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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Churchill brews up a storm
The Gathering Storm focuses on just one part of Churchill's life
The drama boasts a fine ensemble cast

Sir Winston Churchill remains one of the most famous and fascinating political figures of the 20th Century.

Well before becoming prime minister in 1940, he was munitions minister in Lloyd George's Cabinet during the First World War and went on to become chancellor of the exchequer in 1924. King of the turncoats, he changed parties not once but twice.

The Gathering Storm, already a huge success in the United States, takes this as read and picks up Churchill's turbulent political life in 1934, in his "wilderness years".

He is an ageing backbencher, a nuisance to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi) and ridiculed in parliament for his off-beat views on Gandhi and his warnings about the rearmament taking place in Hitler's Third Reich.

Ronnie Barker plays Churchill's manservant, Inches
Ronnie Barker was persuaded to come out of retirement
Out of the public eye, Churchill is also bluffly facing down personal economic problems brought about by his appetite for the finer things of life.

His luxurious demands include bottles of champagne, copious amounts of Dundee cake and an army of servants to prepare every nuance of his complicated life.

Screenwriter Hugh Whitemore has created something of a niche for himself with historical plays which focus on the personalities and character traits of those involved in famous events, rather than the events themselves.

His play Macmillan focused on the eponymous prime minister in his twilight years, looking at just one part of his life rather than attempting the dramatic equivalent of a biography.

So when we find that Neville Chamberlain does not even appear in The Gathering Storm, and that Churchill's years as prime minister have been studiously set aside to allow the story of his remarkable return to the political limelight to be told, it comes as no surprise.


The chemistry between Finney and Redgrave is both textured and palpable

Albert Finney as Churchill gives a career-defining performance of such magnitude that at times it becomes easy to forget that an actor is on screen, rather than the cigar-smoking politician himself.

He is big, bumbling and brash, a man of character whom people love to hate, who casually undresses in front of his secretary and who calls himself a "great man" when speaking to his manservant Inches (Ronnie Barker in fine form, lured from retirement at 72).

Vanessa Redgrave is similarly magnificent as Clemmie Churchill, the great man's long-suffering yet still affectionate wife.

She is clearly devoted to her husband, and the chemistry between Finney and Redgrave is both textured and palpable.

Fastidious

And there are smaller roles for Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent, Linus Roache and Tom Wilkinson, all of whom give their understated best and contribute to a cracking ensemble cast.

The pace of the drama is tautly controlled throughout, allowing us to absorb dramatic set-pieces and the impressive attention to detail.

Jenny Beavan's stylish costumes, Whitemore's taut script and the sterling acting all contribute to the film's all-round excellence.

For all this, The Gathering Storm is a populist, feel-good human drama of personalities and characters who transcend the often overwhelming events happening around them.

The end result should not be missed.

The Gathering Storm is on BBC Two on Friday, 2100 - 2230 BST.

See also:

20 Mar 02 | Entertainment
15 Oct 01 | Entertainment
29 Nov 01 | England
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