WE all know Winston Churchill – or at least we think we do.
Through newsreel and TV dramas he has become an iconic figure. The cigar, the trusty homberg and ‘ V’ for victory sign becoming a symbol for the British Bulldog spirit.
Yet a major new BBC film, The Gathering Storm tells the story of Churchill’s pre- war wilderness years, his struggle to alert the British people to the threat posed by the Nazis and it suggests that a hitherto obscure civil servant was instrumental in the great man’s success.
Exiled from Government and accused of being a warmonger, Churchill’s warnings about the dangers of appeasement were ignored by politicians and public alike. The film is also a portrayal of Churchill’s personal life at this time; of his relationship with his adored wife, Clemmie, and their four children; and of his brushes with bankruptcy, as he struggled to support them through his journalism. The story revolves around his home, Chartwell, which was his refuge during these difficult times; the place where he gathered intelligence about German rearmament, painted, laid bricks, reared pigs, entertained lavishly but, most importantly, prepared himself to deliver the country from the conflict he worked so tirelessly to avoid.
Albert Finney heads a star- studded cast as Winston Churchill. Vanessa Redgrave is his wife, Clementine and the movie stars also Derek Jacobi ( Prime Minister Baldwin), Jim Broadbent, Celia Imrie and the long overdue return of Ronnie Barker, who plays Churchill’s manservant, Inches, to our screens.
But it is Linus Roache’s role as Ralph Wigram, a young anti-appeaser who worked in the Foreign Office, that has caused a gathering critical storm in this country. Wigram emerges for the first time as a “ great unsung hero”.
The film has already provoked anger among experts by suggesting Churchill would have been unable to swing national opinion without exploiting his secret source.
The emphasis placed on Wigram’s role in The Gathering Storm, is being questioned by some historians. The film suggests that Wigram, who had a son with cerebral palsy, was motivated by moral outrage at the eugenics programme Hitler was developing to try to eliminate inherited birth defects in the Aryan race.
While many agree that Churchill later exaggerated his own role in defeating Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to make peace with Hitler, biographers and academics have previously placed little importance on Wigram’s role.
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who recently published a biography of Churchill, believes the film distorts the truth. “ The film is rather good,” he admits, “ but Wigram’s role is ludicrously exaggerated.”
However, in America, where the film has already been broadcast on HBO, the press have been more than impressed. “ The Gathering Storm is, in every way, a stunning new movie – Albert Finney’s portrayal of Churchill must be the best ever done anywhere by anyone, with the exception of Churchill himself,” raved The Washington Post.
Executive producer Ridley Scott, best known for his Oscar- nominated movies Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down, says he was attracted to the project for personal reasons.
“ Churchill strikes a note in my life because my father worked on Mulberry Harbour, which was the code name for the temporary concrete harbours which were towed across the Channel to make the DDay landings in France possible,” says Scott.
“ Uncannily, in Churchill’s study at Chartwell there’s exactly the same very large photograph of them that my father, Colonel Francis Percy Scott, was rewarded with at the end of the war,” he says.
“ On rare occasions, dad used to reminisce about when he met Eisenhower, and how Churchill would pop in, in the late hours of the evening or night, carrying a cigar, when he’d obviously had a good dinner,” Scott says rather euphemistically.
He adds: “ My father was always very impressed by that: the presence of Churchill and, of course, Churchill took us through the Second World War as an icon of support.
“ I immediately had great curiosity and started to see that the direction the script would take would be more about the personal side of Churchill rather than the public side, the speech- maker,” says Scott.
“ The tack that really got me interested was where characters drive stories. While the events around Churchill were world events, this man still had a private life. It’s interwoven in the process of his struggle and travails to make himself heard; his process of failure and then success runs parallel to the story of his relationship with Clementine. I thought it made a wonderful personal story underneath this world figure.”
Richard Loncraine was invited to direct The Gathering Storm after his success handling Spielberg’s WWII drama Band of Brothers. Initially, he was reluctant to take on the project. “ But when I heard that Albert Finney was doing it, I could see that it would be something completely different, and I loved Hugh Whitemore’s script,” says Loncraine who also directed The Missionary and Ian McKellen’s Richard III.
“ I had lunch with Albert and we knew early on that we weren’t going to be using prosthetics or make- up – instead, we shaved his head and used a hairpiece.
“ Albert watched hours of archive listened to countless speeches. He studied Winston’s body language and broke the speeches down into phonetics, so he would have Churchill’s rhythm of speaking,” says Loncraine. “ Albert has done a remarkable job, it’s a definitive performance.”
Loncraine also spent hours researching Churchill himself, reading books and his letters. He was particularly moved by the letters Churchill sent his mother as a boy, and also those to Clemmie.
“ The letters were the most telling stuff,” says the director. “ I gleaned the way for approaching Churchill through the letters he sent, at the age of eight or nine, to his mother when he was at boarding school. He would beg his mother to reply to his letters – one page has 25 ‘ pleases’ on it, ‘ Please reply to my letter, mummy, I misstelevision footage of Churchill and you so much and you never write to me’. As a father, that broke my heart, but it made me realise what made the man. That kind of treatment from your parents can make you or break you and, in Churchill’s case, I guess it made him.
One of the most extraordinary experiences Loncraine had when shooting the film was an encounter with Churchill’s sole surviving child, Lady Mary Soames, now in her eighties.
“ When Lady Soames came on set, I asked her if it made her nervous seeing an actor portraying her father,” recalls the director. “ She looked at me and said – not cynically, but with a twinkle in her eyes: ‘ I’ve seen all the imitators before, my dear.’ She met Albert, who was in costume but not in character, and I invited her to see some of the material we’d filmed.
“ I carried on working and, 25 minutes later, I went over to where she was viewing the rushes. As they finished, she looked up at me and there were tears streaming down her cheeks and she said, ‘ It’s my Papa, it’s my Papa’.
” It was writer Hugh Whitemore’s ( Breaking The Code) responsibility to bring Churchill, Clemmie and the other characters to life but, like Loncraine, it was a project the he was initially reluctant to take on.
He says: “ I said no initially when the BBC asked me if I’d be interested, because I was frightened of writing Churchill – how on earth do you go about making him a real person as opposed to a Madame Tussaud’s representation with a large cigar?”
A year later, producer Frank Doelger, whose recent credits include the acclaimed Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh, which was shown earlier this year, asked him again.
“ What got me more interested was the Ralph Wigram sub- plot; the story of the Foreign Office official who passes secret documents about Germany’s rearmament to Churchill. You’ve got Churchill on the one hand who was fired by his desire to be a hero; and, on the other, there was Wigram, who was a hero, who acted heroically, but wasn’t really the stuff of heroes. It seemed an interesting situation to explore. Churchill mentions him very emphatically in The History Of The Second World War, and describes how important he was to him and how, one day, his importance would be recognised,” says Doelger.
“ I read a lot of books and a sort of feeling came through, you get a sniff of the man. Also Churchill’s and Clemmie’s letters, which Mary Soames edited, are marvellous because that’s their voices. I knew something of his life but not very much, so it all came as a rather wonderful surprise to find out what an extraordinary Falstaffian creature he was.”
Both Doelger and Whitemore had envisaged Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave as the “ dream team” to play Churchill and Clemmie. Whitemore wrote his script with both in mind, never believing that they’d do the film. He was particularly pleased when they responded favourably to his screenplay.
Whitemore says: “ With Albert, I remember one afternoon I was going to do a short rewrite. I went to his caravan and there he was, dressed in his suit and waistcoat for the House of Commons scenes and smoking a cigar and he said in very Churchillian tones: ‘ Hallo Hugh, what’s the problem?’
“ It was very odd,” says Whitemore. “ Momentarily, he had become Churchill, it was not an impersonation, it was, an embodiment. Charisma is something you can’t act and that’s why we needed Albert. From the moment he gets out of the car at the beginning, you think ‘ wow!’.”
A Gathering Storm, BBC2, Friday, 9pm