Indian railways on the BBC

Indain train on bridgeOnce again India’s railways have caught the attention of the BBC commissioning editors.

In recent years BBC Four has shown Monsoon Railway (2005), Bombay Railway (2007) and Indian Hill Railways (2010).

To explain this enthusiasm Times critic Andrew Billen (in this non-firewalled article) points to a 2008 rail-themed night that brought BBC Four its highest ratings for a factual programme, with it ending the night having attracted more viewers than BBC Three, ITV2, ITV3 or E4.

So to the latest edition to this commissioning strand – Tracks of Empire, whose trailer runs: ‘If you can understand the railways, you can understand India.’

John SergeantThere’s certainly much of interest in the opening programme, but the choice of former news correspondent John Sergeant left me cold. His rather clinical manner – the result of his 30 years as a BBC journalist perhaps – gave the first episode a somewhat detached feeling.

That Sergeant doesn’t have the deep-rooted connection with the country of Michael Wood, or the easy empathy of Sanjeev Bhaskar is hardly his fault. But, not only does Sergeant lack empathy, there’s the sense that he’s soft-soaping the facts.

He seems surprised that the 1857 British defenders of Ara wouldn’t be described as heroes by people living in the town today, and so challenges them to name ways the British brought benefits to the country by their rule.

Later he takes 85-year old journalist Kuldip Nayer to Amritsar, just 18 miles from the present-day border between India and Pakistan. But his tale of travelling through the horror of partition seems somewhat lacking in sympathy from Sergeant.

Indeed, blame for the tragedy of partition is left to hang in the air, with a vague sense that the British, and the Hindus and Muslims of India should jointly shoulder responsibility for the act and its consequences. Whether that’s the editing of Nayer’s segment or the programme’s lack of critical history I’m not sure.

Certainly Sergeant seems more distressed at the partitioning of the railway tracks, which were halted either side of the Wagah border, than at the terrible consequences of Radcliffe’s division of the country.

For Sergeant you suspect it’s more a love letter to the Indian railways, one in which India itself is a rather bemusing distraction.

So, while present-day India receives a somewhat knowing smirk, Sergeant is much better on the origins of the railway in India. Mind you, the history of Empire he delivers could have come straight from an old British schoolbook – and would certainly make Niall Ferguson proud.

Indian train mountainThe programme does make much good use of visual archive sources – and, as with its recent programme on the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, the BBC certainly do a good visual documentary.

It’s also welcome for a documentary to show a sense of history (if not a particularly deep awareness of that history) – as opposed to sticking in a celebrity doing ‘wacky’ things. (Though of course Sergeant did appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Erm … actually I went to the filming of one of those shows, but enough about that.)

Howrah stationWhat does show through Tracks of Empire is Sergeant’s enthusiasm for the railways, and I expect I’ll watch the subsequent programmes in the series, just with expectations adjusted suitably downwards.

• The first programme in the series is available on BBC iPlayer until 10pm Wednesday 21st July 2010 – and then probably on YouTube a little later.

2 responses to “Indian railways on the BBC

  1. Oh I love Bombay Railway and Monsoon Railway, fantastic shows that still have a deep effect on the way I regard the railway (for me it is a quentissential part of travel in India).

    I haven’t seen the above episode of Tracks of the Empire (it somehow passed me by) but will endeavour to catch up with it to see what I think, especially in light of your excellent review above.

    • Thanks for the kind comment Jose. I really liked Bombay Railway and Monsoon Railway too – particularly the latter, but then it was set around West Bengal.

      Even without the BBC’s recent focus on it, the Indian railway does have a terribly strong pull on the imagination.

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