Speke, Burton, & Lost Miniseries about the Nile

DATELINE: Dr. Livingstone, We Presume

One of the best BBC miniseries was the forgotten The Search for the Nile. It proved to be wildly entertaining, filmed on location in the areas that were part of the grand quest of British explorers in the 19th century, including the search for Dr. Livingston by Henry Stanley.

Why has this 6-part show faded from view? It is not available on DVD in the US, and has not really been on TV in decades. Yet, it had James Mason lending his grand voice to the proceedings.

The stars suitably aged twenty-five years over the course of the bumpy and choppy narrative. Sir Richard Burton was limned by the angry young man Kenneth Haigh. His arch-rival was John Quentin as John Hanning Speke.

Their debate, rivalry and eventual hatred, jealousy, and snide posturings make for great drama. Alas, some of it seems more emotive than the actual search.

The beautiful music score of Joseph Horovitz is not to be heard on iTunes or is available to stir your memories.

The story spins on the final destruction of a life’s work by Sir Richard Burton’s wife, trying to save his soul posthumously by burning anthropological studies of sodomy, sex rites, and other shocking matters to the Victorians. Thus, Burton’s true modern spirit has been largely lost.

The smug Speke might have been right, but his priggish and racist attitude is rancid—and the story does not flinch.

The entire series of journeys with their porter Bombay are the subject of several epic novels by author and actor Jan Merlin who surely could have played Burton or Speke in the series. His books, called Gunbearer One and Two, are around for those who want more depth than the series presents.