In yesterday’s TCW Ollie Wright cogently exposed the shallowness of Afua Hirsch’s attempt to debunk the reputations of Nelson, Churchill and other British heroes in her Channel 4 TV programme, The Battle for Britain’s Heroes.
The programme was made by historian David Olusoga’s Banjo TV and was previewed by Channel 4 in these terms:
From Nelson with his pro-slavery position to Churchill and his views on race, should we rethink the heroes who we honour? Should statues of some of Britain’s greatest heroes even come tumbling down?
Since I was involved in the making of the programme, I would like to lift the lid a little further on its real agenda – the creating and fuelling of a sense of grievance amongst our ethnic minorities. I spent close to four hours filming with Afua and was subsequently told in writing:
We are now at the very last stages of the Heroes film, for which you so kindly joined us for some filming. Truthfully speaking, we very much felt that yours was the strongest contribution in that group discussion, and would like to explore the possibility of filming with you again, this time solo!
Given the need for balance in this important debate I was heartened to be told that my dissenting, but informed, view would be part of the programme. I had told Banjo TV from the start that I would be happy to be interviewed about statues of famous British heroes provided it included the right to discuss Mary Seacole, the Jamaican heroine of the Crimean War. Her statue has recently been erected in the gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, in memory of the care she provided for British troops. In 2004 she was voted the Greatest Black Briton. Seacole was an important Victorian and, in my view, does deserve to be remembered by a statue, but she also merits uncensored discussion.
The television company agreed we could talk about her for the programme and asked for some notes on Seacole. In a telephone call that followed I was told that the programme-makers were surprised to learn about the less well-publicised aspects of Seacole’s career. Her strongly-held racist views were a particular shock. Seacole was quite happy to use the n***** word and boasted of the Scottish blood coursing through her veins. Her views on Empire coincided with those of Cecil Rhodes. The Brits were certainly ‘top dogs’ in her opinion and, for example, she described the Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs’ who were ‘worse than fleas’. I suggested to Banjo TV that I be interviewed about Seacole in front of her statue and in the presence of a representative of the Turkish embassy.
Given that Afua Hirsch and Banjo TV are calling for more honesty in how we assess our national heroes one might have supposed that would include heroes of our ethnic minorities, too. No chance! My request to tell the full story about Seacole turned out, in the end, to be a no-go area.
Perhaps it was Seacole’s possible connection to Horatio Nelson that really spooked the programme-makers. Her will names her husband, Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, as a godson of Nelson. A Seacole family legend claims Edwin Horatio Hamilton to be the love child of Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but at the very least it suggests that, for Seacole, Nelson was an admired hero. She bequeathed a diamond ring to her friend Lord Rokeby, ‘given to my late husband by his godfather Viscount Nelson’. Wow! Small wonder that Banjo TV and Channel 4 ran a mile at my suggestion that the Number 1 black hero be discussed on the same terms as Nelson and Churchill.
Banjo TV’s censoring did not stop with Mary Seacole. I pointed out that possibly the most popular statue in Britain is the bust of a Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus, which is available at garden centres all around the country or online, for example here at just £399 plus postage and packing. Originals are available to view in the British Museum. Septimus was the African emperor who ordered the genocidal murder of all the Britons north of Hadrian’s Wall, but who died in York before his order could be carried out. An African emperor of Britain! Now, that is an untold story of a lot of statues that needs to come to light! He was so important in British and European history that perhaps his statue should occupy Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Channel 4 filmed my comments, praised them, but censored them.
Perhaps the saddest piece of censorship was my comment on the inspirational example of another Nelson – the Mandela version – at the 1995 rugby World Cup final at the Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg. Rugby sits in the soul of white South Africa. It was always at the heart of apartheid South African identity. When the Springboks played a match, black South Africans were inclined to support the opposition with a passion. For Mandela to attend the match wearing the South African Springboks rugby shirt and to embrace the white team captain, Francois Pienaar, was a revolutionary act in support of racial re-engagement, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Off-camera with Banjo TV I was surprised to hear Mandela being referred to in a derogatory way as a ‘card’. Even he is no longer seen as ‘on message’.
Mandela, though, saw the need to look forward – not to forget the past, but to move onwards from it. This is something that Banjo TV and Channel 4 TV proved unable to do. They had half a narrative to tell and were determined to suppress the other half.
Meanwhile, the whole programme was set against a background in which not a single so-called hero of British history is required teaching under the new National Curriculum for history in our schools. In contrast, West African history and the history of Baghdad are on a statutory list. I told Afua this on camera and pointed out that the teachers’ TES website for lesson plans has only a handful on Admiral Nelson but 150 on Jack the Ripper. Ignorance of British history is endemic, as I pointed out in an article published a few days ago.
Afua Hirsch has won her battle to rewrite Britain’s past. School history, in terms of British landmark figures and events, has collapsed. The government’s own 40-minute World War II VE Day commemoration video, sent to every school some years ago, allocated just 14 seconds to Churchill. It told pupils that Churchill’s contribution to the war was to lose the 1945 election and added that the war was ‘sexist’.
Banjo TV’s Battle for Britain’s Heroes was an exercise in narrowly focused propaganda. The few seconds allocated to the perspective I represented did little to redress the balance. If there were a Leni Riefenstahl award for documentary-making this programme would be a winner. For honesty and fairness, however, it is a stone-cold loser.