Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Churchill on Screen and at Home

He's been splashed all over our TV and cinema screens for a few months now. I have yet to discover the reason for the current media interest in Winston Churchill. There is no obvious anniversary to be celebrated, and yet in the past two years we've had a BBC TV drama and two major films about the man voted "Greatest Briton". The jury is still out on Churchill, a personality who divided public opinion even while he was still alive. Complex, brilliant and yet foolish, dictatorial and yet humble, a man who suffered deep depression and never forgave himself for his many mistakes.
Churchill lived much of his life on screen. His appearances in the mass media were all that most people knew about his looks and character, as indeed is true of most politicians since 1900. I was born ten years after the war, and my first memory of him is his 90th birthday celebration, when the BBC televised an entertainment in his honour, featuring such greats as Arthur Askey and Margot Fonteyn, introduced to camera by Noel Coward, not someone normally thought of as a political animal, which doubtless made him all the more effective as a wartime spy. I recall Coward as being extremely respectful, which was good of him in view of the fact that Churchill had been instrumental in preventing him being awarded a knighthood in 1942 (he eventually got one in 1969). Apparently Churchill himself fell asleep during the show and missed most of the action.
The next thing I knew, Churchill was dead and the funeral had thoughtfully been arranged for a Saturday so that our parents could watch the spectacle on TV. Churchill had been inconsiderate enough to die in January when it was freezing cold. My sister and I were bored, and went for a walk, amusing ourselves by breaking the ice in the puddles on the pavement. We couldn't go to the shops, as they were all closed.
Many working-class people were admirers of Churchill, but many were not. Richard Burton, who had appeared as the great man in A Walk With Destiny, a dramatised version of the events of 1936-1940, made jointly by the BBC with the American station NBC in 1974, commented that "to play Churchill is to hate him". Burton apparently found some of Churchill's more virulent wartime rhetoric unpalatable, as I think we would find it today if the media didn't concentrate on the good bits about fighting on beaches and the end of the beginning. It was Churchill who called socialism "the gospel of envy", which was fine for someone who had been born in a house with 187 rooms.
Burton's outburst against the long-dead Churchill resulted in his being banned by the BBC. There were too many people around who idolised the wartime prime minister as the saviour of the nation. Churchill's widow, Clementine - who comes across in most screen portrayals as a major factor in his success - had written to Burton before the programme was released, to thank him for his performance. Burton responded in a letter that made it clear he considered her to have been the key to her husband's greatness.
It's almost as hard to name an actor who hasn't played Churchill on screen as it is to name one who has. The casting of handsome Simon Ward in Young Winston was looked on askance, but turned out to be inspired; he actually did look something like the young Churchill, and became believable as the film revealed Churchill's development from frustrated slow-to-learn schoolboy whose father was in the process of dying of syphilis (when Churchill wrote his father's biography, he glossed over the cause of death) to the cocky young adventurer who made his name by escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp during the Boer War.
In Churchill's Secret, Michael Gambon portrayed the ailing prime minister (the secret was the stroke he suffered in 1953, kept a secret from the public for political reasons) as an obstinate old goat, but the really interesting thing was the portrayal of his family. Doting wife, trying to keep everyone happy; quarrelling offspring, who feel they have missed out on real family life because of their father's insistence on obtaining and retaining political power. His son, the weak-minded Randolph, came across as worthy of being named after his grandfather (an enthusiastic member of the Bullingdon Club, who once tried to blackmail the future Queen Alexandra).
British actor Gary Oldman is now tipped for an Oscar for his role in Darkest Hour. The much-underrated Brian Cox (not the physicist) did not achieve the same glittering reviews for his performance in last summer's release, entitled simply Churchill, but the latter was based on an interesting idea - that Churchill, already losing his grasp on power, tried to prevent the D-Day landings in 1944 because of his memories of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Churchill's First World War, a 2013 BBC documentary which was recently repeated, gave additional insight into Churchill's later actions. It is by now well known that the 70-year-old prime minister wanted to accompany the forces to the Normandy landings and had to be dissuaded by King George VI. However, time and the overlaying of Simon Ward's dashing young man with the elder statesman of the 1940s has disguised the fact that Churchill, with some justification, still considered himself a soldier.
The First World War was not Churchill's finest hour. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he had planned the Gallipoli landings which resulted in so many pointless deaths, including that of Siegfried Sassoon's younger brother Hamo. The campaign's failure was blamed largely on Churchill's own arrogance, and led to his political humiliation and fall from grace. His response to the setback was to resume his military career, finding himself a place as a battalion commander on the Western Front.
Like Sassoon, Churchill made a habit of venturing into No Man's Land to raid enemy lines, and this highlights his probable state of mind at the time. His friend and rival David Lloyd George (who once commented that Winston would "make a drum out of the skin of his own mother to sound his own praises") replied to his letter asking for a return to government with these words: "the state of mind revealed in your letter is the reason why you do not win trust even where you command admiration", accusing him of putting his personal ambitions before the national interest. Nevertheless, Churchill was back in Lloyd George's cabinet in 1917.
Sassoon's indirect line to Churchill was through Edward Marsh, the poetic mentor who had first become Churchill's private secretary in 1905, when the latter was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. When Sassoon made his protest in the summer of 1917, the connection was of no use to him and was an embarrassment to Marsh. It was not until the following year, when all the furore was over, that Sassoon met Churchill in person, and this time it was at Churchill's own request. He claimed to be an admirer of Sassoon's poetry, and perhaps this was true.
They were introduced at the Metropole Hotel in London in the first week of October 1918. Sassoon's war was effectively over, and he was on the verge of being invalided out of the forces. It seems that Churchill had it in mind to offer him a job in the Ministry of Munitions. Sassoon took to Churchill, although it is clear that the politician liked the sound of his own voice and their views on the war continued to be at odds; naturally, he turned down the job offer.
He did not reflect for long upon the details of the meeting. A few days later, his great friend Robbie Ross died suddenly and Sassoon was as heartbroken as he had been over the deaths of any of his comrades in arms. He did, however, see Churchill again a month later, and noted in his diary: "One gets an inhuman impression from his talk - all words, like a leading article." So perhaps, Churchill had reverted to type.
Visit Chartwell in Kent, where he lived from 1922 onwards, and you get a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure. In the studio, which Winston used after taking up amateur painting in his forties, unfinished works lie around the place, along with the pots and brushes. I particularly like the quotation marked up on the wall: "When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject." He knew when he was beaten, but he wasn't going to admit it.