The Search for the Nile was a very ambitious project for the BBC in 1971. It features a good deal of location shooting and the results are certainly impressive. documentary-style historical drama about African exploration is in its own way an astonishing television achievement.
Even more astonishing is that it’s not an exercise in political correctness. It deals with colonialism in a complex and nuanced way. It also deals with slavery but the slavers encountered here are Arabs and Africans.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the hot topic in geographical circles was the source of the River Nile. In fact it had been a hot topic in geographical circles for around two thousand years and no-one was any closer to finding the answer.
This is more than just a story of exploration. It is a race. The rivalry between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke for the honour of making the great discovery is an epic in itself. Burton and Speke undertook joint expeditions as well as solo expeditions and the relationship between the two men was uneasy and complex. It is difficult to imagine two men less suited to work together in harness and Burton’s decision to choose Speke to accompany him on his first major attempt to find the source of the Nile in 1856 is at first sight surprising. The one thing they had in common was the obsession to unravel this greatest of all geographical mysteries.
There was also another potential runner in this race. Scottish missionary David Livingstone was rumoured to have an interest in finding the source of the Nile as well and the depth of Livingstone’s knowledge of Africa made him a formidable rival. There would be others joining the race later, most notably Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of the nineteenth century (a century that produced more than its share of remarkable men). He initially gained fame as the first European non-Muslim to visit Mecca, an incredibly foolish and dangerous undertaking as the city was absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. Burton mastered countless languages and gained as much fame as a translator of eastern classics as he did from his journeys of exploration. His interest in eastern erotica scandalised Victorian England. He immersed himself in non-European cultures to an extent that raised eyebrows. He was wildly eccentric and unconventional and nothing pleased him more than to shock English society.
Speke was more of an enigma, a man driven by burning ambition that led him to make great discoveries and tragic errors of judgment. Speke was rather straitlaced and while Burton was fascinated by other cultures Speke hated everything about Africa and its people. Their joint expedition would prove that they were disastrously ill-suited to the task of working together.
The TV series deals not just with this one epic journey of exploration but with a whole series of expeditions led by an assortment of extraordinary larger-than-life and often eccentric characters – Burton, Speke, Livingstone, Samuel and Florence Baker and Henry Morton Stanley. The search for the source of the Nile proved to be elusive and frustrating. Each of the various expeditions filled in some of the missing pieces but it seemed that the final solution to the puzzle was always just out of reach.
The journeys of exploration make fascinating viewing and the personal dramas of these remarkable human beings provide even greater interest.
The excellent cast is a major asset. Kenneth Haigh is splendidly extravagant and outrageous as Burton. Michael Gough is equally good as the obsessive, saintly but amiable Dr Livingstone. John Quentin landed the most challenging and potentially most thankless role as Speke. Speke’s motivations remain mysterious and although he gave the impression of being something of a straight arrow his conduct on several crucial occasions is difficult to explain except as the actions of a man whose excessive ambition drove him to behave selfishly and dishonourably. It isn’t easy to make Speke sympathetic but Quentin does manage to make him a tragic figure.
James Mason adds a touch of further class as the narrator.
The location shooting is stunning and by the standards of 1971 British television it’s really quite spectacular.
This being 1971 the material is handled in a pretty even-handed manner with surprisingly little preachiness. The viewer is assumed to be capable of making his own judgments. It’s actually a little surprising that the BBC has finally allowed this series to be released on DVD – this is an historical series for grown-ups who do not require everything to be filtered through a lens of political correctness.
The Victorian era produced an immense number of colourful larger-than-life heroic figures like Richard Burton and (albeit in a very different way) David Livingstone. These were men whose achievements and virtues were on the grand scale, and at times their vices were on an equally grand scale. They were complex men and this series takes them seriously and generally speaking it takes them on their own terms without trying to judge them by late 20th century standards. The courageous and indomitable Florence Baker, who accompanied her husband Samuel on his expedition down the Nile, showed that Victorian women could be just as remarkable and just as heroic.
This is intelligent literate television and it’s also immensely entertaining. Very highly recommended and it looks great on DVD.