*ck are you taking me to Rorkes Drift? I’ve never even heard of Zulu!” Which immediately made me think about it differently. That was fun, but also thought provoking and interesting. One of the things that is definitely going to happen is my social media feed will be full of people going “Why do you hate our country?!” (spelt wrong) “You traitor!”. Then there’ll be a bunch of people saying “Who are you to talk about this? How dare you?”. But one of the demands of comedians is that we tackle difficult subjects but try to find the humour in it.
How instrumental was your interest in the Second World War? In particular, your and James Hollands discussions regarding the Empire’s role in the conflict?
Well, one of the other reasons I’m so interested in this is because I do a Second World War podcast with James Holland. One of the things we’re trying to put back into the discussion of the Second World War is that it’s the British Empire, the United States and the USSR who are the three chief combatants against the Axis powers. It’s not Britain alone. So the Empire has to be central to the story of the Second World War. Me and James have even coined an acronym that has started appearing in literature, which is DUKE. So when we talk about the British Empire, we talk about DUKE forces, which stands for dominions, UK and Empire. So, we’re trying to re-centre the Empire in the story of the Second World War.
Was it difficult addressing sometimes difficult subjects?
We tend to follow our nose and see where the story is going to lead us. In the South African episode for example we didn’t shy away from discussing British concentration camps or apartheid because, otherwise, you’re simply making a holiday programme. We also followed Loyiso (Gola)’s tone on that, and he was fascinated and said “I don’t need to go to the apartheid museum. I’ll ask my mum.” This isn’t a thing that lives in a museum, it’s a thing that she grew up under, that’s alive and real. We had to follow our nose and listen to people.
In the series, you focus on South Africa, Jamaica, Australia and India. What made you choose these four countries?
In all honesty we went where we could get the best stories. We could have gone to the US where they actively hate the British Empire as a concept, but what would we actually end up talking about? Similarly we felt, if we go to Australia, we can’t really go to New Zealand in this same sort of sweep. But of course there are also questions of logistics, cost, suitability for filming schedules and other quite mundane things. We wanted to do five episodes because we did five for the previous shows but the minute you’re flying to Australia, things get much more expensive.
Did you find your own opinions shifted and changed?
The main thing I came away with, to be honest, is that there’s no such thing as simply the “British Empire”. It’s not a monolith, right? In Jamaica, it’s a story of slavery and then the economy being completely trapped by and dependent on the British economy. In South Africa, there’s the story of slavery and its legacy. It’s a story about the British white settler colony, trying to get the better of the pre-established white settler colony, the Boers and the African peoples. Those are totally different stories. In Australia, it’s a settler colony, where they basically declare the people non-existent, right? That’s a story that’s radically different from those other two stories. And then in India, the British come in and do a kind of corporate takeover in a country that is essentially a patchwork of different principalities. Those four stories couldn’t be any more different but at the core of them is opportunism, the pursuit of capital and the advantages of technology. But the stories are still radically different and I thought that was fascinating.
What was the most interesting part of making the programme?
The thing that was really interesting was to try to bring humour to it all in the midst of all the difficult aspects. What’s really interesting about history as a subject is that it’s off reservation, it has escaped academia. It’s not like physics, where you need a physics degree to understand physics. I don’t understand people who aren’t interested in history! I find them baffling! You are literally not knowing where you came from, how can you not be interested? History exists in culture in a way I think completely unlike foreign languages or geography or or any of those things. Because it’s become an essential part of the stories we tell about ourselves. So why not have comedians talk about it? Why not approach it this way?
The full series of “Why Does Everyone Hate The British Empire?” will be available from the 23rd of October on Sky History