Russell Kane’s comedy historical debate show Evil Genius began on BBC Radio 4 in 2018 and is big on BBC Sounds, doing its bit to ensure that all comedians are on a podcast somewhere at all times. Now it’s become a TV series on Sky History. But on telly, it’s harder to get away with the sort of cheap, contrived concept that so many podcasts and radio shows fall back on – and, thanks to its reckless choice of topic, the debut TV episode of Evil Genius already suggests that the idea should have stayed tucked away in listeners’ earphones, out of sight.
Kane and his guests – in show one we have Judi Love, Charlie Higson and Geoff Norcott – sit around a table assessing a historical figure, with the aim of making a binary decision about whether that person is “evil” or “genius”. First up: Winston Churchill! He was an unabashedly racist oppressor of colonised peoples and a ruthless suppressor of malcontents at home – but he was prime minister when Britain bashed the Nazis, so the jury is out.
Each section of the discussion begins with a guest being given a fact to read aloud, and a filmed insert where Kane consults an expert about a particular aspect of Churchill’s character. In a pub where Winston’s terrifying daily alcohol intake has been poured out and lined up on a long table, a GP explains how he could possibly have functioned; on Sidney Street in London, a historian talks about how, in that location in 1911, the then home secretary enthusiastically facilitated a fatal armed standoff between the army and two Latvian agitators.
In the studio, Norcott advances a centre-right case for the defence – attitudes were different back then, and we needed a bit of a wrong ’un to beat the ultimate wrong ’un, Hitler – while Higson is more of an anguished liberal. In the middle is Love, who starts strongly by warning that as a Black woman, her view of a white man born in the 19th century might be spicy, but subsequently reveals she knows few details of Churchill’s record. Norcott also seems to be coming to the subject more or less cold.
They do have help, but not much. Ever since Pointless became a hit, there has been a trend for quizshows and panel games to include an expert seated separately from the participants, offering nuggets of nerdy knowledge: behind the Richard Osman desk here is Chandrika Kaul, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews. But her opening remarks reveal she has agreed to dumb herself down to somewhere below GCSE level. “Arguably, [Churchill] was the greatest British prime minister ever – maybe the greatest Briton ever,” announces Kaul, before adding, helpfully: “His greatness is mainly linked to the second world war.” Thanks, professor!
None of this would matter if Evil Genius could achieve what it wants to do and become a platform for provocative takes, funny reactions and clever riffs. But, although it tries not to focus too much on the mass deaths and spend more time on eccentricities such as Churchill answering the door to Franklin D Roosevelt without any clothes on, the seriousness of the subject matter – which Kane et al admirably do not gloss over anywhere near as much as they could have done – eventually brings the whole enterprise down.
It’s not that warmongering, authoritarianism and genocide are out of bounds for comedy, but tackling them within a chatty, podcasty “I’m joined by three comedians” setup gives Evil Genius what can at best be called tonal problems. Churchill’s worst crimes are treated like slugs being lifted apologetically out of a salad in front of the diners: Kane’s stock response to reports of atrocities and abuses is to joke about how embarrassing it is for the show’s mood to be darkened so severely, when it’s meant to be a bit of fun.
The climax is a segment on the Bengal famine that proves to be a deeply bewildering and disturbing piece of television. It is introduced by a questionable summary of why more than 2 million Bengalis died in 1943, with the more benign view of Churchill withholding aid – it was an unfortunate but defensible allocation of scant wartime resources – offset somewhat by his famous quote: “I hate Indians – they are a beastly people.” How damning a view to take of Churchill has been argued over by historians for decades, so the chances of some random comedians throwing light on it are zero. Yet Higson and Love are left to conduct a moral reckoning, during which they understandably do not see an opportunity to crack a gag.
An agonised hush descends as they desperately bluff their way through. You can almost hear them wondering: which genius came up with this format?
• Evil Genius With Russell Kane is on Sky History