“What Price Churchill?” Click here for the final moments of a momentous television epic. “Churchill: The Wilderness Years” (1981) enshrined him forever as the greatest of “Churchills” in a sea of pale imitations. Martin Gilbert‘s close involvement with the scriptwriters gave him truth and substance. In a world of revisionist history, flawed portraits and overplayed roles, it was accurate to a fault. Timothy Robert Hardy was the only actor to play her father for whom Lady Soames would brook no word of criticism. I’ll always remember her greeting Tim with outstretched arms: “Papa!”
Hardy at Hillsdale
I’m glad we were in time. In October 2015, we hosted him at a Hillsdale College Churchill Conference, where he wowed an audience of 600, guests, students and faculty. He told us that he strove imperfectly to play Churchill—to find, as he said, “a way in.” On another occasion he had said: “I shall never look down from that peak, but as long as I live I shall delight in gazing upwards towards those towering rocks.”
He was, of course, expressing the winning modesty that always accompanied him, gaining the affection of the world in his every role, from Shakespeare’s classics, to Siegfried Farnon, the Yorkshire vet of All Creatures Great and Small, to Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic in Harry Potter. (Of the latter role, he told me that his one regret was that he was not allowed to have a personal owl.)
And on to the end…
In April 2016 he was back at Hillsdale to talk to students about acting as a career. As before, he was a one-man show, launching into long quotes in Old English from Canterbury Tales. Students and faculty alike were awestruck by his memories of Oxford, and his tutors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
I feel his loss deeply, because on countless occasions he was there for me, appearing regularly at Churchill events, and our Churchill tours of England. On one of these he arranged a special tour of the Mary Rose restoration project at Portsmouth. A historian of the English longbow, he was the Mary Rose Trust’s archery consultant.
Everywhere he went he was always ready for an affable chat with everyone who admired him, and they were many. To those who knew what he had accomplished in his roles as Sir Winston, no actor however good could ever come close.
I will gaze forever at Robert Hardy’s towering rocks of achievement. He was the most genuine “Churchill” of them all. Far beyond that, he was a noble spirit, the most genuine human being. He is irreplaceable. I shall mourn him forever.
Addendum, 8 March 2018
His daughter Justine comments on the estate auction of Robert Hardy, a sad event, redolent of what Churchill wrote in Great Contemporaries: “I felt the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into fragments upon the ground.”