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3 March 2016

Churchill’s Secret is fine, I suppose – but I wonder why it was made

I couldn't fathom the purpose of this dollop of heritage television, so ivy-clad it'll soon be available on DVD from the National Trust.

By Rachel Cooke

It’s rather odd, at this point in time, to be presented with a drama in the mould of Churchill’s Secret (28 February, 8pm, ITV) – a dollop of heritage television so ivy-clad that the DVD will undoubtedly be available from a National Trust shop near you soon. Churchill-worship is, I realise, a well-known condition in Britain, and doubtless many corduroy-clad men will have been keen to see this film – as keen as Michael Gambon, who played the ailing premier, was to clamp a cigar between his teeth and bawl: “Eisenhower!” (In theatrical terms, doing Churchill is a bit like doing Lear; every thickset actor of a certain age longs to roar one of his speeches.) But as I watched it, I couldn’t begin to fathom its purpose. It seemed so inconsequential, which is weird, when you consider the human being at its heart. Whatever else you think about WC, he was nothing if not extraordinary.

Based on a novel by Jonathan Smith, ITV’s drama told the story of the weeks in 1953 after Churchill suffered a second stroke. He was removed to Chartwell, his home in Kent, by the ever loyal Clemmie (Lindsay Duncan, in pearls and the severest hairstyle known to woman). His close circle believed he was a goner, and that Anthony Eden, also rather unwell, would now have to step up to the plate. But then, a miracle: the old sod recovered enough to address the Tory party conference in Margate, after which he continued as prime minister until 1955. I think the word “secret” in this context was a bit optimistic. Churchill’s incapacity during that summer might have been (just about) hush-hush at the time, but it is hardly so now. There can’t be a viewer in the land who didn’t know that although the PM may not have been up to a ride on the Scenic Railway, he would ace it at Margate.

The whole thing was . . . fine. I waited for someone to reassure Clemmie that Winston knew she was “his rock” and, sure enough, someone duly did. It was that kind of script: occasionally touching, but mostly somewhat plodding and mawkish. Directed by Charles Sturridge with a sure hand, it came with a tonne of acting talent, most of which was wasted: a nanosecond of Alex Jennings as Eden, and far too little of Matthew Macfadyen as Randolph, Churchill’s ghastly, entitled son. It was rather interesting to see all four Churchill children gathered, half cut, around the Chartwell dining table (his daughters were played, poshly, by Tara Fitzgerald, Rachael Stirling and Daisy Lewis): I could have done with more of their pseudo-Freudian histrionics, which came off as eight parts Evelyn Waugh to one part August Strindberg. But the producers didn’t want us to linger too long in this miserable back room. How much nicer to be out in the garden – the roses are marvellous this time of year – watching Winston play croquet with his grandchildren.

I wish I could end this review by pulling out some delicious plum of a show for your delectation. Alas, I can’t. I had high hopes for Robert Jones’s series Murder (Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2), a solitary episode of which won a Bafta in 2012, and which is now back for a three-part run. But while I recognise its ­ambition – these stories are told, piecemeal, by characters who speak not to each other, but directly to the camera – the experience of watching it is anything but enjoyable.

Like bad theatre, Murder is very fond of its own processes. “They love to talk, the middle classes,” said DS Evans (Morven Christie) in the first episode (3 March), the implication being that, in the later monologues, the characters will undo themselves (a man was accused of the murder of his brother-in-law). Except they just ramble on.

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Theatrical monologues run various risks, the most obvious of which is an embarrassing staginess, given that in real life people don’t talk to themselves – or at least not in uninterruptedly long and self-serving paragraphs. In the theatre, this is a convention, for which reason it frequently gets a pass (though it shouldn’t). But on television, where realism is all, it seems strained and unnecessary. I don’t particularly want to be shouted at by actors in a theatre, but for it to happen in the comfort of my own home is really too much. 

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis