Remember the man, not the myth: Churchill the actor- Part 3
Alastair Stewart continues his series examining the best accounts of Winston Churchill, calling for a more significant distinction between the real and apocryphal stories about Churchill.
“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a famous name next to it.” – Abraham Lincoln
Winston Churchill is a unique historical figure in the British public consciousness. Perhaps it has something to do with postmodernity; the feeling that the 1940s weren’t so long ago because the world hasn’t changed that much.
In studying the life of Churchill, we know that personal, political and military defeat informed his character just as much as triumph (particularly as a young minister). This is an overlooked component of his life, in large part due to the long shadow that the Second World War casts over calamities like the Gallipoli campaign (1915-16) when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty (1911–1915), his tenure as Home Secretary (1910–1911) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (1924–1929).
Indeed, Churchill has been subject to a significant amount of revaluation. While it’s become a competition among new writers to find a fresh angle of criticism, Robert Rhodes-James’ Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-39 and Nigel Knight’s book Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked remain the best critiques.
Indeed, Churchill’s military leadership in World War Two was less than exceptional (there was even a no-confidence vote in 1942). He displayed no profound insight for the minutia of strategy and, more often than not, was at loggerheads with his defence chiefs. It’s ultimately a testament to his character that he never overruled them and, in many ways, Churchill’s humour, exuberance and self-awareness is the real reason he’s the defining political spectre in British culture.
This has both negative and positive powers. Churchill’s status as a cultural’ icon and Churchill, the politician and military leader, are two very different beasts. For all his flaws and quirks, Churchill makes for an infinitely more interesting character study than the heavily redacted, and catastrophically cliched, caricature of a stoic leader with a jutted jaw and cigar.
“All the world’s a stage”
Why do greatness and cliche sit side by side? Churchill was funny with a penchant for pageantry. This is not to say Churchill did not feel the burden of his duty, but there is an almost comedic understatement of a stout, rotund and elderly man being propelled to fight one of the most ruthless and evil regimes the world has ever known.
Churchill possessed an actor’s natural intuition. His presentation to the world was no accident or irony. He had clarity and self-awareness and knew it would take more than assuming the office of prime minister to galvanise a nation into and through war.
As the splendid essays, ‘Churchill, Radio, and Cinema‘ and ‘Winston S. Churchill: film fan‘ by D.J Wenden explore, acting and an appreciation for cinema is an often overlooked enthusiasm and curiosity of Churchill. In 1895, the same year that cinema began to become a recognised medium, Churchill joined the army and saw action on the Northwest Frontier, joining Lord Kitchener’s Nile Expeditionary Force in 1898. As he writes in his account of the campaign, The River War, he was drawn to the film cameras brought to battle lines by war correspondents saying they were “equipped with ice machines, typewriters, cameras, and even cinemagraphs”.
Churchill understood the new technology, even describing the famous charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman, of which he partook, in cinematic terms: “The whole scene flickered exactly like a cinematograph picture; and, besides, I remember no sound, the event seemed to pass in absolute silence.”
There was a clear mesh of spectacle that was working in Churchill’s mind. He understood ‘action’ but, critically, he understood the power of words that were absent in the era before ‘talkies’. At the age of twenty-four, he penned an unpublished essay called ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ in which he dissected what made a compelling orator, cautioning that “before he can move their tears his own must flow. In other words, if the orator is any good, he is not acting at all.”
As the Boer War began, Churchill made his name as a daring war correspondent. What is less well known, as Wenden describes, is that he had planned to film the war as part of a joint venture with his friend Murray Guthrie. When Churchill found out he was booked on the same ship to South Africa as William Dickson, the inventor of the motion picture camera, Churchill wrote a note to Guthrie warning of the competition but maintained that he had “no doubt that, barring accidents, I can obtain some very strange pictures…But even then I might make a lecturing tour’. (After the war he did a lecture tour, but used lantern slides rather than films).
On a book tour in 1929 in America, media mogul William Randolph Hearst introduced Churchill to Hollywood. He met Charlie Chaplin – with whom he became fast friends – and subsequently met with many times in the U.S and UK. Churchill even penned an article on Chaplin in 1935, writing of the actor’s film-making genius and spoke at the premiere of his film City Lights in 1931.
Undoubtedly, while a fan of cinema, the most profound influence on Churchill was his relationship with the Hungarian-born British film producer Alexander Korda. Churchill signed a £10,000 contract in 1934 with Korda for a screenplay based on the reign of King George V. Of the final script, produced after only two weeks, Churchill proudly cautioned: “the audience must have a chance to recover from the cataract of impressions and emotions to which they will be subjected.” Despite Korda initially observing that the first draft was “really splendid” but “a bit heavy on politics” the project was shelved, much to Churchill’s disappointment.
Churchill’s appreciation for the power of the medium was to increase over the decades. In a 1936 article called ‘The Future of Publicity’, he wrote that “the pictures are among the most powerful instruments of propaganda the world has ever known.”
By May 1940, Korda was called to a meeting with Churchill’s Minister of Information, Duff Cooper. Korda was asked to make an American-style propaganda film for the British war effort. The final product, That Hamilton Woman, was released in March 1941 and has a definitive feel of Churchill about it. Starring Laurence Olivier as Admiral Nelson and Vivien Leigh, Olivier delivers the line: “you cannot make peace with dictators, you have to destroy them, wipe them out.”
A rumour abounds that Churchill wrote the signature line of the film. It would not be surprising, given his understanding of cinema as a powerful tool. Over the decades at his home, Chartwell, he entertained many famous actors and directors including Olivier, Leigh and Chaplin. He had a love of cinema, and according to his valet Norman McGowan in his book, My Years With Churchill, would get the latest films sent to his home for a private screening with family and guests.
“It was rare for my Guv’nor to go to a theatre, but he had a great delight in films of a spectacular kind, and particularly those which were of some facet of history, the kind of picture which is called a costume film.
“The films which we saw at Chartwell on those Sunday evenings were a special privilege, because the film companies, knowing the Guv’nor’s pleasure in pictures, would send down advance copies often before their West End release.”
So if the sobriquet of ‘actor’ or ‘film buff’ appears an insult to Churchill, consider it in the broader sense of someone who understood the role he had to play in the war. In his semi-autobiographical account of the Second World War, Churchill candidly reflects that when he became prime minister that he was:
“…conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
This extends to his presentation. Churchill knew words were not just enough. He had to act the part, too. Churchill’s assistant private secretary, Jock Colville, noted in The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-55 that Churchill deliberately donned the Homburg hat and cigar before public gatherings. He added, too, of the prime minister’s most famous ‘V for victory’ gesture, that “The PM will give the V-sign with two fingers in spite of the representations made to him that this gesture has quite another significance.” There was no accident with Churchill’s portrayal of himself; he knew his signature and what it meant to people.
The boozer? An example
Nowhere is the idea of Churchill’s ‘act’ getting out of control more evident than with alcohol. There are many stories about Churchill’s capacity to drink that have passed into the cultural lexicon. The notion, however, that he was an alcoholic is widely discredited, particularly by Cita Stelzer’s compendium of his eating and drinking habits, Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table.
Stelzer concludes that “Churchill saw political profit in portraying himself as a whisky, champagne and brandy lover.” Captain Harry Butcher, one of General Eisenhower’s top aides, also wrote: “Ike had the impression that the PM rather relishes his reputation as a heavy smoker and drinker, but actually is much more moderate than rumour would indicate.”
There were also, as Stelzer says, times that this reputation proved an equal disadvantage. Before President Roosevelt had met Churchill, he had heard stories of the prime minister’s predilection for alcohol. Robert Skidelsky writes that Roosevelt even asked his Republican presidential rival and subsequent intermediary to Britain, Wendell Willkie: “Is he a drunk?”
Churchill’s ability to imbibe has always been subject to scrutiny as well as ludicrous embellishment, most of all by Churchill himself. In his memoir My Early Life, he writes that in India he developed a taste for whisky because there was little else to drink.
According to the historian Michael Richards, “he amused himself by allowing people to think he had a bottomless capacity”. Richards considers that the drinks and cigars were “at least partly a prop”.
The issue is that Churchillian humour has become conflated with apocryphal stories; a particular shame given that verified encounters are all the more satisfying. Consider the most famous exchange of them all:
Bessie Braddock MP: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”
Churchill: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
As Richard Langworth notes, “Churchill himself liked to exaggerate his alcoholic capacity, giving rise to nonsensical myths.” Langworth was relayed the story by the late Ronald Golding, the bodyguard present on that occasion the quote above took place. Golding explained that Churchill was not drunk, just tired and unsteady, which perhaps caused him to “fire the full arsenal” as Langworth concludes.
Langworth also notes that Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames said such an ungentlemanly retort from Churchill was unlikely and later concluded that Churchill was likely quoting the 1934 movie It’s a Gift. W. C. Fields’ character, when told he is drunk, responds, “Yeah, and you’re crazy. But I’ll be sober tomorrow, and you’ll be crazy the rest of your life.”
Compare that story with one from 1946, when Churchill travelled to Fulton, Missouri to deliver his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. At the event, a bust of Churchill was to be unveiled. Allegedly, after the speech, a rather attractive woman with ample cleavage supposedly came up to him and said that she had travelled over a hundred miles to see the unveiling of his bust. The story goes that Churchill said that, “Madam, I assure you, in that regard, I would gladly return the favour.”
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to place this as anything other than fiction. The same is true for the story that has Churchill enter a men’s washroom in the House of Commons one day and, observing Labour leader Clement Attlee standing before the urinal, moved to the opposite end of the room. “My dear Winston, I hoped that despite being adversaries in the house, we could be friends outside of it.” Churchill supposedly replied: “Ah Clement, I have no quarrel with you, but in my experience when you see something that’s big and works well, you tend to want to nationalise it.” There is again no evidence.
What truth there is to Churchill’s rhetoric is blurred by the anecdotage attached to his name. Churchill, for all his imperfections, was a profoundly humorous and self-deprecating man, who understood that exaggerations were vital to creating an image the public would rally behind. As the famed American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow remarked in 1954:
“[Churchill] mobilised the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.”
Churchillian fact and tale tales have become a melting pot and distributed with even greater ease in the digital era. Memes and inspirational posts are by far the worst. “If you’re going through hell, keep going” is a popular Churchillianism that has no written or spoken record. Unfortunately, neither is the famous Churchill’s statement that ‘it makes you proud to be British’ when commenting on a story that Buckingham palace guardsmen had been caught with an MP in St. James Park on the coldest night of the year. Even Boris Johnson, who cited the story in his book The Churchill Factor acknowledged: “That’s the trouble. I heard that one from his grandson, whether or not that’s a substantial source, I don’t know.”
By contrast, it is easier to retrace the accuracy of stories about Churchill from the late 1950s onward because significant biographies began to harness and compile vast swathes of opinion from his contemporaries. The issue, however, is that there’s little appetite to assuage novelty memes with facts because it’s a tiring business requiring independent research.
The seminal and official biography series by Sir Martin Gilbert (the first volume authored by Churchill’s son, Randolph and published in 1966) is the definitive roadmap to locating original stories. The works include a traceable analysis of the accounts of those who bore witness to Churchill and are accompanied by a plethora of companion books containing copies of the original sources. While the quality of the research is assured, they are hefty tomes and corroborated by smaller texts, particularly Westminster parliamentary records and the diaries of colleagues such as Harold Nicholson and Duff Cooper and military specialists like Lord Alanbrooke and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Churchill scholarship in the late 1960s and 1970 benefitted from the proliferation of recorded interviews of everyone who had a story to tell; from former war ministers to those who knew him professionally, including Brooke, Montgomery and Eisenhower. The beautiful gem of Orson Welles recalling his experience of Churchill in the Mediterranean; interviews with Richard Burton about Churchill asking to use his bathroom at the theatre, as well as Gilbert’s extensive interviews with colleagues and family members bring to life a much more physical version of Churchill that moves past the pastiche.
Churchill was always an irascible rascal in the public consciousness. Yet the modern leniency about what he really did and said has spoilt his real-life impishness. False pretenders and misattribution, as seen above, are damaging because the real deal is similar but all the funnier. Churchill was larger than life, and he knew it and fanned the flames as much as he could.
Alastair continues this topic examining the best accounts of Winston Churchill in part 4.
About the author
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.
Image: Sir Winston Churchill, full-length, walking the deck of H.M.S. Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference (1941). Copyright Library of Congress, reproduction no LC-DIG-ppmsca-05407