Churchill on the Broadcast

Churchill on the Broadcast

The ques­tion aris­es, has any­thing been writ­ten on Churchill’s radio tech­nique? Did he treat radio dif­fer­ent­ly from oth­er kinds of pub­lic speak­ing? How quick­ly did he take to the broadcast?

“The Art of the Microphone”

(BBC pho­to­graph)

An excel­lent piece on this sub­ject was by Richard Dim­ble­by (1913-1965), the BBC’s first war cor­re­spon­dent and lat­er its lead­ing TV news com­men­ta­tor. His “Churchill the Broad­cast­er” is in Charles Eade, ed., Churchill by his Con­tem­po­raries (Lon­don: Hutchin­son, 1953). Old as it is, the book remains a com­pre­hen­sive set of essays of the many spe­cial­ized attrib­ut­es of WSC.

Dim­ble­by offers four areas of dis­cus­sion: the tech­ni­cal back­ground, the dra­ma of World War II, the fac­tu­al mate­r­i­al, and Churchill’s meth­ods of delivery.

Dim­ble­by pro­vides detail about how the BBC han­dled the wartime broad­cast, which orig­i­nat­ed in vast­ly dif­fer­ent places, from com­modi­ous Che­quers (the PM’s offi­cial coun­try res­i­dence) to the cramped con­fines of the under­ground Cab­i­net War Rooms.

“Be Quiet—Churchill’s Broadcasting”

“Churchill had a ready-made, keen, sym­pa­thet­ic audi­ence,” Dim­ble­by wrote:

He had cre­at­ed enor­mous nation­al con­fi­dence in him­self. The great major­i­ty of the people—there were, of course, his opponents—trusted him, sup­port­ed him and were avid for any­thing he had to say, even if his major promis­es were of “blood, toil tears and sweat.” Here, they felt, was a man who would say what had to be said, how­ev­er unpleas­ant it was, and who would always hold out some hope of bet­ter things.

Of course the man him­self was deeply con­scious of this wait­ing audi­ence, of the fact that he was speak­ing with author­i­ty, with a full pri­vate knowl­edge of the truth….

It was not only in Britain or the coun­tries of her allies that peo­ple hung on Churchill’s words. I was told recent­ly by a Ger­man broad­cast­ing offi­cial who worked at Ham­burg dur­ing the war that he walked into the offices one night and found nor­mal work at a stand­still. Even William Joyce, then in the full foul flood of his radio ora­to­ry as “Haw Haw,” was away from his desk. Ask­ing what was up, the offi­cial was told to be quiet—“Churchill’s broadcasting.”

Broadcast Consistency

(Library of Congress)

Churchill’s “mag­ic of word and phrase, the force­ful deliv­ery, the mas­tery of lan­guage that made each of his great wartime broad­casts a pageant,” Dim­ble­by con­tin­ued. Iron­i­cal­ly, Churchill’s trans­gres­sions of the rules were what made him so good:

…he breaks every accept­ed rule of broadcasting….He drops his voice where he should raise it, he alters the recog­nised sys­tem of punc­tu­a­tion to suit him­self (some of his scripts were vir­tu­al­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble to any­one else), he speaks much of the time with any­thing but clar­i­ty. Yet such is his pow­er as an ora­tor, and such his feel­ing of the pub­lic pulse, that dur­ing the war years he was sure of a silent and appre­cia­tive audi­ence of mil­lions, fol­low­ing every word and phrase with relish.

Churchill was also con­sis­tent over the years. His pat­terns of speech nev­er changed. Dur­ing a lec­ture, Dim­ble­by played Churchill’s very first 1909 pub­lished record­ing, on the Lib­er­al Government’s budget:

There was no need for me to announce the speak­er, for the first half-dozen words estab­lished his iden­ti­ty. The pas­sage of near­ly half a cen­tu­ry has made vir­tu­al­ly no dif­fer­ence to the voice, except to deep­en and thick­en it slight­ly. The same faint sing-song is there and the same lilt­ing cadences, though there is nev­er a cadence where you might expect it, at the end of a sen­tence. Gen­er­al­ly the voice goes up, leav­ing the lis­ten­er with the feel­ing that the sen­tence has not real­ly end­ed at all.

These tech­niques were fea­tures of the spe­cial tal­ent Churchill laid on his palimpsest of ora­to­ry. What was the real key? Dim­ble­by said it was “mas­tery of the Eng­lish lan­guage.” Churchill loved words, espe­cial­ly in broad­casts, when he was not there to be seen to ges­ture or to gri­mace to aid his deliv­ery. It was all based on words alone:

“Purblind Worldlings”

The his­to­ri­an will not fail to note that descrip­tion of Mus­soli­ni as “this whipped jack­al, frisk­ing at the side of the Ger­man tiger…..” Von Ribben­trop was “that prodi­gious con­tor­tion­ist.” Those who dared to ask what Britain was fight­ing for were “thought­less dilet­tan­ti or pur­blind worldlings.”

The actions of Rus­sia in Octo­ber 1939, as they seemed Churchill, were “a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enig­ma.” But there was no puz­zle­ment about the char­ac­ter of “Herr Hitler and his group of wicked men, whose hands are stained with blood and soiled with cor­rup­tion.” Then there were the neu­tral States, each one of which “hopes that if he feeds the croc­o­dile enough, the croc­o­dile will eat him last.” The croc­o­dile was seen in anoth­er form when it turned upon Rus­sia in June 1941…. “Now this blood­thirsty gut­ter­snipe must launch his mech­a­nised armies upon new fields of slaugh­ter, pil­lage and devastation.”

Those were fight­ing words, Dim­ble­by con­tin­ued: words that made men and women in the midst of all-out war chuck­le, know­ing they were “exact­ly what they them­selves would have liked to say”:

And when Britain stood alone after the fall of France, how mag­nif­i­cent was that sen­tence, “Faith is giv­en to us, to help and com­fort us when we stand in awe before the unfurl­ing scroll of human destiny.”

This was sure­ly the art of the micro­phone, or the art of the ora­tor adapt­ed to the micro­phone, at a lev­el high­er than had ever been reached before or has ever been attained since.

What­ev­er have been Churchill’s fate in the years after the war, Dim­ble­by concluded—whatever pub­lic utter­ances he might yet make— “he will always be remem­bered by the peo­ple of Britain for the way in which he spoke to them in their homes when death was very near.”

Bibliography of Recordings

The first-ever bib­li­og­ra­phy of Churchill’s record­ings (which include speech­es and read­ings from his war mem­oirs) has been post­ed by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, com­piled by Ronald Cohen, author of the sem­i­nal Bib­li­og­ra­phy of the Writ­ings of Sir Win­ston Churchill.

Mr. Cohen’s new list includes the 1909 Bud­get speech Dim­ble­by allud­ed to, which was pub­lished in the then-new flat disc for­mat that, in the 1920s, replaced the roller form of record­ing. That was, of course, a speech, not a broad­cast. Broad­cast­ing in Britain began in June 1920.

Churchill’s first broad­cast, his hilar­i­ous speech about “St. George and the Drag­on,” for St. George’s Day 1933, may be the ear­li­est speech to be broad­cast and record­ed. Part of his remarks can be heard online: click here. I can’t help reflect­ing how rel­e­vant they seem, with rela­tion to the recent nuclear deal with Iran.

2 thoughts on “Churchill on the Broadcast

  1. In fact that “quo­ta­tion” is in my book—in the appen­dix on false quotes (“Red Her­rings”). The accom­pa­ny­ing note reads: “An exam­ple of how hearsay becomes a quo­ta­tion. This first appear­ance was in Duff Cooper’s mem­oirs. Sure enough, it appeared as a direct quo­ta­tion in the high­ly unre­li­able The Pri­vate Lives of Win­ston Churchill, and was repeat­ed by Sarvepal­li Gopal in “Churchill and India” (Blake & Louis, Churchill: A Major New Assess­ment (1993, 459).” 

    You’re a real searcher for the truth, aren’t you?

  2. Richard, you lying lit­tle piece of [exple­tives delet­ed]. Churchill pro­claimed in 1920 that Gand­hi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Del­hi, and then tram­pled on by an enor­mous ele­phant with the new Viceroy seat­ed on its back.”

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