There was a time, not long ago, when you could strut happily through life knowing almost nothing about Churchill beyond the cigar and coat, the fact that all biffer babies look like him and that he was played by John Lithgow in The Crown. And that he won the war with bulldog spirit (though the coat probably helped). In recent times, however, something of the lie has been given to this simple, simplified image of the wartime leader – to the point that his statue was protected by a ring of Met officers during a recent protest against police violence.
Channel 5 must be thanking its lucky stars that it didn’t insist on the traditional hagiography when it commissioned this six-part series. It goes through the extraordinary man’s life at extraordinary pace, keeping you gripped while shovelling information towards you in a remarkably digestible manner.
The bits that make it fitting for the times are, of course, bits that will stick in conservative (small-c) craws. The first episode dealt with his early years, as an unloved and difficult child (“troublesome,” says his school report), the death of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and his time as a soldier and war correspondent, striving to impress and appease his patriarch’s ghost. As the series goes on, you can’t help but ponder what we might have gained over the centuries had more men been able to hug their sons. Did emotional constipation build the empire? What would the world look like if we had administered some cultural lactulose along the way?
Those who dislike the idea that bulldogs are made not born will be huffing in to their brown windsor soup about this, long before the descriptions of Churchill as an old-style imperialist and the unpacking of attitudes behind such phrases as “dusky nations” to refer to the subcontinent. The series has made a concerted effort to recruit historians of colour, such as Priya Atwal and Diya Gupta, to round out the portrait.
This second instalment opens with Winston’s appointment as first lord of the admiralty and his recruitment to the war cabinet six months into the first world war. This is enough even for the toweringly ambitious and self-confident Old Harrovian descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough to feel as if he has something to get his teeth into. Then comes the failure of his great gamble, Gallipoli, and he is banished to the political wilderness.
He joins the army to rebuild his reputation and career. His charisma wins over a resentful battalion and when the attractive simplicity of a soldier’s life – with its readily identifiable enemies and a clear understanding of what must be done to them – begins to pall, his redoubtable wife Clementine persuades him to stay at the front until his image is fully restored. Something for Carrie Symonds to think about.
It’s a long road back but, with help and hindrance from David Lloyd George, he gets there in the end. By the time we leave him, after Armistice Day, he has been invited back into the cabinet.
It’s a series that in its first two episodes nicely balances modern concerns with received wisdom but does not dilute Churchill’s achievements or his power as a totemic figure. As fast as it goes, it still finds a way to put in light and shade. In an age so firmly against nuance, that’s a bulldog spirit of its own.
• This article was amended on 3 April 2021. Churchill went to Harrow school, not Eton college.