Churchill, 2021, Channel 5 Television, ITN Productions
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. You can read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart.
It might just be impossible to make a new documentary series about Winston Churchill. The two biggest challenges are that everyone either loves or hates him, even before switching on. He is a titan, a towering shadow, of whom everyone has some working knowledge. Vignette and pastiche go hand in hand.
I watched the first episode with my mum and brother. I quickly realised that they were the target market: people who were curious and enthusiastic, but not as familiar with Churchill’s life as I am. I was reviewing their reactions as much as watching the series itself.
This is not an agenda-laden series—and thank God for that. Rather, we have a good old-fashioned telling of a ninety-year life, broken down into its most prominent chapters told over the course of six episodes. These are energetic, gallivanting, and packed with nuggets, tidbits, and facts. The documentary delves beneath the surface but never gets so sidetracked in minutiae as to become dull. The narrative is candid, without firing shotgun shells at Churchill’s reputation. Channel 5 played a deft hand, walking the line between hyperbolic hagiography and iconoclasm. The producers of the series understand that greatness more often than not also involves controversy, outrage, and failure. These elements, however, are only part of a very long story that includes the many inspiring moments as well.
None of this would be possible without such brilliant contributors, familiar to Finest Hour readers, as Allen Packwood, Richard Toye, Katherine Carter, Alexandra Churchill, and Celia Sandys. They add the charm and the authority and make this rollercoaster a memorable and insightful one. If there is a complaint to be made, it is with some of the direction and production. The faux first-person footage and 3D pop-out dance-and-swirl features are a tad nauseating. Spinning rooms for a collapsed octogenarian and bouncing cameras as Churchill runs, falls, sits, and thinks are more distracting than contextual.
Equally, some curious omissions hit the cutting room floor. An entire second series could have been commissioned focusing just on Churchill’s second premiership, which is only touched on here. Family tragedies and personal relationships, particularly with his wife Clementine and children, are exchanged for cheaper indulgences about a father complex.
For a biographical series, this one walks two tightropes and mostly succeeds. It is probably half the length it should be to dig deeply into the influences, traumas, successes, and failures that defined Churchill. But it is a traditional telling and is narratively basic with little scope for the lesser-known parts of his life and career. Churchill’s time on the Western Front as a battalion commander is merely teased, annoying since his leadership during the Second World War was so very much defined by wishing to avoid the wholesale slaughter and bloodletting of its precursor. There was an infuriating missed opportunity to confirm that Churchill was not some patrician warmonger, but a man scarred by his experiences as strategist, soldier, and statesman.
While the show is not overtly political or agenda soaked, it could have subtly picked up the more persistent accusations of racism, imperialism, and excess, which beleaguer his reputation today. The series does not shy away from this entirely, but those expecting a damn good fight back will be disappointed. Those expecting an iconoclastic looting session will be equally unsatisfied.
These little sub-sacrifices do not spoil the series. It was hard to lose interest, and even the most devout of Churchill scholars will find new stories and details. Gone is the bulldog pastiche of cigar, frock coat, and top hat. Here is Churchill, the young rapscallion right through to the nuclear age’s most remarkable campaigner for peace.
This Churchill is a lovely refresher for those of us who already adore the man, but it is especially suited for those desiring a detailed introduction. At times bombastic and a little liberal in its suppositions, the episodes are nevertheless energetic and intellectually buoyant. It was a pleasure to watch a balanced documentary without waiting for the other cancel-culture shoe to drop. It whets the appetite with plenty to explore, even for the most jaded of Churchill admirers and critics.
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