Last Night's Viewing: The Churchills, Channel 4
Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder: the Big Clear Out, Channel 4
A Running Jump, BBC2

 

The Churchills, David Starkey's new history series, began with something you don't always get in television programmes these days: a crafted beginning. What I mean by that is an opening governed by a sense of intellectual theatre, instead of the carnival barking that disfigures so many series these days.

There was nothing about the "journey" here, no laborious montage of coming attractions, no bombastic explanation of why you should care. In short, none of those Idiot Signposts that executive producers so often insist on erecting at the entrance to anything halfway serious. Instead, Starkey began with a seductive feint – Timothy West adopting his best Winston voice to read out a passage that sounded as if could be about nothing else but the Second World War but wasn't. It was about the War of the Spanish Succession and taken from Churchill's biography of his illustrious ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. "This is a work of history which helped change history," Starkey concluded, proposing a thesis for which the following programme offered an extended oral defence.

His argument was this. Churchill's labour of love about the man who first made the family name prepared him for the great endeavour that ultimately made his own. While other British politicians were inclined to appease Hitler, Churchill's long years writing about Marlborough – a great war leader facing a powerful and ambitious European despot – had refined his sense of continental hazard and personal destiny. In Hitler, he saw Louis XIV reborn ("no worse enemy of human freedom has appeared in the annals of polite civilisation," he wrote of the French king in his biography). And in the Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution he saw the Protestant refugees escaping the religious pogroms after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

I don't know whether this is a plausible account of Churchill's psychology as war leader but it was certainly a gripping one and further enhanced by the presenter's passion for his subject. Television historiography can be distinctly odd – with what looked like clips from a Gainsborough costume drama frequently popping up as if they were extracts from a Restoration newsreel about Charles II – and Starkey did sometimes get a bit hot under the collar about his hero ("He is this god, this vision, this man of sublime handsomeness and beauty of figure," he panted about John Churchill's arrival at the court). But should you be looking for a sense of patriotic uplift that doesn't wear running shoes over the next three weeks you could do a lot worse.

Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder: the Big Clear Out followed up on the story of Richard Wallace, whose obsessional collecting reduced his home to a rubbish-packed pothole and his neighbours to a state of despair. Six months on, Wallace is still clinging to his teetering piles of old newspapers and junk and there have been some sharp words in the village about Andy Honey, the local gardener who rallied people to help Richard de-clutter, because he's now moved in to one of Richard's properties. In truth, Andy strikes you as almost saintly in his patience with Richard, a man who can rationalise the retention of a filthy piece of kitchen towel on the grounds that it might come in handy one day. And he's worked something close to a miracle on his house, which now has quite sizeable voids in between the detritus. They may get there yet, though it might be wise to leave programme three for at least a year or two.

A Running Jump, Mike Leigh's film for the Cultural Olympiad, featured Eddie Marsan as a man who treats wheeling and dealing as an aerobic activity. Samantha Spiro played his yoga teacher wife and various other characters popped up on running machines and in gyms to underline the sporting theme. At just 35 minutes, it was something of a breathless sprint but Marsan surely deserves a medal of some kind.

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