Filming on hallowed ground

Making history can be a risky business, especially when you’re making it for TV. Tonight BBC2 screens The Gathering Storm, an ambitious dramatisation of Sir Winston Churchill’s pre-war years, featuring a tour de force performance from Albert Finney as the old bulldog; but already some historians are rattling sabres.

The Gathering Storm is a co-production with America’s HBO, made by Scott Free, the production company run by Ridley (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and Tony Scott (Spy Game, Crimson Tide).

In the lead role, Finney is already being hailed as the definitive screen Churchill - a pugnacious, wheezing, crumple-faced, cigar-chewing Winston, by turns belligerent, jocose, eloquent and vulnerable. We first see him in the political wilderness, hectoring on the dangers of appeasement to a near-deserted Chamber, dreaming of his illustrious ancestor, Marlborough, and arguing with his Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave) over their near-bankruptcy and his devotion to their massive home, Charterhouse. By the end of the film his adversary, prime minister Stanley Baldwin (a sleekit Derek Jacobi) and his minions have been faced down, the Chamber is full, and Britain has its back against the wall.

Written by Hugh Whitemore, who was also behind Breaking the Code, a look at Alan Turing and the wartime Enigma machine, the plot follows a nervous but committed young foreign office official, Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache), as he risks his job by passing to Churchill secret documents that show the true extent of Germany’s covert re-armament. In his memoirs, Churchill described Wigram - who was later found dead, though whether through suicide or illness is left unclear - as "an unsung hero".

The Gathering Storm was greeted with fulsome praise when it was shown in the United States earlier this year. Some historians here, however, have been less than effusive. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Churchill’s most-recent biographer, described the film as "rather good", but felt that it "ludicrously exaggerated" the role of Wigram as Churchill’s Foreign Office mole.

And Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King’s College, London, gave the film a hard time in the Sunday Telegraph. "Short on drama, crassly scripted, historically inept", he began, before going on to condemn a "naive and hagiographic" script for its "unbearable sentimentality". He accused the film of making "a travesty of the historical truth it seeks to establish", in failing to portray Churchill’s confrontation with archappeaser Neville Chamberlain.

One had the impression, however, that despite all this, Overy had rather enjoyed aspects of the film, which he described as "beautifully shot". Finney’s performance he regarded as "a wonderful Churchill".

The film’s director, Richard Loncraine, who won awards for his 1996 Richard III, knows something of the minefield of historical recreation. He directed the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks production Band of Brothers, based on the true story of US paratroopers during and after the D-Day landings, which was praised for its gripping action and sometimes gut-wrenching verisimilitude, but accused of focusing only on America’s role.

Loncraine dismisses Overy’s condem-nation of the "hagiographic" script as a subjective opinion. And so far as accuracy is concerned, "we went to enormous trouble to be historically accurate. We had historians working on it and we had the Soames family [Churchill’s daughter’s family] read the script.

"My own feeling is that historians tend to have their own agendas and when film-makers tread upon what they consider hallowed ground they take offence. I would love to see, for example, someone saying, ‘That didn’t happen on such and such a date or that person didn’t exist. We did go to a great deal of trouble to make sure that wasn’t the case."

As to Roy Jenkins’s claim that Wigram’s role was exaggerated, the truth was there, he says. "In reality there were four ‘Wigrams’ - two Army officers and two civil servants. It would be cinematographically inept to have four people doing the same thing. What we did was leave out the other three characters. What Wigram did was completely accurate." Of suggestions that the film was made with an American audience in mind, he counters: "If you ask, would we have clarified an accent to make sure an American ear would hear it, the answer is yes, definitely. But made sentimental for Hollywood? Over my dead body."

He agrees, though, that striking a balance between authenticity and entertainment can be a tricky business. "However, real life doesn’t usually have a cinematic structure and what Hugh Whitemore has done - and very cleverly, I think - is leave out things which would have confused the audience."

His words echo those of a predecessor, Cecil Clarke, producer of 1975’s much-lauded Edward the Seventh, in which James Fox played Victoria’s playboy heir (in this case, the Queen approved the script). "You have to set your sights at complete authenticity in all your pre-production preparation and thinking," wrote Clarke. "You then have to decide whether complete authenticity will work dramatically, or to what degree you are going to have to bend it to make it work. If we had done Edward the Seventh with absolute 100 per cent authenticity, it would probably have ended up a rather dull programme."

Even Overy comments that "historians, of course, will seldom be satisfied with film reconstructions of the past". However, when biographer Amanda Foreman won the Whitbread prize for biography in 1999, for Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she pointed out that insight into personal lives can sometimes throw greater light on history than meticulous observance of detail. "As Shakespeare’s own history cycles demonstrate," she wrote, "historical dramas do not necessarily need strict accuracy to convey truth."

The film Shakespeare in Love, for example, she described as "pure fantasy" - yet it conveyed a dramatic truth which resonated with modern audiences, particularly women. Similarly, in Elizabeth, when Cate Blanchett, as the ageing Virgin Queen, coats her face in white powder and cuts off her hair (Glenda Jackson, remember, did the same in the widely acclaimed TV drama Elizabeth R, back in 1975), it may have been a bit wide of the mark regarding period use of wigs and powder but, said Foreman, it powerfully reflected a misogynist society.

What everyone seems agreed on is Finney’s performance, which Loncraine regards as the definitive Churchill (others to take on the role have included Simon Ward, Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Timothy West and Bob Hoskins). "He wears make-up but no prosthetics; he takes on the character. He watched hours of archive footage of Churchill and listened to countless speeches, he learned Churchill’s speech patterns, he broke all the dialogue down into phonetics. He didn’t mimic him, he did his own version of him."

Loncraine delights in telling how Sir Winston’s surviving child, Lady Mary Soames, visited the set and met Finney, and Loncraine asked her how she felt about seeing an actor representing her father: "Darling," she replied. "I’ve seen all the imitators."

Then, to show her Finney in character, Loncraine had her view some footage. "I went back to the screening room," he recalls, "just as they were finishing showing her 15 minutes of reels. As the lights went up, I saw tears in her eyes. She looked at me and said, ‘It’s my Papa, my Papa’."

♦ The Gathering Storm screens on BBC2 tonight, 9pm