Into the Storm, BBC2<br/>Spooks, BBC1<br/>The F-Word, Channel 4

Winston, Harry, Gordon; the old boys we can't help but watch as they save the country &ndash; or the kitchen
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Put a shouty man of a certain age in charge of something important enough for long enough – a nation at war; British domestic security; the F-Word kitchen – and before you know it, he's a national treasure. Or at least that's what seems to have happened to Winston Churchill, Harry out of Spooks, and Gordon Ramsay, who's from that special breed of middle-aged male broadcasters that everyone claims to thoroughly dislike, yet watches religiously (Messrs Clarkson and Cowell being other examples). But more of him later.

Into the Storm, the story of Churchill's Second World War, should really have been called "Into the Storm, Through the Storm and Out the Other Side of the Storm", compressing as it did five years of total war into an hour-and-a-half of television drama. Another fine joint commission by the BBC and HBO, it was a reminder that the man once voted the greatest of all Britons was indeed a born war leader – as well as a ruthless, reactionary old drunk who'd readily bomb an ally's fleet or a city full of innocents for tactical advantage; that he despised the notion of a welfare state; and, most egregiously of all, talked over the best bits of classic movies.

When Chamberlain resigned and the Germans invaded the Low Countries on the same day in 1940, almost everyone but Churchill himself (played here by Brendan Gleeson) thought Lord Halifax the man for the job, and long into the war his MPs complained that Churchill's speeches were more effective than his tactics. To start with, defeat followed defeat – at Dunkirk, at Dieppe, in Singapore – despite all the stirring radio broadcasts and the swelling orchestral soundtrack.

But Churchill grew into the role, and so too did Gleeson. Putting an impersonation of such a famous real-life figure at its centre is a balancing act for any drama, but Gleeson walked the tightrope assuredly, leavening his vocal impression of that iconic slur with real substance. Janet McTeer, as Churchill's wife, Clemmie, was equally engrossing – despite the occasional indignity of having to perform expositionary monologues about Winston's psychology to some aide or another. Up against a formidable cast of cameos, Iain Glen also made a charming King George VI. Churchill's central relationship was with Clemmie, but my semi-republican soul was surprisingly touched by the deepening friendship between the stammering monarch and his prime minister.

The filmmakers also left sufficient breathing space between each clanging wartime anecdote, such as inspiration for a famous speech ("Never in the field of human conflict ...") striking Churchill during a visit to an RAF base, or the time he accidentally dropped his bathtowel during a stay at the White House, exposing himself to FDR. Any budgetary constraints that would have excluded the more spectacular historical markers from the screen, such as Dresden or D-Day, were smartly outflanked by use of stock footage.

Spooks, scarily prescient escapist fun that it is, is not quite so good at concealing those constraints. The handheld camerawork and agitated soundtrack have been rented on the cheap from the Bourne movies. For some reason, MI5's spies insist on conducting all of their clandestine meetings at the Royal Festival Hall. And I'm pretty sure that terrorists have been torturing MI5 employees in the same abandoned warehouse for the past seven series. I'm amazed it still takes the rest of the team an entire hour to find the ne'er-do-wells and kick ass. But find them they did, plucking boss Harry from the jaws of death. I'm just as amazed to find I still love watching them do it.

The F-Word, on the other hand, had been getting a bit overripe recently, so I was glad to see Gordon spice up the format with a competition to find the country's best local restaurant. Normally, instead of celebrating such establishments, he'd be telling them how bloody awful their scallops were before disappearing out back to vomit behind the bins. The old Gordon was still in business in the first episode of this new series, biting the head off an octopus and making tedious tit jokes about Katie Price (I counted three), whose chicken kiev was soundly beaten in the recipe challenge. But since he's now judging serious fellow chefs whose food he respects, rather than firemen or Corrie actors, he's also able to give a more nuanced account of their dishes. As he critiqued two competing raviolis, we got a flash of the way he might talk to the team in one of his own Michelin-starred restaurants.

Comments