Thoughts on the British Empire, both tragic and comic

[18 April 2008]

By Maureen Ryan

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

John Oliver

John Oliver

Britain may have conquered much of the globe in its heyday, but at least it did so with a certain flair.

So says “The Daily Show’s” British correspondent, John Oliver, in his frequently engaging stand-up comedy special, “John Oliver: Terrifying Times” (10 p.m. Sunday, Comedy Central), which should appeal to fans of his sardonic, intellectual brand of humor.

“I think deep down, this planet yearns for the days of the British Empire again. They long once more to be treated that badly, that politely,” notes Oliver. “We did far worse things than you can possibly dream of, but we did it with that certainly gentlemanly swagger.”

The Cambridge-educated comic imagines a proper English gentleman courteously stomping through Africa a few hundred years ago: “Dreadfully sorry, but we seem to have crushed your entire continent’s infrastructure,” he says in polite-conquerer mode. “Allow me to make it up to you by offering you a job 4,000 miles away. No, no, I insist. “

Oliver’s on less solid ground when he riffs on America’s rampant consumer culture, which has resulted in bizarre “food” items such as the Oreo pizza. This is pretty well-trodden ground, and comedians such as Patton Oswalt have exploited the topic to much better effect. Regarding his material on American politics, Oliver could stand to show a little more old-school, British Empire-style brutality when it comes to cutting weak and predictable jokes.

Still, the special exudes the appealingly smart snarkiness that Oliver brings to “The Daily Show,” where he’s the strongest of a relatively new batch of correspondents. In the Comedy Central special, he’s in fine form when he shares funny memories from his humiliating grade-school days.

But some of the best segments are his opening riffs on Britain’s imperial past and China’s rise as the world’s next powerful nation.

One day the U.S. will hand off the superpower baton to China, which will then “sprint toward Armageddon,” Oliver predicts. “Spoiler alert!”

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My Boy Jack

My Boy Jack

Rudyard Kipling made it his life’s work to celebrate the rise of the British empire, which reached its apex as he published late-Victorian classics such as “The Jungle Book,” “Kim” and “Just So Stories.” But in the excellent PBS film “My Boy Jack” (9 p.m. Sunday), his belief in the honor and righteousness of England runs straight into the unspeakable carnage of World War I.

The Jack of the title is Kipling’s only son, who, despite very bad eyesight, did all he could to become an officer in one of the British regiments fighting in France.

Though Jack (Daniel Radcliffe) was in part motivated by patriotism, the film makes the case that he also wanted to get away from his domineering, powerful father, who is played with insight and depth by David Haig.

As a member of the government’s propaganda committee, Kipling learned the unvarnished truth about what was happening in France - that tens of thousands of British soldiers in the ill-equipped army were being killed by the German machine guns.

And while the propaganda committee discusses putting out “a truth which is bearable to the British public,” an eager but nervous Jack travels to France with a platoon of raw Irish recruits.

There’s palpable tension and even terror as he prepares his men to go “over the top” of the muddy trenches, and the film also expertly conveys the heavy dread that hangs over Kipling’s parents and sister as they wait for news of their beloved Jack.

Kim Cattrall (“Sex and the City’s” Samantha) is surprisingly restrained as Jack’s American mother, and Radcliffe brings an impressive vulnerability and determination to Jack. Just a few years ago, in the first “Harry Potter” films, a much younger Radcliffe was tentative and unfocused, but here he demonstrates just how much he’s grown as an actor.

The narrative tension of the otherwise energetic film wanes in its final quarter, and as it heads toward a truncated, choppy conclusion, “My Boy Jack” appears to shy away from the nuances of Kipling’s complicated response to the war.

But this admirable and well-crafted film doesn’t turn away from the horrors of trench warfare, or from the agony of parents who proudly send their sons to war, yet can’t bear the idea of what those soldiers will find when they get there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/thoughts-on-the-british-empire-both-tragic-and-comic/