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Audio Book Review

Book Cover

Victoria's Empire


Written by: Victoria Wood, Fanny Blake and Frank Welsh
Read by: Victoria Wood and Russell Boulter
BBC Audio
RRP: £12.99
ISBN: 978 1 4056 8799 7
Available 07 April 2008

Victoria Wood was named after Queen Victoria. So, who better to take us on a journey through the British Empire? The story of the Empire is a key part of the story of Queen Victoria's reign and the Empire was the largest the world has ever known, covering a fifth of the earth's surface and including a quarter of the population...

In Victoria's Empire comedienne Victoria Wood travels through the old British Empire in search of the legacy of Queen Victoria. Victoria's irreverent pilgrimage takes her to key places around the world that also share her namesake, from Fort Victoria in Ghana, to Victoria, Nova Scotia, and finishing at Zimbabwe's and Zambia's Victoria Falls.

With a title like Victoria's Empire, you could be forgiven for expecting this two-CD collection to feature Wood's experience in her own words. And so, it was very disappointing to see that more than half of this collection is read by Russell Boulter. Wood does the introduction and a humours, if brief, section on each place they go to, and then Boulter follows up with a more in depth and dry narration of the lands that they visit and the history of the British Empire.

I have to admit to being sorely disappointed by this release. A half-stupid idea (a woman called Victoria explores Queen Victoria's old empire as it is today - Oh, please! Alan Partridge's Monkey Tennis suddenly seems a viable concept) is made even more ludicrous by the fact that Wood seems to have absolutely no enthusiasm for the adventure. She openly admits that they never stayed more than a day or two in each country as Wood refused to do the filming unless each block was completed in 14 days because she didn't want to leave her children for any longer than that. She even goes as far as to admit that the end result is nothing more than a more polished version of the cliched idea of a Woman's Institute slide show.

Wood starts off admitting that she had no idea, really, what The British Empire was all about. In school she learnt that she lived in England (which had the "top language" of English) and everyone else lived in a place called "Many Lands".

While I originally smiled at the appallingly snobbish way that the rest of the world was originally served up to the British through out education system, I soon realised that maybe some of this rather pompous view had actually rubbed off on Wood. She talks more about their luggage problems and inability to get a decent meal, more than she does about the region she is in. I half expected her to moan that the useless foreigners not only couldn't cook western cuisine properly, but that the natives couldn't even be bothered to learn English. I was expecting a summing up that went something like: "Since the British Empire fell, the people of Many Lands have gone back to being nothing but savages. If only the British Empire was alive and well, then maybe I could get some vegetarian food."

Now, while I know that Wood's segments are all tongue-in-cheek - she's a comedienne, it's her job to cheer up us lowly folk - the combination of her and Boulter's segments is a little uncomfortable to listen to at times. For example, Wood complains about not being able to get sandwiches at their first hotel, which is followed by the history of slavery and how poorly the indigenous population were treated. Then she's off, moaning about the fact, because there is no direct flight from Ghana to Jamaica, she had to come back to the UK and fly out from there. But at least she got a lovely massage in a hotel near the M4... Oh, wait. No, she moans about that too. It was too rough, and the woman had a foreign accent. Obviously she came from Many Lands.

As the adventure continues, Woods's segments get less and less... in the end she just pops up for a few seconds to complain about the baggage, and then Boulter takes over.

It's never made clear whether Boulter is reading Woods's words (because she couldn't spend all that time in the studio while her poor kids pine away at home) or whether he actually went along. His readings are filled of "we met... when we arrived..." etc segments, but then he goes on to read great passages on the history of the area that a researcher, slumped in a library, has obviously put together.

To be perfectly honest I can't understand how this ever got made. Woods's total lack of enthusiasm, coupled with her inability to spend more than a fleeting amount of time in each location, really offers the listener very little in the way of informed views on the countries current situations. To be honest she would have been better off spending the whole series camped out at Victoria coach station in London, asking foreigners their views on the British Empire.

A pointless series which doesn't accomplish what it set out to do in any way, shape or form.


Darren Rea

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