The Problem with Recorded Churchill Speeches

The Problem with Recorded Churchill Speeches

Q: Were the recorded speeches edited?

I’m ana­lyz­ing some of Churchill’s speech­es for an aca­d­e­m­ic paper. After lis­ten­ing to the audio files and read­ing along I found a lot of para­graphs which were left out in the radio speech­es. It’s espe­cial­ly evi­dent in “Their Finest Hour” from June 18th, 1940 where only a fifth of the text seems to have made it to the radio. At one point it sounds like the audio file has been edit­ed. Were the audio files full radio speech­es or just excerpts? —N.K., Copenhagen

A: Yes, most are not the original appearances

Depend­ing on the one you are lis­ten­ing to, it is like­ly a post­war record­ing from Churchill’s mem­oirs and speech­es. He made these for HMV/Decca, and all were edit­ed to some degree; some were trun­cat­ed in lat­er, short­er record­ed col­lec­tions. The orig­i­nal col­lec­tion does con­tain some con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous broad­casts. For exam­ple the June 18th “Finest Hour” speech was rebroad­cast by Churchill that evening over the BBC. No record­ings were per­mit­ted in the House of Com­mons at that time. Of course, a few are tak­en from broad­casts which were not deliv­ered in Par­lia­ment beforehand.


Levenger’s 2006 book, The Mak­ing of the Finest Hour, includes a CD con­tain­ing the full broad­cast. (A glance at shows this lim­it­ed edi­tion to be quite afford­able at present.) But many Churchill CDs and LPs of his speech­es con­tain only excerpts. Some of these were tak­en from the BBC broad­casts; most were record­ed by Churchill years afterward.

But they were his alone….

Many who heard his orig­i­nal speech­es in the House of Com­mons said the sub­se­quent broad­casts (and the much lat­er post­war record­ings) lack the fire of the orig­i­nals. And rumors have long cir­cu­lat­ed that an actor read some of them for the BBC. The his­to­ri­an Sir Robert Rhodes James put paid to all that years ago. Sir Robert noted:

Harold Nicol­son lament­ed that it was nec­es­sary to bul­ly Churchill into broad­cast­ing. Refer­ring to the June 18th “Finest Hour” broad­cast, Nicol­son said: “He just sulked and read his House of Com­mons speech over again.” Nicol­son was Infor­ma­tion Min­is­ter at the time. Churchill nev­er liked broad­cast­ing, but there is no evi­dence what­ev­er that he was replaced by any­one, and speech researchers have con­firmed this.

…and not Norman Shelley’s

It was long rumored that the actor Nor­man Shel­ley (a famous “Wat­son” in the Sher­lock Holmes pro­duc­tions), deliv­ered Churchill’s 4 June 1940 “Fight on the Beach­es” speech over the BBC after WSC had deliv­ered it in the House of Com­mons. Shel­ley did a pass­able imi­ta­tion of Churchill, and is known to have spun off a wartime speech or two in lat­er times. But the “Beach­es” speech was not even rebroad­cast that evening. Count­less wit­ness­es have stat­ed that an announc­er read only excerpts.

Nor did any­one but Churchill deliv­er any oth­er speech­es dur­ing the war. His pri­vate sec­re­tary, Sir John Colville, repeat­ed­ly said: “If any­one else had deliv­ered them, I would have known, it, because I was there.”

Further reading

Ronald I. Cohen, “Churchill Record­ings: Speech­es and Mem­oirs,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2016.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Ori­gins of a Famous Phrase,” 2018.

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