'My timeline is going to be an absolute sewer': Al Murray on his new British Empire series
Al Murray returns to Sky HISTORY to seek the answer to one very complicated question, ‘Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire?’. At the height of its power, in the 19th and early 20th century, it’s estimated that the British Empire controlled approximately one-quarter of the globe. It was the world’s most dominant empire and can be seen as a source of great patriotic pride or an embarrassing period of oppression and tyranny, depending on who you ask.
To find out more about what life was like in the British Empire and the legacy it has left behind, comedian and historian Al Murray travelled to four countries that were once under imperial rule. His journey took him all over the world to India, Jamaica, South Africa and Australia, where he was shown around by four local comedians.
The British Empire is a subject that evokes a lot of strong opinions and Al is prepared to face criticisms from both sides of the argument. ‘My timeline is going to be an absolute sewer,’ he told Sky HISTORY. ‘It’s going to be people asking, “Why do you hate our country?”, and “Why are you an apologist for the British Empire?"’.
However, throughout the show Al stresses that he tries to take neither side and instead wants people to make their own minds up using the facts he presents and the stories he’s told by local people. He explained: ‘If I take either of those positions, I’m never going to find the subject interesting. If it’s all bad or if it’s all good, then there’s no point in me learning about any of it.’
While criticism of the British Empire may seem like a phenomenon that culminated with statues being torn down in the past few years, Al pointed out that these ideologies have existed for much longer. For example, there was an anti-imperial movement in Britain during the time of the British Empire. There were swathes of people who thought that colonising as much of the world as possible was ‘morally unconscionable’ and ‘disgusting’.
In each of the four countries Al met with comedians who are all known locally, but perhaps not as well known here in the UK. They all had varying views on the Empire, like Anuvab Pal in India, who admired the political institutions the British instilled and Loyiso Gola in South Africa, who hadn’t thought too much about it but ultimately didn’t like what he learned.
Then there was Chris Daly in Jamaica, who Al described as having ‘complex feelings’ about the legacy of the British Empire but held the local beliefs of leaving the bad behind, being good to one another and moving forward. ‘It was fascinating to actually encounter people living like that, rather simply saying that’s what you ought to do,’ Al explained.
However, it was in Australia, the only country that Al had visited previously, that he felt the most ‘chewed up’ at the end of his trip. Here he met Kevin Kropinyeri, an Aboriginal comedian whose family came from a period of apartheid. It’s a reality that he continues to face to this day as it is still alive in modern-day Australian politics.
Al heard a lot of stories during his trip but the one that he said hit him the hardest was the Appin Massacre of 1816. In one of the show’s most emotional scenes, he learned about the tragedy from a descendant of one of the people who survived it. Taking place in New South Wales, the Appin Massacre unfolded when Lachlan Macquarie, the first soldier to take charge of the penal colony in Australia, ordered tribes of nomadic Aboriginal people to be murdered so the settlers could expand their land holdings. Now, Macquarie is widely remembered as the man who founded Sydney and a statue was commissioned in his honour just over ten years ago.
In India, Al met a young rickshaw driver who said he simply didn't care about the British Empire because it was long before his time and he doesn’t see how it affects his life. Variants of this opinion came up several times throughout the trip, and Al himself asked, ‘Can I be proud of a thing I didn’t do? Can I be ashamed of a thing I didn’t do?’ His answer to both questions was ‘No, not really’, but he also emphasised the need to learn from the past as we head into the future.
After all, as Al puts it in his very unique framing: ‘There’s a lot of things in history that you have to accept for having happened, for better or for worse. The history of the British Empire is really complex…and it’s something we can learn and talk about without having to punch each other in the face.’
Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? airs Mondays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.