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.