Exposing Churchill's tender side

'The Gathering Storm' details the legendary leader's life before World War II

World War II has been getting its due on television. Last spring saw the best version yet of the story of Anne Frank (better even than the Broadway play and movie "The Diary of Anne Frank"), the young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis. Then HBO's chilling "Conspiracy" depicted the luncheon meeting of Nazis that decided on "the final solution." It starred a host of great talents, led by Kenneth Branagh. And "Band of Brothers," the tale of a group of American infantrymen who fought their way across Europe, made TV history last fall, under the guidance of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Now The Gathering Storm (HBO, mature themes, some nudity, April 27, 8-9:35 p.m., repeating through the month) takes us back before the war to reveal the man behind the pug-dog face and the granite voice, Winston Churchill.

It's a loving tribute to the leader who steered Britain through its "finest hour," as Churchill called it. And though it shows his blustery temper, obsessive smoking, and willfulness, the British leader still comes across as an old dear. Albert Finney's spot-on interpretation of the great man is honest, skilled, and graceful.

The story begins just as Hitler is rising to power in Germany. Churchill and a handful of colleagues realize what Hitler is up to. Churchill is helped by a young man who pinches key secret documents for his perusal. The film argues that if Churchill had not seen those documents, Britain would have been even less prepared for war than it was. Meanwhile, his political opponent, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi), tries to keep Churchill out of the political loop as Britain's negotiations with Hitler continue.

This history is gripping, but the story is most involving as it portrays Churchill's marriage to his ever adorable Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave), the rock of his life.

Who could imagine Churchill scratching at his wife's door to apologize for his bad behavior, saying, "Please let me in, Mrs. Pussy-Cat. Your Mr. Pug is lonely out here"? The great man with the mighty ego loved his wife and could be downright silly and tender with her – but with few others.

Many dramas try to re-create history, but few of us would really like to return to the primitive conditions of the American frontier. Or would we? Frontier House (PBS, April 29, check local listings) is a bold experiment: Three families, chosen from 5,000 applicants, face life for six months in Montana as it was in 1883.

As the families work to put up supplies for winter, all their little arguments and petty bickering surface. Yes, it's a reality show. But the people are more interesting and less ruthless than the "Survivor" contestants. And they do it all for free, with no prize money. For the men, the frontier life proves to be mostly positive. But for the women, it's harder and more tedious. The children flourish.

"I didn't find it difficult to detach from the 21st century," says participant Mark Glenn. "I felt like out there [Montana], my ego wasn't going to work – Mother Nature makes the priorities." But under the strain of life in such close quarters, the Glenn's marriage broke apart, and they have since separated.

On the other hand, the Clune family grew closer, soon adapting to the harsh conditions. "The only thing I missed were friends and family," says Adrienne Clune. "I never missed possessions. Material things are not important."

After the experience, she, like Mr. Glenn, found modern life shockingly stressful. Mr. Clune found himself questioning his whole life in the 21st century. Mrs. Clune found modern advertising to be a kind of constant noise.

She says she has simplified her life now. But she also appreciates modern conveniences more.

"I still feel that what freed women was the development of technology that gave them the time to pursue other interests," she says. "In 1883, your whole day revolved around cooking, cleaning, storing food, and laundry....

"The washing machine ... freed you up." "Frontier House" will fascinate anyone with an interest in American history and in the vast changes the 20th century wrought.

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