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The Takeover Artist

A poster boy for nineteenth-century imperialism, the Cecil Rhodes on "Masterpiece Theatre" is a titan of greed and racial oppression.


What Cecil wants in the six-hour mini-series Rhodes (“Masterpiece Theatre,” Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, January 4, 5, and 6; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is a map of Africa entirely pink, “from Cape Town to Cairo,” this most Lonesome Dovey of Victorian imperialists is fond of explaining through a cloud of cigarette smoke, under a broad-brimmed cowboy hat, behind a Mark Twain-Joseph Stalin mustache, with his Maxim machine guns, his DeBeers diamonds, and his bought missionaries. I say Lonesome Dovey because what happened to southern Africa in the nineteenth century so closely resembles the history and cinematography of our own American West -- from broken treaties with inconvenient indigenous populations to exuberant invasions, gleeful slaughter, and “native reserves”; from “pioneers” in prairie schooners to homesteaders cashing in on the landgrab to mining companies, railroads, and robber barons; from a rhetoric of “civilizing” savages to a manifest destiny of master racism. And because Cecil himself, a vicar’s son who left England at age 17 for a hole in the ground in Kimberly to earn money for the very first Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, seems to have been bitterly alone most of his 49 years, unless we count the handsome young male secretaries to whom he was passionately devoted.

When one such secretary, Neville Pickering (Raymond Coulthard), dies like a big blond collie in his master’s arms, and Cecil (Martin Shaw) weeps like a Pietà, director David Drury and teleplaywright Antony Thomas are certainly suggesting repressed homosexuality. (Thomas has also written a biography of Rhodes, which Nadine Gordimer likes.) And in one of his affable sermonettes between episodes, Russell Baker suggests the same, while hastening to add that most of Cecil’s associates in empire-building did eventually marry women, as if to forestall us from promiscuously theorizing on a relationship between sexual politics and imperialism.

I am personally inclined to blame class more than sex for the geography-gobbling and the skin game. Where else but in the colonies could the sons and daughters of a pinched middle class get to behave as willfully as aristocrats, with prime acreage, a plantation house, and platoons of servants? Like young Cecil, played here by Martin Shaw’s own son Joe, they may get off the boat without much baggage, not even much notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority. But the sheer expanse of what awaits them -- horizons on which to graze and gorge; frontier lawlessness; sunsets of scrambled eggs and blood -- will inflate the adventuring appetite. If young Cecil was nice to natives, his grown-up and aggrandized Rupert Murdoch sort of self invented the whole idea of “reserves,” saw to it that Africans didn’t get a decent education, taxed them into servitude, and wrote the first “pass” laws half a century before apartheid. Talk about pinking the map. He’d name a country after himself, before Zimbabwe.

Filmed wholly in South Africa, Rhodes features 30 sets, 200 actors, 10,000 extras, and the remarkable Shaw (a Tony-award nominee for An Ideal Husband), who, between temper tantrums, glooms his celibate way through the mini-series as if competing with Victoria herself (Margaret Hale) in an Olympics of phlegm. Also on hand are Ken Stott as Barney Barnato, who was in Africa only for the money; Neil Pearson as the bloody-minded Dr. Jameson; and Washington Sixolo as the luckless Matabele king, Lobengula, not to mention many sharpshooting Boers, in quaint stovepipe hats and Solzhenitsyn beards, to remind us that the English also invented the concentration camp. But even a Boys’ Club African Western needs distaff spice, for which Rhodes will rely on Frances Barber (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) as the Russian princess Radziwill, fresh from causing trouble in St. Petersburg and Berlin, who seeks first to marry Rhodes and then, having of course failed, to blackmail him. He dies as if to spite her. His spite, like his appetite, is as huge as Africa.


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