Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Pride and prejudice | 10 March 2016

Plus: Hand to God is an aggressive and puerile attack on Christian evangelism – and an ideal present for youngsters

Jonathan Lynn, co-author of Yes Minister, has excavated the history of France during the two world wars and discovered dramatic gold. He presents us with pen portraits of eminent Frenchmen we think we know. Marshal Pétain (Tom Conti) is a humane pragmatist who refuses to risk speculative assaults on the Western Front. He evolved his strategy from a single motto: never attack until victory is certain. That worked fine at Verdun but in 1940 the same doctrine entailed capitulation to the all-conquering Germans. Pétain’s young protégé during the Great War is a surprise and a delight. We imagine Charles de Gaulle as a monumental slab of garlic-scented arrogance with the body of a furniture-shifter and the face of a parrot-fish. But here we meet a shy, brave, vulnerable aesthete whose single-mindedness makes him eccentrically charming rather than cold or vain. His wife encourages him to acquire humility and he instantly assents to her advice. He then asks disconcertingly, ‘What shall I do now I’m humble?’
Lynn’s brilliance is to realise that our preconceptions can be fruitfully turned on their heads. One of de Gaulle’s famous lines — ‘when I want to know what France thinks I ask myself’ — might suggest either over-weaning arrogance or homespun common sense. The delivery is everything. Laurence Fox, not hitherto noted as a light comedian, turns out to be a brilliantly gifted clown. His de Gaulle is a swaggering and inspirational maverick who also comes across as a bit of a heart-throb. With his stiff and insensitive sweetness, Fox is hilarious throughout. He’s is cleverly matched with the sly, elusive Conti, who gives a performance of quiet mastery. He plays Pétain with a Yorkshire lilt, which sounds a bit odd from a French general, but it highlights his provincial origins and dislike of cosmopolitan fakery.

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