Into the Storm/Wonderland

Unlike Blair or Brown, Churchill had a conscience

I'll be blunt - Into the Storm (2 November, 8.30pm, BBC2) wasn't very good. So, Mr Churchill was a grump who liked to drink Hine brandy. What's more, having led his country to victory in the war, he then received a firm slap to the face when its exhausted people decided that they preferred Mr Attlee as their prime minister. Is this supposed to be news?

Into the Storm certainly presented it as news, probably because it was made with the considerable help of HBO and thus was keen to look out for its audience in the US, where it is just possible that Churchill's temper and boozing, not to mention the result of the 1945 election, are marginally less well known than here.

Yes, Brendan Gleeson put in a nice turn as Winston; ditto Janet McTeer as Clemmie. Yes, it was stuffed to the brim with excellent British character actors. As an experience, however, it was like walking into the Garrick Theatre bar on opening night - all it lacked was Maureen Lipman and a surly waiter in maroon trousers serving warm white wine.

But the overall impression was of boxes being ticked. Camp but long-suffering prime-ministerial manservant? Tick. Terrier-like Field Marshal Montgomery? Tick. Painfully young men flying high in aeroplanes no bigger, and apparently no stronger, than gnats? Tick. But I will say this. With uncanny timing, Into the Storm was screened just five days after the Nimrod inquiry published its disturbing report, and even if you watched the drama, as I did, with only one eye and about half of my brain, it was impossible not to feel a creeping sense of shame. Once upon a time, our politicians acknowledged the great debt that they owed the men and women they sent into battle. Now, they expect soldiers and airmen to fight inexplicable and wholly unwinnable wars with rubbish equipment, rarely revealing anything more than a blithe disregard for their lives even when standing at the despatch box. Churchill, I gather, sometimes found it hard to sleep, for all that he liked an afternoon nap. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Reid, Des Browne, John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth: how on earth does any of these men make it through the night?

Wonderland (5 November, 9.45pm) is the Modern Times of our decade, and I love it. This film was called I Won University Challenge - a simple idea, beautifully executed. Initially, I worried about meanness. Most of these winners, even by their own account, belonged to the weirdo classes, and the film's director, Alisa Pomeroy, filmed them from the least flattering angles possible, so that they looked like serial killers to boot. But beyond this visual naughtiness, the film was fond, restrained and acutely revealing, and Pomeroy's subjects - even the strangest ones - seemed to welcome the chance to answer her (rather bald) questions.

What she gave us, in effect, was a tale of loneliness, of social isolation, her camera lingering on her interviewees' dirty ovens, cuddly toys and pasty-like leather shoes just as lovingly as on their exploding bookshelves. When she asked Luke Pitcher (Somerville College, Oxford, 2002), now a classics don, about his brain, he said that he couldn't claim to be remotely practical. In the next shot, she caught him eating a sandwich. Bits of lettuce - or something - fell merrily to the floor, but when he came to clear up, he laboriously picked up each item, one at a time. Floor, bin; floor, bin: a beautiful moment. Pamela Groves was on Keele's team when it won in 1968. The world hates clever women, she said, so she hid her brains - she was now a secretary - until it was too late.

I ached for Groves, alone with her tone-deaf whippet, her scratchy violin and jangly clogs (she liked folk dancing), her face made ugly with disappointment. But then . . . salvation! One man, she said, suddenly brightening, had not been afraid of her and she had married him, and it was bliss. For the first and only time, she smiled. Pomeroy asked what had happened. "He died 20 years ago," said Groves. The dark returned to her face, and when she pulled on her flowered boater, its elastic chinstrap catching on the arms of her spectacles, you could see her anger, tamped down, but still aflame, scalding her within.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro