Discovering the Lost Kingdoms of Africa

27/01/2012 22:21 GMT | Updated 28/05/2012 08:16 BST

The success of the first BBC series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa surprised a lot of people. Quietly, I have to admit, that even after years of saying that there was an audience for African History on television, I was taken aback by the scale, and more particularly by the response of audiences. I had long said that people I meet seem frustrated by the single-note media image of Africa - the cycle of doom and disaster, the endless stories of corruption, wars and famine - and that it was time to offer a subtler, more varied and complex picture. I was determined that Lost Kingdoms of Africa would proffer not just an alternative narrative on the continent's culture, but would also integrate African expertise into the process.

The transition from planning to delivery was not straightforward. Whilst there are undoubtedly amazing stories to tell, brilliant minds to consult and breath-taking sites and material culture, the logistical, geographic and environmental complexities that stand in the way of success are considerable and the capacity to disappoint is enormous. But within days of the start of shooting in Ethiopia, as we descended with our equipment into the pink stone carved churches of Lalibela with the naturally amplified sound of a monk's whispered prayer echoing up through the rocks, I knew that we were engaged in something special.

And over the next eight months of 2009, we travelled tens of thousands of miles through Sudan, along the Swahili Coast across South Africa into Zimbabwe, we journeyed down the River Niger from the Djenne delta to Benin, revealing stories and objects that made me proud to be a son of African soil. It was a journey that reminded me that Africa is a continent with some of the longest ceramic traditions, the oldest continuous Christian communities, the largest earth-built buildings and a vast array of pristine archaeological sites and preserved customs.

And the international response to the films as the first series has wended its way around the world has changed my understanding of the power of these histories. People wrote, often in emotional terms, of how much Lost Kingdoms meant to them, about how long overdue the series was, of how they wanted to show the films to their children - but what we heard over and over again, particularly from African audiences was of how much more there remains to tell. And I knew they were right.

Even though the brief for the second series was unchanged, expectations had shifted, making it impossible to make quite the same series again. Whilst we had intense debates about how we could pare down all the options to four contrasting, multi-dimensional histories, perhaps the greater consideration was how we could both keep a successful formula and strengthen the historical narrative. Part of that was answered in the choices of subjects. Asante, Zulu, the Almohads and Almoravids, and the Buganda and Bunyoro offered deep, deep, historical interpretation and a profound quality of material culture and customs. But most importantly, they offered opportunities for complex debate, to be able to paint rich pictures of these Kingdoms.

In Asante we examined the development of a Kingdom, which grew from an idea in the heads of ambitious men to become one of the most successful states that West Africa has ever seen. And we see this illustrated in a variety of ways, not least in the incomparably beautiful material culture left behind. We gain access to the crown jewels and the royal armoury, we handle guns commissioned by each of the Asante Kings - I was even allowed to pick up and cock the elaborately decorated musket that belonged to Osei Tutu, the founder the Asante kingdom, at the turn of the 18th century. Getting that close to significant figures from African history is incredibly rare. In my 25 years of investigating African history, I have never felt the presence of figures from African history so palpably alive. And that was only given further tonality through the interpretation of African experts who were able to help us navigate difficult issues like slavery.

Returning from Ghana after filming, I realised that these films would not be journeys; they were going to be something else. In South Africa at the start of my second film, I met the Zulu King, to talk about the dramatic rise and fall of the Zulu Empire in the 19th century. How in a single lifetime the Zulu nation grew from being little more than a family to become a military force almost without indigenous parallel. But to gain and hold power requires an uncompromising ruthlessness that inspires fear and loyalty in equal measure. We tell the story of how in the tussle for power between the British, the Boers and the Zulu, the Zulus crafted a careful course - but even when armed with spears they were able crush the British at Isandlwana in 1879, killing more than a 1000 British troops. But the Zulu were defeated ultimately, inevitably by superior weaponry.

What happened to the Zulu after that, their humiliation, their forced labour in diamond mines, was a sad and cruel end. The most profound thing about these histories is that they resonate, they are all still alive and relevant. The battlefields of the great 19th century South African wars have become almost sacred places. This is not tradition trapped in aspic. I felt that perhaps most profoundly in Uganda, where we followed the rival Kingdoms of the Buganda and Bunyoro as they fought for control of the central African lake region in the 19th century. These are Kingdoms who suffered not just under colonialism but also under subsequent regimes, but despite persecution, their traditions and customs remain keenly protected and deeply loved.

That is even so of millennia old history. The Almoravids and the Almohads, the rival Berber dynasties that built empires across North Africa and Spain in the 11th century, have left more than their architecture. Whilst we filmed in Morocco, current debates and protests today raged over many similar liturgical and political issues that had driven the struggles between the Almohads and Almoravids a thousand years ago. Militarily these Kingdoms were defeated, constitutionally they were lost, but they all culturally and emotionally live on.

Lost Kingdoms of Africa starts on Monday, 30 January at 9pm on BBC4