“Here is history that Irish people may prefer not to know,” says Michael Portillo in his latest RTÉ documentary. He refers not to our recent track record at Eurovision but to the Civil War and British support for the Free State government. “If the British were the devil,” he continues early in Taking Sides: Britain and the Civil War (RTÉ One, 9.35pm), “then this was a Faustian Pact”.
Portillo may have entered the public eye in the 1990s as a puffy cover version of Margaret Thatcher. But, having served as British secretary for defence in the dying days of John Major’s government, he has reinvented himself as a chummy documentarian, specialising in leisurely trips through exotic landscapes.
Portillo is best known for his Great Railway Journeys series. In Taking Sides he traverses the bumpier hinterland of Ireland in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. As with his earlier films about the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, he is here as a quasi-official ambassador for the British perspective. In particular that of the conservative hero, Winston Churchill.
It’s a fun dash through the archives. Portillo, working with Fearghal McGarry of Queen’s University Belfast, uncovers some fascinating bombshells. After anti-Treaty rebels staged a provocative takeover of the Four Courts, the British made advanced plans to bomb the building with RAF planes. These were to be rebadged with Free State insignia. Frustrated with the intransigence of the rebels, the Dublin government later canvassed Britain for poison gas. The request was received with horror by the British. They recalled only too well the evil of chemical weapons in the trenches.
The best thing about Taking Sides is that it finds its focus and sticks to it. Much of RTÉ’s output throughout the Decade of Centenaries has suffered a po-faced quality. There has been a sense that this is Important Television and therefore must be a fun-free zone.
Portillo is not encumbered by the sense of history squatting on his shoulders. If anything he seems to enjoy himself as he zips from Westminster Bridge to Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. Along the way, he meets historians such as Sinéad McCoole and Niamh Gallagher. He also sits down with Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph. Hastings is unflattering about Winston Churchill. “When it came to maintaining control of the British Empire he was quite unafraid of using violence on oppressing subject peoples,” Hastings says.
Churchill, we hear, started out seeing Michael Collins as a knave. He later grew to respect him – though the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to revise that opinion. “Churchill had first regarded Collins as a murderer. Then as a kindred spirit man of action,” says one of the experts. “And then, after the signing of the Treaty, as a person of dubious reliability.”
It is pacy viewing and it is interesting to learn that, far from being shocked at the Civil War, the British seemed to have regarded it as almost inevitable. Of course, Portillo’s clubbability helps. There is a sense that he would make for great company over a tot of brandy. Next up, they should have him front a documentary about Dustin the Turkey at Eurovision 2008 and the long shadow cast by that act of musical self-destruction.