Sunday, 23 January 2011

For All These Objections

Nick Greenslade writes:

London 1936. Edward VIII is about to abdicate and Winston Churchill is airing his views on the departing monarch in a private audience with his successor, his brother the Duke of York: "He was careless with state papers. He lacked commitment and resolve. There were those that worried where he would stand when war with Germany comes. War with Germany will come, and we will need a King behind whom we can all stand united."

This is British interwar history, as told by the makers of The King's Speech. And it's bunk. No one would know from this scene, or any of the others in which the two appear, that Churchill had supported, lobbied for Edward VIII's right to wed Mrs Simpson and stay on the throne, that for most of the Thirties he was regarded by the establishment as a crazy, washed-up has-been, and that George VI would go on to become a staunch supporter of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement.

Since Colin Firth picked up a Golden Globe and umpteen Bafta nominations were showered on the film, the press have had great fun highlighting other inaccuracies in the film: "Royal dukes, monarchs and their spouses/squeezes did not wander around London in taxis unsupervised or use creaky Harley St lifts alone" (The Guardian); "No dinner-jacketed BBC executive, surrounded by heavy stand-microphones, would have talked about a royal broadcast 'going out live tonight'" (Daily Mail).

Most of these and other distortions/anachronisms are, in fact, minor and can be reasonably defended by scriptwriter Tom Hooper on the grounds of dramatic licence. It is in the depiction of Churchill, however, that he cannot plead this, though Hugo Vickers, biographer of the Queen Mother and "royal adviser" to The King's Speech has tried: "People can say, for example, that [Winston] Churchill didn't play nearly as big a role as he does in the film - he wasn't actually there at such and such a point, he never uttered those words, and so on. But the average viewer knows who Churchill is; he doesn't know who Lord Halifax and Lord Hoare are. I don't mind these things at all."

Presumably Vickers had to beat off the challenge of fellow Windsor groupies Norman St John Stevas and Andrew Roberts for the role, and no doubt a decent retainer for his services helped to sweep aside any reservations. But while he may not mind "these things", some of us do.

As Vickers blithely acknowledges, Churchill is in there because he is an easy historical touchstone for those who might not know much about the period. He has the added advantage of being a larger than life character on whom writers and actors can feast. Yet his on-screen appearances represent a cynical populism of the kind to which a good film does not need to descend.

It descends to it because it still wants to play off the cult of Churchill. That cult is nothing new but has intensified in the last decade. The key moment may have been in 2002 when he - deservedly - came out on top in the BBC's Great Britons series. Also that year was the award-winning TV drama about his political exile, The Gathering Storm. In 2009, Into the Storm was released.

Like The King's Speech, both those productions were co-funded by the Americans and it is tempting to conclude that Churchill has been thrown into the film as much for an American audience as a British one. In the United States, his wartime leadership was regularly cited as an inspiration and example by those leading "The War on Terror". George Bush, we were informed after 9/11, kept a bust of him in the Oval Office. It's almost as if the film-makers have ticked off all the usual stuff the Yanks like to see in a film of this genre - the pageantry, the stiff upper lip, the picturesque shots of Thirties London and royal estates - and then thought: How can we push the envelope that bit more? Hey, let's give them a bit of Churchillian bombast!

There are two final points to make about The King's Speech. The first, made by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Spectator, is that Timothy Spall's Churchill bears a spooky resemblance to this magazine's late political correspondent Alan Watkins. The second point is that, for all these objections, the film is to be recommended.

In the 1930s, there were two British threats to constitutionality and, via Britain’s role in the world, to international stability. One came from an unreliable, opportunistic, highly affected and contrived, anti-Semitic, white supremacist, Eurofederalist demagogue who admired Mussolini, heaped praise on Hitler, had no need to work for a living, had an overwhelming sense of his own entitlement, profoundly hated democracy, and had a callous disregard for the lives of the lower orders and the lesser breeds. So did the other one. Far more than background united Churchill and Mosley, originator in English of the currently modish concept of a Union of the Mediterranean.

Great Contemporaries, published in 1937, two years after he had called Hitler’s achievements “among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world”, Churchill wrote that: “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed, functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” That passage was not removed from the book’s reprint in 1941. In May 1940, Churchill had been all ready to give Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda to Mussolini.

All sorts of things about Churchill are simply ignored. Gallipoli. The miners. The Suffragettes. The refusal to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. His dishonest and self-serving memoirs. The truth about the catastrophic humiliation at Dunkirk. The other one, at Singapore, which as much as anything else has been an inspiration to the vociferous anti-monarchist minority in Australia ever since: “Why should we bother with them after that?” The
Lancastria. The men left behind in France. Both the fact and the sheer scale of his 1945 defeat while the War in the Far East was still going on, when Labour won half of his newly divided seat, and an Independent did very well in the other half after Labour and the Liberals had disgracefully refused to field candidates against him. His deselection by his local Conservative Association just before he died. And not least, his carve-up of Eastern Europe with Stalin, so very reminiscent of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

But the electorate was under no illusions while he was still alive. His image was booed and hissed when it appeared on newsreels. He led the Conservative Party into three General Elections, he lost the first two of them – the first, I say again, while the War was still going on – and he only returned to office on the third occasion with the support of the National Liberals, having lost the popular vote. In the course of that Parliament, he had to be removed by his own party. It went on to win comfortably the subsequent General Election, just as it was to do in 1992 after it had removed Thatcher.

And we have not forgotten the truth about him in the old mining areas. Nor have they in the places that he signed away to Stalin, including the country for whose freedom the War was fought, making it a failure in its own terms. We condemn genocidal terrorism against Slavs and Balts no less than genocidal terrorism against Arabs, or the blowing up of British Jews going about their business as civil servants, or the photographed hanging of teenage British conscripts with barbed wire.

No comments:

Post a Comment