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The Empire Writes Back

A look at how the novel has marched in lock step with the rise, decline and fall of the British Empire.

Robinson Crusoe, the hero of the first ever novel published in English, in 1719, was a slave trader. Right from its inception, as this programme investigates, the English novel was closely bound up with the dynamics of colonialism and marched along, in lock step, to the British Empire’s rise, decline and fall. Slavery, which predated the empire, but was an inescapable part of it, is the subject of two famous American novels more than a century apart - Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The legacy of slavery is also at the heart of one of the most famous novels of all, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and its 'prequel', written a century later - Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

The British Empire was often taken as a given – even God-given - and widely celebrated. In the novels of some writers, though, it was questioned more deeply – such as Rudyard Kipling’s famous espionage yarn Kim. Fifty years later, a very different type of spy, James Bond, fought to keep the empire going when it had in truth already gone. By then a new voice had emerged - that of writers from the newly independent former British colonies, like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. At the same time, immigrants from the Caribbean were coming to the UK in search of a warm welcome and a better life. Their mixed experiences began to be told in the Trinidadian Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956. The twin evils of racism and slavery come full circle in recent works like the former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman’s series Noughts and Crosses and the 2016 Man Booker prize winner The Sellout, a savage comedy by Paul Beatty – in which a present-day African-American Los Angeleno keeps a slave.

10 months left to watch

59 minutes


Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:09

    Brian Eno


  • 00:12

    Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, James Chambers

    Symphony No. 5 In C-Sharp Minor: Part III - IV - Adagietto - Sehr Langsam

  • 00:24

    Brian Eno


  • 00:25

    Brian Eno


  • 00:33

    Brian Eno


  • 00:34

    Talvin Singh


  • 00:37

    Brian Eno

    1/1 (Excerpt)

  • 00:37


    The James Bond Theme

  • 00:38

    Paul McCartney & Wings

    Live And Let Die

  • 00:40

    John Barry

    Main Theme/Capsule In Space

    Orchestra: City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • 00:40

    John Barry

    You Only Live Twice

  • 00:45

    Movie Soundtrack All Stars

    Da Funk (From "The Saint")


Role Contributor
Executive Producer Franny Moyle
Production Company IWC Media
Actor Robbie Coltrane
Actor Robson Green
Actor Emeka Sesay
Actor Tuppence Middleton
Actor Sean Biggerstaff
Actor Antonia Thomas
Actor Nitin Ganatra
Actor Don Warrington
Actor Nick Ikunda
Editor Jane Tubb
Actor Titana Muthui
Editor Andrew Quigley
Actor Rian Gordon
Editor Bradley Richards
Actor Paapa Essiedu
Narrator Nikki Amuka-Bird
Producer John Mullen
Production Manager Catherine Ross
Actor Sule Rimi
Actor Fumilayo Brown-Olateju
Director Sarah Barclay
Director Richard Curson Smith