Last Night's Television - The Great Escape: The Reckoning, Channel 4; Into the Storm, BBC2
Close but no cigar
Tuesday 03 November 2009
The challenge confronting viewers of
Into the Storm, a dramatised account of Winston Churchill's defeat in the 1945 general election, told as a series of flashbacks to some momentous episodes of the Second World War, was largely the same as the challenge to the actors. It was to avoid getting bogged down in the accuracy, or otherwise, of the looks and voices of the main players.
Sadly, it was a challenge that this viewer failed to meet. Bill Paterson is a splendid actor, but as Clement Attlee he made a marvellous Captain Mainwaring. And in trying to suppress those Glaswegian vowels, he gave every indication of suffering from trapped wind. As for the main man, Brendan Gleeson's Churchill impersonation was pretty good for a fellow who in real life speaks with a velvety Dublin brogue, but he'd have been better cast as Churchill in the early 1930s. In 1945, Churchill was a jowly 70. Gleeson is a cherubic 54.
That shouldn't matter, of course. The quality of the acting and Hugh Whitemore's writing should have overcome such trivialities as the leading man's age, yet they didn't, quite. In my case, this was partly because I so admired Albert Finney's Churchill in The Gathering Storm, to which this was a sequel. Finney was not only much closer to Churchill's age, he also, by deliberately eschewing a precise impersonation, fully captured the Churchillian charm and charisma. Gleeson got the nuances of voice and body language right, yet fully captured only the irascibility.
As the great man's devoted but quietly spirited wife, Clementine, Janet McTeer also had a hard act to follow. Vanessa Redgrave played Clemmie in The Gathering Storm, and I was lucky enough to spend an engrossing couple of hours with her in her Chiswick garden, shortly before the thing was transmitted in 2002. She explained that she'd received numerous tips from the Churchills' daughter, Mary Soames. "She said, 'Please, please don't let the hair people make your hair look impeccable, because my mother always did hers herself.' Which tells one something about the person, don't you think?"
With this in mind, I kept a beady eye on McTeer's hair, and concluded that she had probably talked to Soames too, or to Redgrave. At any rate, she made a fine, gracious Clemmie, so fine and gracious that one repeatedly felt that she didn't deserve to be married to such a self-absorbed grump, which possibly wasn't the message Whitemore wanted to convey. Still, Churchill had every reason to be grumpy in 1945, as the British people forsook him at the polling stations. On the other hand, he was partly the architect of his own crushing defeat, not least by likening Attlee's Labour Party, in a radio broadcast, to the Gestapo. Clemmie read the speech beforehand and begged him not to, but he was characteristically resolute, the stubbornness that had served him so well in war backfiring on him in peace.
The actual Gestapo loomed large in The Great Escape: the Reckoning, a terrific documentary about the largely successful post-war effort to find and punish the Nazis responsible for the cold-blooded execution of 50 of the 76 Allied airmen who in March 1944 tunnelled out of Stalag Luft III and into wartime and indeed cinematic legend. A special unit was set up by the RAF to find them, headed by Frank McKenna, who'd spent 17 years in the Blackpool police. If there was one flaw in this otherwise absorbing programme, it was that it didn't adequately explain why McKenna got the brief. What crimes had he solved on the North Pier, for heaven's sake, that suggested he would pursue the task with such forensic zeal?
Whatever, McKenna found most of the killers, and the documentary confirmed that the popular 1963 film took huge liberties with the truth. The 50 weren't machine-gunned together, for example, but shot in ones and twos. However, it was strangely reassuring to find that some of the film's most striking sequences were based on fact. I have never fully believed that Gordon Jackson could have been so silly as to respond in English to a suspicious German officer wishing him luck. Yet that was precisely the fatal error of a Frenchman called Bernard Scheidhauer, on whom Jackson's character was partly modelled.
The Gestapo man who subsequently shot Scheidhauer and Roger Bushell (the mastermind of the escape, portrayed in the film by Richard Attenborough) was called Emil Schulz, and he was hanged in 1948. Memorably, this programme contained an interview with his daughter, Ingeborg, now an attractive pensioner, who remembered Schulz as a loving father, and tearfully insisted that he'd had no option but to obey an order that had come directly from Hitler. The "only obeying orders" line usually gets short shrift when offered in defence of Nazi atrocities, but here it was hard to disregard. And one of the surviving escapers, Paul Royle, offered a historical perspective that was similarly poignant. "Looking back on it now that we and the Germans are such great mates, it all seems so stupid," he said. Gleeson's Churchill, who remarked that he felt "very lonely" without a war, would doubtless disagree.
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