“Leaders: Churchill,” with Robert Hardy (1986)

“Leaders: Churchill,” with Robert Hardy (1986)

I have been search­ing for video of a  stage per­for­mance of Churchill by Robert Hardy. It was pro­duced by David Susskind in 1986 for the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Net­work. PBS has no records old­er than five years. Can you help? —R.S.

The Robert Hardy per­for­mance you are look­ing for is “Churchill” in the David Susskind “Lead­ers” series. The 90-minute one-man show was broad­cast by PBS in 1986. Robert was a the great­est Churchill ever, but his “Wilder­ness Years” per­for­mance, script­ed by Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, was far more accu­rate. His script here is laced with many errors. There is an error-free excerpt on YouTube repris­ing the 1943 Har­vard speech—certainly one of the highlights.

The pro­duc­ers sent me a VCR at the time, and video­tapes were prob­a­bly avail­able once from PBS. To find one, try search­ing Google or eBay for “susskind churchill” or sim­i­lar word com­bi­na­tions. Here is my review from Finest Hour 52, Sum­mer 1986:

Hardy-Winston by David Susskind

Sir John Giel­gud, who ought to know bet­ter, leads off the errors: “Just after the end of World War II, Churchill was vot­ed out of office.” (Wrong: the war was still on.) “He found him­self with­out any imme­di­ate means.” (Wrong: the advances on his war mem­oirs were enor­mous, and in August 1946 a group of gen­er­ous friends relieved him of the bur­den of Chartwell by buy­ing it for the Nation­al Trust, pro­vid­ing that he and his wife could live out their lives there).

“And so he embarked on a lec­ture tour of Amer­i­ca,” Giel­gud con­tin­ues. “This is what you might have seen if you were seat­ed in the audi­ence in Los Ange­les, Chica­go or Kansas City.” (No. Churchill’s final Amer­i­can lec­ture tour was in 1932. In 1946 he gave the Iron Cur­tain speech in Ful­ton, addressed the Vir­ginia Assem­bly, made three oth­er short appear­ances and went home.)

The first time I watched the Susskind effort I almost got up and left. By round three the edges had blurred and the rough spots had smoothed, and I began enjoy­ing it. Admit­ted­ly I am too close to my sub­ject. And all those involved in the pro­duc­tion are such nice peo­ple that I hes­i­tate to com­plain. As Lady Soames has often remind­ed us, how­ev­er, there’s rea­son “to keep the mem­o­ry green and the record accurate.”

* * *

The prob­lem with Churchill by Susskind is twofold: (1) It plants an inac­cu­rate image  in the mind of the aver­age view­er. (2) It is laced with errors, the cor­rec­tion of which would have lost none of the dra­ma and warm human­i­ty which are its most admirable features.

Churchill nev­er “deliv­ered a series of infor­mal talks across Amer­i­ca” in 1946, as the pro­duc­ers state. Why say he did? Why not admit, as script writer James Humes said, that this is a com­pos­ite pic­ture, drawn from WSC’s writings?

Churchill made it a rule, when abroad, nev­er to crit­i­cise his polit­i­cal oppo­nents at home. Why then cast him in an ill-suit­ed role as stand-up com­ic, stump­ing Amer­i­ca to deliv­er one-lin­ers about “sheep in sheep’s cloth­ing” (an unsub­stan­ti­at­ed crack about Attlee)?

Robert Hardy deserves full marks for hold­ing his audi­ence, which responds with hearty laugh­ter. (Both he and Humes had want­ed only 60 min­utes, but Susskind insist­ed on 90.) Hardy has Churchill’s man­ner­isms down per­fect­ly and of all Churchill por­tray­als, his is the most con­vinc­ing. But the first reac­tion of any­one mod­er­ate­ly steeped in facts is that this is a vul­gar car­i­ca­ture. Is the truth so bor­ing that it can­not prevail?

A Cornucopia of Errors

Churchill would not have joked about his being seen as dunce and wastrel by his father. He would nev­er have claimed that Vic­to­ri­an Britain “ruled all India,” which it nev­er did; or called his Army assign­ment there “a life sentence…east of nowhere.” He would not have said that the Lloyd George Coali­tion lost the 1922 elec­tion because of his work over the Mid­dle East and Ire­land. (“In spite of” would be more accu­rate.) Churchill nev­er called Jock Colville “Jack,” or made the unat­trib­uted remark about Mont­gomery (“in vic­to­ry insuf­fer­able”). Nor did he ever say he resigned as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer because of the “Tory appeasers”; such a thing nev­er hap­pened. Churchill resigned as Chan­cel­lor, before not after the Depres­sion, because the Con­ser­v­a­tives lost the Spring 1929 election—long before Hitler came to pow­er and appease­ment became a policy.

I will not bore you with my two pages of inac­cu­ra­cies, but here are some of the more cru­cial: At Malakand, Win­ston says, “the whole com­pa­ny was ambushed—except me.” In the Sudan, he says he wrote for the Morn­ing Tele­graph (a weird merg­er of Morn­ing Post and Dai­ly Tele­graph)—about dervish­es nick­named “whirling” because of the way they twirled their sabres. In Par­lia­ment he says, “I made my oath to Queen Vic­to­ria and took my seat in Octo­ber 1900.” (He made his oath to King Edward VII and took his seat on 14 Feb­ru­ary 1901.)

He says he pro­posed to Clemen­tine “in a gaze­bo” and that he heard the news broad­cast about Pearl Har­bor in Down­ing Street. (It was the Tem­ple of Diana and Che­quers, respec­tive­ly.) His famous aside, “What­ev­er hap­pens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on,” was deliv­ered in the Cab­i­net Room at Down­ing Street, not in the House of Com­mons. After Pearl Har­bor he says he sailed for New York—what he did was sail to the Chesa­peake, and fly into Wash­ing­ton from Hamp­ton Roads. Why couldn’t all this have been looked up?

Other People’s Words

Some of Churchill’s words are actu­al­ly from oth­er peo­ple: “Always give the train a sport­ing chance to get away” was said by Clemen­tine Churchill. “That dear and excel­lent woman” (Mrs. Ever­est) was from a line by Gib­bon, whom WSC quot­ed. “When all save Eng­lish­men despaired of England’s life” was said at Churchill’s hon­orary U.S. cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mo­ny in 1963 by Pres­i­dent Kennedy. His crack about the only tra­di­tions of the Roy­al Navy (“rum, sodomy and flog­ging”) was appar­ent­ly said, but he was repeat­ing a phrase dat­ing back two centuries.

Churchill’s own quotes are some­times mis­placed. “Shot at with­out result” was said about Cuba, not Malakand. “Bone­less won­der” (sin­gu­lar) was a blast at Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, not the Tory appeasers. Oth­er quotes are famil­iar but hope­less­ly mud­dled. “They asked what my pro­gram would be—I told them Vic­to­ry”… “Give us your faith and your trust” (for “trust” read “bless­ing”). And some are far wide of the mark. “A bull who car­ries his own chi­na shop with him,” if said at all, was about Dulles inot the State Depart­ment.  When King George VI sum­moned Churchill on 10 May 1940 he said, “I want to ask you to form a Gov­ern­ment,” not “take over the Gov­ern­ment.” There is a difference.

But with all its flaws and inac­cu­ra­cies, the per­for­mance brings out Churchill’s great­est char­ac­ter­is­tic. That was his essen­tial human­i­ty, which made him so dif­fer­ent from oth­er lead­ers past and present. James Humes not­ed anoth­er qual­i­ty. “Churchill told his audi­ences what he want­ed them to hear.”

And Sir John Giel­gud, mak­ing up for his intro­duc­tion, clos­es with words to remem­ber. “Churchill was as ordi­nary as any of us—and as extra­or­di­nary as any of us can hope to be.”

6 thoughts on ““Leaders: Churchill,” with Robert Hardy (1986)

  1. I have a near­ly com­plete video of this per­for­mance. I acci­den­tal­ly record­ed over about 30 sec­onds of the sec­ond act (Dunkirk).

  2. Thank-you so much for respond­ing. Hardy’s per­for­mance was mag­nif­i­cent. I felt as if I were lis­ten­ing in on a con­ver­sa­tion of Churchill’s. I will con­tin­ue to look for this work, both among my tapes and on line. If you ever come across this, please let us know here.

  3. I used to have a copy of Robert Hardy’s Win­ston Churchill (pro­duced by David Susskind in 1986) but it has dis­ap­peared. I am still hop­ing to find the VHS tape. In the mean­time, have you had any luck in find­ing it from HBO or any­one else?

  4. Hello…since my last com­mu­nique here, I have dis­cov­ered that the entire Lead­ers series was bun­dled in with the Tal­ent Asso­ciates library and sold to Time Warn­er in the late 80s. HBO now admin­is­ters this archive. Prob­lem is, as of July 1, they can trace only those pro­grams to 1981. They are still look­ing, as of this date.

  5. I’ve been try­ing to find this script and see about the poten­tial for con­vert­ing it to the stage. Aside from some of the inac­cu­ra­cies, it actu­al­ly is a won­der­ful­ly attuned and inci­sive look at Churchill, and yes, you can make some room for call­ing his 1946 appear­ances a “mini-tour”, if you will. Lib­er­ties are tak­en cre­ative­ly all the time. What mat­ters is the sense of the MAN…his accom­plish­ments, his abil­i­ty to share who he was.

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