CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the weekend’s TV: Who bares wins as the SAS go into battle stark naked

SAS Rogue Heroes 

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Simon Schama’s History of Now 

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Never in the field of human period drama has one man been played by so many.

Whether political outcast or wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill is a recurring character in shows by writer Steven Knight — and the old bulldog is portrayed by a different actor every time.

He crops up in three series of Peaky Blinders: first played by Andy Nyman, then by Richard McCabe, and lastly by Neil Maskell. In the final episode of SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC1), it was the turn of Jason Watkins, who seemed to be channelling Boris Johnson’s huff-puff-and-stutter version of the great man.

After quoting a lot of Shakespeare, mixing Julius Caesar with Henry V, the PM took David Stirling (Connor Swindells) aside for a private chat.

‘Forget the etiquette of war,’ he instructed the ‘Phantom Major’ of the SAS. ‘Do whatever it takes.’

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: In the final episode of SAS Rogue Heroes (BBC1) , it was the turn of Jason Watkins to play Sir Winston Churchill

Stirling replied by taking Winnie’s cigar and using it to light his own cigarette. This series, a television homage to classic war movies, has included plenty of such flamboyant moments, images that will be remembered long after the scenes laden with factual explanations have faded.

Another was the briefing at which Stirling explained to his men how they were going to hit six German airbases and so relieve the Siege of Malta. The logistics of the raids were incidental: what mattered was Stirling’s insistence that the squadron were stark naked throughout.

Equally effective has been the use of a hard-rock soundtrack. If it seemed eccentric at first to blast AC/DC’s Highway To Hell over desert battles, the technique made perfect sense by the time Stirling’s killers were racing down a German runway in jeeps, blowing up Messerschmitts and machine-gunning the air crews, all set to the cacophony of Overkill by heavy metal merchants Motorhead.

Hands up if you’d like to see railway union boss Mick Lynch sorted out by the SAS in time for Christmas

The grief-stricken Jewish commando Marc Halevy (Arthur Orcier) fulfilled his wish to become a human hand grenade. And loose cannon Captain Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell), whose insubordination threatened every mission, became the regiment’s commanding officer after Stirling blundered into an Afrika Korps patrol.

That set the scene for a rumoured second series, with ‘Mad Mayne’ as the star — unless Knight plans to fast-forward to the 1970s, when a middle-aged Colonel Stirling toyed with recruiting a private army to break strikes and defeat the trade unions. Hands up if you’d like to see railway union boss Mick Lynch sorted out by the SAS in time for Christmas.

Simon Schama was reliving the sort of civil rights and feminist marches that, no doubt, would set steam whistling from the elderly colonel’s ears, in the second part of History Of Now (BBC2).

Simon Schama was reliving the sort of civil rights and feminist marches that, no doubt, would set steam whistling from the elderly colonel’s ears, in the second part of History Of Now (BBC2)

Like Forrest Gump, Schama seems to have had a knack of being present at pivotal moments of our era. Not only was he travelling in the States in 1964, when the fight against segregation was at its height, but the following year he was a vote-counter in a Cambridge University debate featuring the great novelist and political activist, James Baldwin.

And in a segment on the notorious 1971 debate in New York between macho writer Norman Mailer and a legion of liberated women, Schama made sure we realised he knew Germaine Greer as a student. She was ‘charismatic’, apparently — a dignified way of saying he fancied her.

Though the emphasis was too heavily on America’s struggles, the episode was well worth watching for the closing interview with Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Over on C4, the adaptation of her book has long since run out of energy. But that’s hardly Margaret’s fault.

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