Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
1 October 2015

Simon Schama’s The Face of Britain shows the portrait Churchill wanted destroyed

Without even looking at Sutherland’s portrait, Churchill decreed it “a remarkable example of modern art”, cue much sycophantic laughter from his parliamentary colleagues.

By Rachel Cooke

Simon Schama’s arms used to windmill wildly on screen, but in his fantastic new series his hands are most often to be found in his pockets. Why this should be is anyone’s guess: perhaps he tired of the stick he used to take about it. All the same, it seems to me a good thing. Nothing now stands in the way of my enjoyment of Face of Britain (Wednesdays, 9pm). Schama’s ability to structure, pace and deliver a televisual essay is unmatched by any other BBC historian. So, too, is his way with words, so succinct and yet slyly romantic. His passion for his subject is sincere, his curiosity contagious rather than effortfully cloying. I would be tempted to use the word “masterful” if it didn’t sound so stupidly grandiloquent.

I won’t ramble on here about how he dealt, in the first film (broadcast on BBC2 on 30 September), with such hoary subjects as the painted image of Elizabeth I, or the effect of photography on the relationship between Queen Victoria and her people. (Episode one was devoted to the relationship between portraiture and power.) His skill was demonstrated to perfection in the first ten minutes, during which he told the story of the portrait that was commissioned to celebrate the 80th birthday of Winston Churchill in 1954 – the same painting that was famously burned by Clementine Churchill just a few weeks after its very public unveiling.

In Churchill’s studio at Chartwell, his home in Kent, Schama held up a series of black-and-white stills of the prime minister, taken during his sittings with Graham Sutherland. You could, he said, call these pictures “war photography”. On one side was Churchill, the crumbling egotist, then recovering from a stroke. On the other was Sutherland, a superb painter who was quietly steaming. Sutherland’s subject had asked him whether he wanted the cherub or the bulldog, as if there were only two possible interpretations of his character, and perhaps in revenge for this insult Sutherland now decided to deliver not some visual blandishment, but the truth. He painted an obituary: a magnificent ruin, but a ruin all the same. Here was slackness, loss, a kind of absence. It was all a million miles from the white cliff of a lower lip Yousuf Karsh had caught beautifully in the dark days of the war.

The queasiness involved in this intimately gruelling situation – Schama’s voice was a veritable tremble of indignation – was underscored by film of the unveiling, broadcast on the BBC, but which I’d never seen before. Crikey. Sutherland, his hair Brylcreem’ed, and no doubt gasping for a fag, kept looking up to the heavens, knowing what was on its way. And then . . . it came. Without even looking in the painting’s direction, Churchill decreed it “a remarkable example of modern art”, cue much sycophantic laughter from his parliamentary colleagues. You could almost feel Sutherland’s discomfort: the prickling of his skin, the sweat that beaded his brow. And in that moment another obituary was born, this one for Sutherland’s portrait, which Schama, brandishing the sole remaining transparency of it, rightly described as one of the greatest, up there with Holbein’s Henry VIII. What a loss. What Schama calls “our nation’s family album” is much the poorer for Clemmie’s incendiary barbarism.

Come another week, come another whimsical autobiographical comedy set in the Seventies. First it was Lenny Henry, then it was Danny Baker, and now here is Emma Kennedy with her version. It’s unfathomable: is this stuff on a loop, or what? When I think of BBC bosses just lately, I picture them in retro clogs, passing round the pink wafers as they congratulate themselves on their latest commission. But the good news is that The Kennedys (Fridays, BBC1, 9.30pm) – we’re in a new town, where everything is futuristic and lovely and the dustbin men are apparently yet to go on strike – is miles better than Baker’s effort. Plus, it stars Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd) as her aspirational mother, Brenda. I love Parkinson to death. Thanks to her, I didn’t just tolerate the dinner-party-and-lasagne gags. Sometimes I smiled at them, too.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
Supporting customers through the cost of living crisis
Data on cloud will change the way you interact with the government
Defining a Kodak culture for the future

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide