A few months ago my wife said something to me so awful and shocking I contemplated divorce. ‘I don’t want to watch any more war programmes with you,’ she said. ‘It’s like watching paint dry.’
Imagine, then, my secret joy when, right near the end of Into the Storm (BBC2, Monday), I detected beside me on the sofa the hint of a promising snuffle. It was VE Day. The King was on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, beckoning Winston Churchill to come and join him. As soon as he did, the crowd erupted with joy and gratitude. I glanced sideways just in time to catch the wife sneakily wiping a tear from her eye. ‘Yes!’ I inwardly exclaimed. ‘Victory.’
Mind you, anyone who doesn’t find the story of Winston Churchill the most moving and exciting in the history of mankind seriously needs their head examining. Harrow, Omdurman, Boer War and the Wilderness Years are all great, and just when you think it can’t get any better, along comes the second world war.
I wonder how conscious Winnie was of all this. Very, I should imagine. I’ll bet there must have been times when, having first checked that no one was looking, Churchill found himself performing a little jig around the room and going, ‘Bugger me, did I luck out, or what? Everyone who disagreed with me has been proved wrong; I’m in charge; I can drink and swear and smoke and do pretty much whatever the hell I want; AND I get to be the one who saves the world in its darkest hour of need!’
Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s film captured this spirit rather well, I thought. The tense Cabinet meeting where, after a dramatic pause, Churchill declares that Britons would be better off choking on their own blood than surrendering; the scene where he goes in his siren suit on to the roof at the height of the Blitz and gazes defiantly into the pyre of his burning capital: here was a man doing no more nor less than Destiny required of him. He never really needed a second to mull over Lord Halifax’s suggestion that Britain treat with Hitler. Unlike everyone else, he knew the answer already.
In the interviews he has given about his Emmy-winning performance as Churchill, actor Brendan Gleeson has said how initially unattracted he was — as an Irish republican — to playing a man whose values were so inimical to his own. Supposedly, this lent his characterisation a warts-and-all roundedness missing from previous impersonations. Really? I hardly think it’s new or controversial to depict Churchill as an occasional blustering bully who liked a drink and was given to crazy notions like using icebergs as merchant ships. Good acting is what it was, that’s all.
Understated acting, too, which was even better. The scenes with Janet McTeer (a magnificent Clemmie) were particularly fine, such as the one at the end where, mightily peeved at having just been booted out of office by an ungrateful and bolshie 1945 electorate, Churchill sits grumpily through a Noël Coward musical with his similarly grouchy wife. Then a romantic song strikes up and the couple visibly soften. Not in a saccharine, sick-making way. Just enough to let us know that they still love one another and that, their period of national duty over, they might yet be able to resume the private life they had enjoyed so many years before they’d almost forgotten how it was.
Given he had only an hour and a half to cover a whole war, the scriptwriter Hugh Whitemore did a superb job of précis. There were some nice touches: I’m glad it found space for some recurring shots of Churchill and his long-suffering valet, swathed in blankets, being bounced around the freezing fuselage of a Dakota for yet another meeting with the serpentine and disingenuous FDR.
But I’m not totally sure about the scene where Churchill has a private audience with a VC-winning pilot named Maddox. ‘You feel very humbled and awkward in my presence, don’t you?’ says Churchill. ‘Then you can imagine how humbled and awed I feel in yours.’ Maybe there was such a scene in real life but it didn’t ring quite true: the tendrils of disfiguring scar tissue down the young, blue-eyed pilot’s cheek; the fact that unlike almost all the other characters in the film — such as Patrick Malahide’s suitably comical Monty — Maddox VC never existed; the almost self-conscious emotional charge; it rang ever so slightly false in an otherwise near-flawless drama of great power, integrity and truth.