TV review - Churchill's First World War, BBC4;
Kumbh Mela: the Greatest Show on Earth, BBC2
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and the Independent Scholastic New Children's Prize 2014.
Wednesday 31 July 2013
If, on paper, this documentary on Winston Churchill seemed like it would be another hagiography of the great man (is there anything more to say about his greatness?) then you will have been as surprised as I was that Churchill's First World War was quite the opposite, tracing his wilderness years after an immense fall from grace during the Great War and his slow rehabilitation back into the Cabinet. The gist of this reflection on his early life was that the young Winston was a man of overweening ambition, political immaturity, war-lust, and foolishness combined with an enormous sense of his own greatness.
His hubristic fall was great: from a plum position as First Lord of the Admiralty to political pariah after he proposed the disastrous landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in a high-risk bid to end trench warfare. The naval attack was a gamble that didn't pay off: three Allied battleships were sunk and Churchill was effectively booted out of politics. This early story took us through his "black dog" depression to his decision to join the Army and serve as a middle-ranking officer in the trenches.
There were surprises for those of us who didn't know just how ruthlessly war-hungry Churchill was in his youth. The documentary's talking heads couldn't help repeating themselves: he was an egomaniac, we heard, who wanted to be the "biggest man in Europe"; he had "a habit of making a fool of himself" and "he loved war… He found it tremendously exciting". The not-so-subtle subtext was that it was a blessing he became a political outcast at this time because he learned a hard lesson and came back less of the egomaniac, more of the collegiate, charismatic leader we would see take Britain through the Second World War.
The strongest aspect of this documentary, though, was its tenderness in capturing the intimacy between Winston and his wife, Clementine, or his "cat" as he liked to call her, an otherwise "highly strung Edwardian beauty". Their letters, read out, conveyed the great love that endured in these early, turbulent times when Churchill had not yet become the great man that she also believed him destined to be. She was, from these letters, his emotional ballast, a "rock" guarding his reputation fiercely (Herbert Asquith's wife, Margot, called her a "fishwife") while he was in the trenches.
He, in turn, reassured her in the rare moments of her insecurity when she felt their strong friendship might eclipse their romantic fervour (his response: nothing of the sort can happen because "my love grows for you every month"). A letter he wrote, to be read in the event of his death, summed up their quietly burning passions. He urged her to rejoice in life, cherish the children and guard his memory. Meanwhile, "If there is another place [after death], I shall be on the look out for you."
Kumbh Mela: the Greatest Show on Earth offered an insight into an extraordinary journey for the modern-day British Hindu pilgrims who joined 100 millions people convening at the foot of the Ganges in Allahabad, India, for a purifying mass dip that takes place every 12 years in the sacred waters where two rivers meet.This was an intelligent and spiritually uplifting hour of television, give or take the odd moment of accidental humour: Shivali, a former city trader-turned-devotional singer from Knightsbridge (who changed her mind about the dip partly because of the water's pollution), approached a naked young holy man ("sadhu") and told him, wide-eyed, that he was "so beautiful". Hardened ascetic that he was, he remained unmoved.
There were a variety of other stories: an entrepreneurial mother and daughter were on a tight schedule (the latter had her degree finals to sit), while a former law firm employee, Helen O'Hagan, had hit her early thirtes and embraced the spiritual path, living in silence for two months at a time. The "kumbh mela" held a great sense of peace despite the vast numbers of pilgrims, and the freezing-cold dip left every ~one of the British case studies changed in some way.
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