“The Wilderness Years” with Robert Hardy: Original Review

“The Wilderness Years” with Robert Hardy: Original Review

“Churchill: The Wilderness Years”

The Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project has just repub­lished “Scal­ing Ever­est,” Robert Hardy’s rec­ol­lec­tions of play­ing the Wilder­ness Years Churchill. They are from 1987, his speech to one of our Churchill Tours, at the Reform Club, Lon­don. We are grate­ful to his execu­tors, Jus­tine Hardy and Neil Nis­bet-Robert­son for per­mis­sion to reprint. For Part 1, click here.

I thought the occa­sion appro­pri­ate to repub­lish my orig­i­nal review of the “Wilder­ness Years” from 1981, some years before we met. I thought at the time I had “laid an egg”—in Churchill’s phrase­ol­o­gy, not RH’s. (In his busi­ness, as he explains, lay­ing an egg means some­thing dif­fer­ent.) Now I am not so sure. I hope, to use Robert’s terms, that it was not a nox­ious egg.

Boston, 1981

Pub­lic­i­ty still for “The Wilder­ness Years,” 1981.

Well, it was a great show, folks. And, inas­much as any good mate­r­i­al about Churchill is a plus, we wel­comed and enjoyed it. We are behold­en to WGBH in Boston, which most kind­ly men­tioned Mar­tin Gilbert’s accom­pa­ny­ing Wilder­ness Years book.

Let us dis­miss Lord Boothby’s com­plaint that this Win­ston is “a grumpy, vin­dic­tive old man [who] shouts all the way through.” Robert Hardy cap­tures the Churchill of the Thir­ties. He was polit­i­cal­ly frus­trat­ed, inef­fec­tive as a father, wor­ried about Ger­many. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, he enjoyed of his most pro­duc­tive decades as a writer and his­to­ri­an. Per­haps it would be remark­able of any­one else. Churchill was engaged in mul­ti­ple lit­er­ary projects, any one of which would ful­ly occu­py a nor­mal per­son. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly he turned Chartwell into a par­adise and was a force, how­ev­er spurned, in pol­i­tics. His only wilder­ness was the one observers assigned to him.

And this may be the weak­ness of the pro­duc­tion. It is hard to pro­vide much TV action around the writ­ing of Marl­bor­ough, though we’d have enjoyed see­ing the great Duke’s bat­tle­fields. There is no dra­ma to paint­ing a can­vas or build­ing a brick wall.

We are giv­en instead what plays well: pol­i­tics, love, scan­dal, hate. Here enter sev­er­al exag­ger­a­tions. Adolf Hitler (Gunter Meis­ner), on the eve of pow­er, glares through a restau­rant win­dow at the Churchill he refus­es to meet. Of course the real Hitler did no such thing. Neville Cham­ber­lain (Eric Porter), and his toady Sir Horace Wil­son (Clive Swift, “Richard Buck­et” in “Keep­ing Up Appear­ances”) still think well of Hitler after March 1939. That is unfair to Cham­ber­lain, who knew by then what he was up against. The desert scene with William Ran­dolph Hearst (Stephen Elliott) and Mar­i­on Davies (Mer­rie Lynn Ross) nev­er happened.

On the money historically

On the oth­er hand, “The Wilder­ness Years” brings out impor­tant aspects of the sto­ry. Ran­dolph (Nigel Havers) couldn’t be more like Ran­dolph. The risks run by Ralph Wigram (Paul Free­man), Desmond Mor­ton (Moray Wat­son) and Wing Com­man­der Tor Ander­son (David Quil­ter), in bring­ing Churchill news of Ger­man rear­ma­ment, are right­ly empha­sized. How often Stan­ley Bald­win (Peter Bark­worth) played Churchill foul in the 1930s! (And how often WSC for­gave him.) “The Wilder­ness Years” relays all this well.

In gen­er­al the cast­ing was superb. British tele­vi­sion draws on an army of bril­liant actors, and can always find a near-clone of any­body. I thought Bald­win was too pix­ieish, Ram­say Mac­Don­ald (Robert James) too mousy, Hitler a car­i­ca­ture. But Fred­er­ick Lin­de­mann, “The Prof” (David Swift), Bren­dan Brack­en (Tim Pig­ott-Smith), and Beaver­brook (Strat­ford Johns) were per­fect. So was Lord Der­by (Frank Mid­dle­mass, trans­formed from the kind­ly head mas­ter in “To Serve Them All My Days”). Neville Cham­ber­lain couldn’t have been clos­er to life. Samuel Hoare (Edward Wood­ward) comes across as the evil force he real­ly was.

Most of the women—WSC’s viva­cious sis­ter-in-law “Goonie” (Jen­nifer Hilary), noisy Nan­cy Astor (Mar­cel­la Markham) and Sarah Churchill (Chloe Sala­man)— were well played. But there was one excep­tion. Clemen­tine Churchill (Sian Phillips) was sim­ply awful. A friend who remem­bers Phillips for her role in the Roman dra­ma “I Claudius” says: “I keep see­ing her sip­ping wine and wear­ing a toga.” Was she type­cast? View­ers must be the judge.

Flaws and edits

Phillips was not the “Clem­mie” we know through Mar­tin Gilbert’s and Mary Soames’s biogra­phies. Instead we see a pre­ten­tious, unhap­py aris­to­crat. Less a pil­lar of strength than a flit­ting mayfly, she is always ready to run off with some hand­some adven­tur­er. All the more curi­ous (for Phillips said she researched the role), Clem­mie is at sea lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. The scene in which she returns from a South Seas voy­age with an unnamed swash­buck­ler (in life, Ter­ence Phillip) would thrill the Nation­al Enquir­er, how­ev­er unsub­stan­tial its impli­ca­tions. Phillips could have saved the scene by recit­ing Clementine’s own words. “Do not be vexed with your vagabond cat. She has gone off toward the jun­gle with her tail in the air, but she will return present­ly to her bas­ket and curl down comfortably.”

We could have done with­out the bowd­ler­iza­tion of Churchill’s great speech­es. Robert Hardy had his part down per­fect­ly. (One soon for­gets the lov­able vet Siegfried Farnon in “All Crea­tures Great and Small.”) But almost every great speech, though beau­ti­ful­ly deliv­ered, was mer­ci­less­ly cut to rib­bons by the edi­tors. The hatch­et job on Churchill’s great­est pre­war speech (“I have watched this famous Island…”) is unforgivable.

Still it is a great yarn. What his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter oth­er than Churchill could excite a lat­ter-day audi­ence by repris­ing his life’s low­est ebb? As ever, Win­ston Churchill stands alone. I hope that the fine recep­tion of “The Wilder­ness Years” has been suf­fi­cient to encour­age fur­ther drama­ti­za­tions of equal­ly impor­tant periods—particularly the Admi­ral­ty sojourn of 1911-15, and of course, 1940. We’ll be wait­ing for it.

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