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1 October 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 3:01pm

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.

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