Evil Genius with Russell Kane (Sky History) has enjoyed a longish and lively pre-existence as a BBC podcast. Its idea is to scrutinise, wittily but also intelligently, the lives and doings of notable figures, then subject them to a binary ruling. Evil or genius? Kane’s first subject in 2018 was John Lennon; since then he’s ranged into antiquity with Cleopatra and fiction with Batman.
For the show’s migration to TV, Kane is redoing five figures already covered, beginning with Winston Churchill, the tallest poppy of them all. A trio of comedians assembled to hear the evidence, all provided by academics who perhaps need the appearance fee.
For this episode, the panel was evenly composed. Geoff Norcott and Judi Love were instinctively and respectively pro and anti. In the squeezed middle was Charlie Higson, who knew what he was talking about. With his natural charm, Kane pulls off the trick of being both referee and provocateur. The shift to TV has expanded his remit, taking him out to do site reports.
To illustrate Churchill’s drinking regime he visited a pub and lined up the 26 units that constituted a typical day’s consumption. “No wonder he was up for fighting them on the beaches,” chirped Norcott. Love astutely suggested that Churchill’s love of a photo opp, preferably wherever bullets were flying, made him a proto-Instagrammer.
It was left to Higson to contextualise Churchill’s seeming sins as at least in part a product of his time. Nowadays, he added, his hunger for publicity would find him on Have I Got News For You. This was the closest anyone got to mentioning a certain blond Winston wannabe. In the studio, a professor from St Andrews provided expertise – though how much of a Churchill aficionado can someone be when they check prompt notes to get “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in the right order?
All the obvious things came up on the charge sheet: imperialism, racism, disdain for the Welsh, Irish, women, working classes and immigrants. Oddly, there was no mention of the Dardanelles. Love, who seemed to be encountering some of this for the first time, said “wow” a lot. Yes, it’s not academia, but sometimes the rush to judgement denies nuance. Take the suggestion that Churchill encouraged his daughter-in-law Pamela to cuckold his son Randolph with the American envoy Averell Harriman. This merits much more unpacking, and much less slut-shaming. But hey, that’s entertainment.