When we first meet Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm of the thirties, he is between government jobs, has neglected to pay the butcher, and is writing a biography of his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough. Of that biography, Evelyn Waugh would later remark: “As history it is beneath contempt, the special pleading of a defense lawyer. As literature it is worthless. It is written in a sham Augustan prose which could only have been achieved by a man who thought always in terms of public speech, and the antitheses clang like hammers in an arsenal.”
We wave good-bye to Winston only after he has come back in out of the cold, still clanging like a hammer, as first lord of the Admiralty in Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet. Eight months later, he will command the government. Never mind that somehow, in this otherwise meticulous TV film on which HBO and the BBC have co-conspired, the prime-ministerial transition from Stanley Baldwin to Chamberlain is so sped up and fuzzied over that Munich gets omitted. The important point is that all along, “warmonger” Winston had been right about Hitler, who worried him as much as Gandhi “and his seditious Hindus” did in India. England, in her hour of ultimate peril, needed an Augustan blowhard; the voters would turn him out of office the minute the war was over.
Albert Finney is perhaps inevitable as Winston. After his Daddy Warbucks, who else to wear those bow ties, smoke those cigars, guzzle all that brandy and champagne, and dictate speeches from his bathtub? Vanessa Redgrave is rather more of a surprise as his wife, Clemmie; one more easily imagines Redgrave leading a government and winning a war than Finney. The other players are shrewdly chosen: Derek Jacobi as Stanley Baldwin; Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton; Hugh Bonneville as Ivo Pettifer; and, especially, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigram, the Foreign Office worrier who slips Winston intelligence data on German rearmament, and the always wonderful Lena Headey as Ralph’s wife, Ava, who has the movie’s finest moment telling off the bully Pettifer.As we’d expect from executive producers like the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, all this solemn history is agreeably tricked up in taxicabs, phone booths, and theater bars, not to mention poetry-quoting and landscape-painting. In our pomo age of television and skepticism, it is hard to take Churchill as seriously as he took himself. But that leaves us with Tony Blair.
America’s First River: Bill Moyers on the Hudson (April 23 and 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) follows the waterway into our economy, literature, art, and imagination, from the Catskills to West Point to New York City, from the conservation of its riverbanks to the polluting of its lifestream, all the way to Pete Seeger. Without Warning (April 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is a distinct improvement on the last “Diagnosis Murder” movie, involving not only a love affair between Steve (Barry Van Dyke) and a supermarket-tabloid reporter, but also an epidemic in a migrant-worker camp that has something to do with the bad behavior of a pharmaceutical company. Living With the Dead (April 28 and 30; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) squanders quite a lot of talent – Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Queen Latifah, Michael Moriarty, Diane Ladd, and Jack Palance – on a serial-killer murder mystery that is solved only when the dead talk to Ted. Based on what purports to be the true-life story of the psychic James Van Praagh. Gilda Radner: It’s Always Something (April 29; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC) features Jami Gertz as an acceptable Gilda, clowning her way from the loss of her father to Saturday Night Live to Gene Wilder to ovarian cancer. But a snippet of the real thing at the end of the movie is what really hurts. Jordan: The Royal Tour (April 29; 10 to 11 p.m.; Travel Channel) is an oddly ingratiating hour in which we are introduced to King Abdullah II himself, who escorts us by motorcycle, camel, and his very own helicopter to a few of his favorite places, like Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and (wow!) Petra.
The Gathering Storm
Saturday, April 27; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO.