Robert Hardy: “The Wilderness Years”

Robert Hardy: “The Wilderness Years”

Robert Hardy in "The Wilderness Years"
Robert Hardy in “The Wilder­ness Years”

Boston, 1981— Well, it was a great show, folks. And, inas­much as any TV epic about Churchill is a plus, we wel­comed and enjoyed it. We are behold­en to WGBH in Boston, which most kind­ly men­tioned Finest Hour in the let­ter sent to any­one who inquired about Mar­tin Gilbert’s accom­pa­ny­ing Wilder­ness Years book, result­ing in fifty new mem­bers to date.

We may dis­miss Lord Boothby’s com­plaint (Finest Hour 36:3) that the Win­ston of this series is “a grumpy, vin­dic­tive old man [who] shouts all the way through.” Robert Hardy cap­tures what Mar­tin Gilbert’s books tell us was the Churchill of the Thir­ties: polit­i­cal­ly frus­trat­ed, less than effec­tive as a father, wor­ried over many omi­nous developments—and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly enjoy­ing one of his most pro­duc­tive decades as a writer and his­to­ri­an, not to men­tion his zenith as a brick­lay­er and con­tin­ued progress as an artist. Per­haps it would be remark­able of any­one else, but while engaged in a half-dozen lit­er­ary projects, any one of which would occu­py a nor­mal man ful­ly, Churchill turned Chartwell into a par­adise and con­tin­ued to be a force, how­ev­er spurned, in pol­i­tics. His only wilder­ness was the one polit­i­cal observers assigned to him.

And this, after all, is the weak­ness of the pro­duc­tion. It is hard to pro­vide much TV action around the writ­ing of Marl­bor­ough, though we’d have enjoyed see­ing one of the old Duke’s bat­tle­fields, with Churchill recit­ing a few lines of descrip­tion from his great biog­ra­phy. And there’s no dra­ma to build­ing a brick wall.

We are giv­en instead the stuff that 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, the “Richard Buck­et” of “Keep­ing Up Appear­ances”) go on think­ing well of Hitler even after March 1939—which is unfair to Cham­ber­lain, who saw by then what he was up against. The knowl­edge­able Pro­fes­sor Russ Jones of West­min­ster Col­lege assured us that the desert scene with William Ran­dolph Hearst (Stephen Elliott) and Mar­i­on Davies (Mer­rie Lynn Ross),  nev­er hap­pened.

On the oth­er hand, “The Wilder­ness Years” brings out facets of the peri­od extreme­ly well. 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. If we hadn’t real­ized how often Stan­ley Bald­win (Peter Bark­worth) played Churchill foul in the 1930s (and how often WSC for­gave him), “Wilder­ness Years” does tell us blunt­ly.

In gen­er­al the cast­ing was superb, as only British tele­vi­sion can make it, with an army of bril­liant actors among whom can always be found 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), Lord Beaver­brook (Strat­ford Johns), Lord Der­by (Frank Mid­dle­mass, trans­formed from the kind­ly Head­mas­ter in “To Serve Them All My Days”) and 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), Sarah Churchill (Chloe Sala­man)— were well played, with one ter­ri­ble 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.”

This is not the “Clem­mie” we have known through Mar­tin Gilbert’s and Mary Soames’s biogra­phies, but a spoiled, pre­ten­tious, unhap­py aris­to­crat, not Winston’s pil­lar of strength but a flit­ting mayfly, ever ready to run off with some hand­some adven­tur­er. All the more curi­ous (for Phillips said she researched the role), Clem­mie is at sea both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. The scene in which she returns from her 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 part by recit­ing a few of the real Clementine’s let­ters dur­ing that voy­age: “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 has his part down per­fect­ly, and 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.

In all, it is a great yarn. What his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter oth­er than Churchill can you think of who could excite a TV audi­ence dur­ing his life’s low­est ebb? As ever, he 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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