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TV review: Empire State of Mind, The Wild Gardener, and Bridget Riley: Painting the line

26 November 2021

Channel 4

In Empire State Of Mind (Channel 4, Sunday), Sathnam Sanghera, pictured here at Chattri pavilion, developed his thesis that the UK’s endemic racism is built on nostalgia for the British Empire

In Empire State Of Mind (Channel 4, Sunday), Sathnam Sanghera, pictured here at Chattri pavilion, developed his thesis that the UK’s endemic racism is...

CHANNEL 4 celebrated Christ the King by setting its sights even higher: on matters imperial. The journalist and writer Sathnam Sanghera’s Empire State Of Mind (Saturday, episode one of two) developed his thesis that the UK’s endemic racism derived from a nostalgia for the British Empire, for the power and prestige that it gave us, and the absolute superiority over other races on which it was built.

His argument was subtler than that, acknowledging that the initial adventures in India, happy to recognise native cultural achievements, were entirely commercial, exploiting a huge market opportunity. Later Victorians developed the doctrine of racial inferiority, of the absolute need for British people to live separately and differently from Indians.

Did Evangelical missionaries, with a mindset based on rigid demarcation, strengthen this system, undermining their personal generosity and desire to serve others? The black slaves of our American and Caribbean colonies were merely chattels to be bought and sold.

We saw evidence of barbaric mistreatment: one of his arguments is that the Empire was successful in suppressing all record of its dark side, while finding popular media all too eager to promote the benign and sentimental narrative of the Empire as the bringer of justice, peace, education, and prosperity.

We did, indeed, abolish slavery — once we had built our economy on it for a couple of centuries. He revisited his childhood experience of racial abuse in Wolverhampton: Sikhs are now far more integrated and accepted, but support for ultra-nationalism is disturbingly strong. Perhaps in part two he will consider how much nostalgia for Empire, and the racism that it engenders, derives from powerlessness. Are we surprised that, when the prosperity and status that they once enjoyed lost for ever, ex-industrial communities cast around to find a scapegoat, and construct a fantasy of a vanished golden age?

Recovering horticulture Eden is all the rage, and, in The Wild Gardener (BBC2, Friday), the wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson transforms his old family garden in Co. Wicklow into a haven for wildlife. It is a redemptive act, triggered by his professional observation of catastrophic worldwide loss and destruction of natural diversity: at least, in this postage stamp, he can turn the tide.

It is moving and beautiful — but I would have welcomed more rigour. If the aim is to let nature flourish as she will, why is it OK to start by grubbing up all the brambles? Are they a lesser breed?

The natural world’s rhythms and forms underlie the body of work explored in Bridget Riley: Painting the line (BBC2, Thursday of last week). Now aged 90, her minimal art of stripes and shapes, static forms that create movement, first destabilises and then rewrites our very act of perception — all expressing, in her words, “the joy of being”.

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