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

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

Susskind’s  WSC (update)

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. PBS broad­cast the 90-minute one-man show in 1986. Robert was a the great­est Churchill ever, but his “Wilder­ness Years” per­for­mance, script­ed by Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, was far more accu­rate. The script here is laced with many errors.

Excerpts come and go on YouTube, so check there first. The pro­duc­ers sent me a VCR at the time, and video­tapes were prob­a­bly once avail­able. To find one, try search­ing Google or eBay for “susskind churchill” or sim­i­lar word combinations.

Here is my review of Susskind in 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.”

Nits to pick

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 did, 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” (a fic­ti­tious 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?

Cornucopia of Errors

Churchill would not have joked about his being seen as wastrel by his father. Vic­to­ri­an Britain did not “rule all India.” which it nev­er did. 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 resign as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer because of the “Tory appeasers.” Churchill resigned as Chan­cel­lor, before not after the Depres­sion, because the Con­ser­v­a­tives lost the 1929 election—long before appease­ment became an issue.

I will not bore you with a list of inac­cu­ra­cies, but here are some of the more cru­cial: At Malakand, WSC 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). The Sudan dervish­es not 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. (He sailed to Hamp­ton Roads.) Such things are eas­i­ly looked up.

Other People’s Words

Not all of Churchill’s script is accu­rate. “Always give the train a sport­ing chance to get away” was by Clemen­tine Churchill. “That dear and excel­lent woman” (Mrs. Ever­est) was from Gib­bon, whom WSC quot­ed. “When all save Eng­lish­men despaired of England’s life” was 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, not 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.”

Further reading

“The Wilder­ness Years with Robert Hardy,” 2019

“Tim: In Mem­o­ry of Robert Hardy,”  2017

“James Humes: Irre­press­ible Admir­er of Old Excel­lence,” 2020

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

  1. Richard, thanks for keep­ing the record straight. I watched this many years ago and would love to see it again. I can’t seem to find it. If noth­ing else, it is entertaining.

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