BBC/HBO production “Into the Storm” on UK TV





Into the Storm starring Brendan Gleeson follows on from The Gathering Storm (2002). Screenwriter Hugh Whitemore’s first outing portrayed Winston S. Churchill’s “wilderness years” through the 1930s and ended in 1939 when he was summoned to the Admiralty. Although Into the Storm opens in 1945, this sequel of sorts takes up the story and charts his “finest hour.” It is told in retrospect, as Churchill holidaying in France awaits the result of the general election called after victory in Europe.

Much like the first Emmy-award winning 90-minute docudrama, the title is borrowed from one of the volumes of Churchill’s World War II memoirs. There is no danger of giving the story line away, however, because it is in the history books – so impeccably accurate is the writing.

This is not to say that Into the Storm is without its flaws. Rather, the film is so packed that gaps in the story line are generally forgivable (even if the back-and-forth transition is less so). The same was said of The Gathering Storm, which fast-forwarded to Churchill’s arrival at the Admiralty from Stanley Baldwin’s retirement as Prime Minister in 1936, omitting the premiership of Neville Chamberlain and Munich.

This was a relatively minor criticism, though, compared with the debate over Ralph Wigram, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, and the secret documentation he passed Churchill on the growing Nazi threat. The late Roy Jenkins, author of the definitive biography entitled, simply, Churchill (2001), believed the film distorted the truth: “The film is rather good, but Wigram’s role is ludicrously exaggerated,” he remarked.

Questions were also asked about the actual timing of the broadcast. It aired in the US and UK at a time (summer 2002) when a coterie of politicians were invoking Churchill’s stand on Adolf Hitler to bolster their positions on Saddam Hussein.

We will address each in turn for Into the Storm: omission, exaggeration and timing.

On its own, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quip to Churchill in 1945 about him having a “distant view of the Polish problem” does not go far enough to illustrate the extent to which pragmatism took precedence over principle.

FDR rejected Churchill’s suggestion in 1942 that Stalin should be granted his wish for the 1941 borders. On the campaign trail in 1943, though, FDR told Uncle Joe at Tehran that he agreed with shifting Poland to the West and allowing the Soviets to occupy the territory gained as a result of their invasion in 1939.

Notwithstanding various scenes depicting the Tehran Conference held in the Soviet Embassy, the screenwriter, to quote Laurence Rees - author of World War II: Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazis and The West (2008) and where he recalls how his teacher - “got round the moral and political complexities of the Soviet Union’s participation in the war by the simple expedient of largely ignoring it.” Bearing in mind the scenes with FDR already felt tagged on, as if to please the American audience, it comes as little surprise to see that material on Poland becoming a Cossack outpost of the Soviet Union has been omitted.

The omissions do not end there. Although FDR and WSC had both departed the top table by summer 1945 (albeit for two very different reasons), the Potsdam Conference and the division of Germany should have been included - at the expense of the conference at Yalta, if need be, where little of new substance was raised.

The exaggeration of Yalta is a relatively minor criticism, however, compared with Churchill’s departure and the omission of a postscript informing viewers that his political career was not over. (He returned to 10 Downing Street in 1951.)

Talking of postscripts, another was in order to detail how – to quote the subtitle of Jonathan Fenby’s book Alliance (2006) – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin “Won One War and Began Another.” This being so, viewers would have expected Into the Storm to premiere at the time Europe celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and not earlier in the US, as art critics pointed out, on the final day of the Emmy-eligibility window.

World War II: When Lions Roared (1994), on the other hand, was undertaken with the 50th anniversary of D-Day in mind. What is more, NBC’s three-hour miniseries concluded with Churchill’s first reference to an “Iron Curtain”:

“I have always worked for friendship with Russia, but I feel deep anxiety because of their misinterpretation of the Yalta decisions, their attitude towards Poland, their overwhelming influence in the Balkans, the combination of Russian power and territories under their control, and above all their power to maintain very large armies in the field for a long time. What will be the position in a year or two, when the British and American armies have melted, when Russia may choose to keep two hundred divisions on active service? An iron curtain is being drawn down and we don’t know what is going on behind.”

If you do want to know what was going on behind, however, then look no further than the writer and producer of the BBC/PBS six-hour series (and accompanying book) World War II: Behind Closed Doors, Rees.

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