Stuff the British Stole: Marc Fennell’s TV series wades headfirst into colonial quagmires

In November 2020 the ABC launched a new podcast with a very blunt title: Stuff the British Stole. Arriving in the wake of global protests that saw statues ripped down and colonial legacies scrutinised with renewed vigour, the series offered an accessible beginner’s guide to the British empire’s long shadow and sticky fingers.

As host Marc Fennell travelled the globe with microphone in hand, the show teased out messy, contested histories not always captured in the “polite little plaques” found in museums and galleries. There were famously controversial entries including the Parthenon marbles, Benin bronzes and the Gweagal shield, but also lesser-known stories such as Tippoo’s Tiger at the V&A or the Mokomokai of Aotearoa/New Zealand (tattooed heads of Māori ancestors that were preserved and traded in the 19th century).

With Irish and Indian heritage, Fennell approached these histories as a self-described product of the British empire – albeit one with “no real understanding of [his] own history”. But while the chatty and curious Fennell brought fresh eyes and ears, along the way he met academics and diasporic communities for whom these objects, and the dispossession, death and cultural erasure they represent, have been open wounds for generations.

Related: Three things with Marc Fennell: ‘I’m a massive nerd, but Star Trek matters to me’

Two years later, the series has made the leap to the screen at another flashpoint. In Australia and across the Commonwealth, the death of Queen Elizabeth II was met with weeks of wall-to-wall hagiographic media coverage that often framed the late monarch and the empire as a largely benign, slightly anachronistic institution and a source of reassuring stability across 70 turbulent, transformative years.

In Britain, high-profile figures including home secretary Suella Braverman were moved to declare that, as a daughter of “children of empire”, she was unapologetically “proud of the British empire”. Closer to home, the reliable reactionaries on Sky After Dark made pot-stirring calls to “bring it back”.

But there was also plenty of backlash among many colonised communities, for whom this uncritical outpouring represented the ultimate PR coup, glossing over the years of brutal conquest, subjugation and extraction that bankrolled the palaces, the treasure-filled halls and the pomp and ceremony, and left instability in its wake.

Co-produced by Canada’s CBC, the TV version of Stuff the British Stole seems primed for this moment, with the new season front-loaded with objects that speak directly to the changes currently facing the United Kingdom. Up first is the Koh-i-noor diamond, seized by Queen Victoria from the adolescent Maharaja Duleep Singh along with his empire in the mid-19th century. Once the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition, the diamond is now set in a crown that Camilla may or may not wear at her husband’s coronation.

Then there’s Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, upon which centuries of English monarchs, including Elizabeth II, were crowned. In December 1950 some Scottish university students stole it back from Westminster Abbey. After recreating the late-night heist with some present-day Scottish students, Fennell even tracks down Ian Hamilton, the ringleader and last survivor of the 1950 plot.

In stealing the stone back, Hamilton and his comrades lived out the fantasies of many of Fennell’s interviewees, whose decades-long campaigns to repatriate culturally significant objects have often been stonewalled by British institutions and successive governments.

“I immediately thought, what the fuck’s it doing in England?” the 96-year-old tells Fennell in a satisfyingly bolshie interview, made even more stirring by the news of Hamilton’s death a few weeks before the episode’s air date – and a fresh debate over whether the stone should feature in King Charles’ imminent coronation (it will, apparently).

Related: The palace is dripping in diamonds, so why bring out the disputed Koh-i-noor? | Catherine Bennett

In later episodes, Fennell explores knottier stories that complicate the show’s premise. In episode three, a 1,300-year-old Byzantine mosaic dug up and carted back home by Australian troops in 1917 offers cause to reflect on Australia’s role in the empire. One historian describes the “ghoulish” zeal with which Anzacs collected war trophies for the forthcoming Australian War Memorial, all in service of building an Australian national identity and mythology.

As he retraces the Shellal mosaic’s story, Fennell wades headfirst into another colonial quagmire caused in part by the British empire: after all, what might justice and repatriation mean for a Byzantine Christian mosaic taken by Australians from an area of Ottoman-held Palestine that has since been declared part of the modern state of Israel?

Meanwhile, in the handful of days between previewing the first three episodes and filing this article, the resignation of Liz Truss and ascension of Rishi Sunak as the first British prime minister of Indian heritage has been greeted by half-joking calls across the diaspora to finally bring the Koh-i-noor back to the lands of his forebears.

Such upheavals in Britain’s corridors of power bring to mind another point raised across several episodes of the podcast; for a long time, the UK’s best excuse for having nicked and then held on to many of these priceless antiquities has been that in a world of chaos and destruction, its institutions have been the safest place to keep its ill-gotten treasures. Given the current shambles, we’ll have to wait and see just how well that argument holds up by the time the final episode airs in a few weeks’ time.