Empire (BBC 1)

Rachel Cooke reveals Jeremy Paxman’s secret weapon.


I've never met Jeremy Paxman but I do have a theory about him. My guess is that he's shy. Seriously. Why do I think this? Because I'm shy myself and recognise the symptoms. Yes, this is counter-intuitive. Why, you might ask, would a shy person want to be on telly? But people are often drawn to things they find uncomfortable. I became a journalist even though I dislike, almost to the point of phobia, the telephone. Paxman's shyness doesn't much come over in the Newsnight studio; it's easy to take his shouty manner at face value, given how effective it can be when he has to talk to yet another slippery politician.

In his other work, though, you begin to sense that the barracking is also a strategy, a way of dealing with his own awkwardness, because he doesn't temper it even when he's talking to people with no media training and nothing whatsoever to hide. He could ask a dear old granny for her recipe for madeira cake, and still he would sound incredulous. "Eggs and butter? What do you mean eggs and butter?"

In Empire (Tuesdays, 9pm), his big new series about Britain and her former colonies, the incredulity works when he's spouting to camera - or at least it does when one can hear it (the series has the loudest, most bombastic "background" music I've ever heard; it's like watching Star Wars, minus Princess Leia and the Stormtroopers). It's fine for him to wonder crossly how such a small country came to have, as he puts it, "such a big head". But it's rather less comfortable when, say, he's visiting a maharaja at home, or chatting to the caretaker of a historic site. When the Maharaja of Jodhpur showed him a portrait of one of his ancestors, Paxman responded with the words: "Splendid beard!" His tone meant that I wasn't sure whether he was being enthusiastic or sarcastic - and I think the maharaja, who laughed a little nervously, possibly felt the same.

It will be worth sticking around for the next four films. The first one took a while to catch fire, though. It began with India and had the faintly boring whiff of a travelogue, for all that Paxman took the trouble fully to spell out both the horrors of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and its brutal aftermath (the British government's response to the mutiny was, as Kipling put it, henceforth to wear knuckledusters beneath its kid gloves). Needless to say, his disbelief reached an exasperated peak when he described Victoria's diamond jubilee celebrations, an old copy of the Daily Mail, printed in gold ink to mark the occasion, flapping in his hands (and how amazing that film exists of the parade to St Paul's Cathedral by troops from every dominion).

For my money, though, the second half, which concentrated on what you might call colonialism-lite, and in particular on the British Mandate in Palestine, was by far the more interesting.

I never tire of seeing the flickering newsreel from 1917 in which Field Marshal Allenby, leader of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, can be seen entering Jerusalem on foot, his forces having defeated the Ottoman army. It is chilling. For behind him, in a borrowed army uniform, it is possible to see the merest glimpse of T E Lawrence, a man whose promises to the Arabs, made around various desert campfires, were about to start sounding mighty hollow.

When people look at the wall that now separates Israel from the West Bank, they blame either the Israeli government or Palestinian terrorists. They forget all about the Balfour Declaration. But Paxman didn't. Thanks to us, he said, gazing at the Judean hills and the man-made scar now upon them, all manner of bad stuff followed. Amazingly, he (or his researchers) had turned up a woman called Sarah Agassi, who at 17 scouted the King David Hotel on behalf of the Jewish terrorists who blew it up in 1946, killing 91 people. At which point his tone felt suddenly very, very right. Did she regret what she had done? Did the morality of it trouble her? No, she said in Hebrew, her English finally abandoning her. She felt she had accomplished something. It was such a powerful moment, history - ancient history to most people - and current affairs knotting together before the viewer's very eyes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar