Why today’s actors fail to move beyond the caricature of Churchill

A symbol for vanished England: Winston Churchill
A symbol for vanished England: Winston Churchill - Corbis Historical

This month marks 50 years since audiences beheld one of the most intellectually provocative portrayals of Winston Churchill presented to-date on stage or screen.

The opening of Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play delivers the arresting image of a resurrected Churchill, rising from his coffin while it lies in state in Westminster, ahead of the final journey to Bladon. There’s no standing on ceremony: he demands a light from the attending servicemen, rails at an ungrateful England (“You bloody tramp!”), mourns the loss of Empire (“Cast away…”) and scoffs at the bucolic idyll of his burial place (“Choc-box last resting for the old man. Bloody sentimentality”).

The scenario is even more unusual than it initially appears. We’re in an internment camp, in a near-future dystopian Britain, where a makeshift entertainment about the camp’s namesake (Camp Churchill) is first rehearsed, and later staged, by the mutinous prisoners. An inmate called Joby (first played in 1974 by Paul Dawkins), a banged-up civilian who mourns England’s sudden, dismaying loss of liberty, has been cast in the jowly role.

Brenton’s appropriation of Churchill is multi-faceted. It shows some sympathy for the man, for instance re-airing Churchill’s great 1940 speech upon becoming PM (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”) and alluding to his childhood and depressions. It also satirically enshrines him as a symbol of a vanished England, and, in the brutality of this imagined future, makes his legacy subject to a critique; the implication is that the ordinary person will suffer regardless of what supposedly great men do.

Richard Eyre, who directed the premiere production at Nottingham Playhouse, saw it as a play for today, co-opting Churchill to address pressing concerns. “There was talk at the time about the changes coming to the country – how the old establishment would be overturned. It was prescient of Howard to see that the revolution would come from the Right not the Left. You could say it was hyperbolic except that today there’s a rump of the Tory party talking in those [authoritarian] terms and arguing that international courts don’t have authority [here].”

Ingenious: Churchill rising from his coffin in The Churchill Play
Ingenious: Churchill rising from his coffin in The Churchill Play - RSC/ www.shakespeare.org.uk

The interesting thing about the reception to the play was that it didn’t actually carry much shock-value, despite it being less than a decade since Churchill’s death (and state funeral) in 1965. “It was provocative but there was no great intake of breath about it.” The audience was open-minded enough to take on-board a play of ideas. The play traded on caricature – a two-dimensional Churchill, all told – but it did so ingeniously.

The Churchill Play may not be a modern classic but it arguably stands as a high water-mark of dramatic representations that invite critical thinking about our venerated wartime leader. There have been more faithful attempts to get under the skin of the man but how far have they actually come from the knowing caricature in Brenton’s play, the cliché of the victory-saluting, cigar-chomping British bulldog? The proliferation of fictional portrayals (more than 60 in the cinema and small-screen, ranging in scope) demonstrates how irresistible he is to the artistic imagination. And yet he resists being easily captured. Have we ever truly got the measure of him?

Looking back, the most fertile period in terms of the representation of Churchill came just after his death, the artistic reflex caught between due reverence, re-appraisal and satirical rebellion.

A flamboyant example of the post-deference era was Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, completed in July 1967 (and now touring in a new production). The enfant terrible of British theatre opened his farce with the notion of a statue of Churchill having been blasted by a gas explosion, its nether parts scattered. “How much more inspiring if, in those dark days, we’d seen what we see now…” enthuses demented psychiatrist Dr Rance, sizing up the statue’s recovered appendage at the end. “Instead we had to be content with a cigar – the symbol falling far short, as we all realise, of the object itself.”

The mood of those times seemed inclined to prod and goad the sacred cow of Churchillian prestige. In 1966-7, the National theatre at the Old Vic under Laurence Olivier was engulfed in internal controversy over the proposal to stage German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers. It was the twilight of the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction over the theatre. Olivier, and the critic Kenneth Tynan – who had become his literary manager – advocated for the play, which weighed the acceptability, or otherwise, of Churchill’s acquiescence in the bombing of German cities and also implicated him in the 1943 air-crash death of the Polish PM in exile Władysław Sikorski.

There was no evidence for the latter. The National’s alarmed governing board refused to allow Olivier to present the play. It was finally presented in 1968 in the West End – when as the critic Nicholas de Jongh notes in his history of stage censorship: “There was no outcry at all. The reviews were respectful.” People were content to consider the arguments.

'To play Churchill is to hate him': Richard Burton as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm
'To play Churchill is to hate him': Richard Burton as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm

On screen, there were more reverential attempts to chart Churchill’s progress towards greatness. Young Winston (1972), starring Simon Ward, gave him a rare matinee idol glamour – showing his military escapades in India and the Sudan, and journalistic adventures in the Second Boer War. And in 1974, the TV biopic The Gathering Storm – detailing some of his ‘wilderness years’, from 1936-39 – saw Richard Burton (whose view on Churchill ranged from fascination to furious contempt) lend much gravelly gravitas to the cash-strapped political outsider.

A year later and Churchill’s reputation faced more scrutiny, this time with the 1975 BBC drama series Days of Hope, directed by Ken Loach, about the working-class from the Great War to the General Strike, when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Briefly appearing, a portly, sedentary Churchill expresses unlovely disdain for TUC leaders (“What a pathetic bunch they all are”).

Such unsympathetic glosses have given way to a more approving approach in recent years. In Joe Wright’s 2017 biopic, Darkest Hour, Churchill is presented (by an Oscar-winning Gary Oldman) as an aged warrior resolving to fight on; his public gung-ho and grateful. Going AWOL on the Underground to canvas opinion – an act of poetic licence – he is decisively told that the Brits will stand with him. In The Churchill Play, by contrast, the Churchill figure gets treated with open scepticism and even contempt by the public when he inspects Blitz damage.

Of course, there’s ongoing, emotion-stirring benefit in revisiting our finest hour, but it feels as if caps are now being repeatedly, and unthinkingly, doffed. Is this perhaps related to a swansong admiration for the war generation, with the last years of Elizabeth II its own steer?

It’s hard to say, but after a lull in the Nineties, the Churchill industry was boosted by The Audience (2013), in which the old hand gives avuncular advice to the new Queen. Peter Morgan’s play of course begat The Crown (in which John Lithgow’s Churchill cut a similar figure to Emmy-winning effect).

Yesterday's man: Brian Cox as Churchill
Yesterday's man: Brian Cox as Churchill - Graeme Hunter Pictures

Those telling his story these days invariably latch on to the sentimental underdog narrative. In the film Churchill (also released in 2017), Brian Cox incarnated the leader on the eve of the Normandy Landings. As with Darkest Hour, there’s an emphasis on his solitude, and alienation. Battling to have his advice heeded, Cox’s Churchill is almost yesterday’s man, haunted by the previous war.

Overwhelmingly, pathos is the order of the day, whether in Albert Finney’s turn in another TV biopic about his isolation called The Gathering Storm (2002) or a lost-looking Michael Gambon incarnating his stroke-afflicted second premiership in the 2016 ITV drama Churchill’s Secret.

Interest hasn’t abated and it has found new avenues to explore. But recent theatrical efforts – Jack Thorne’s When Winston Went to War with the Wireless (detailing the Baldwin government’s clash with the BBC over news dissemination during the General Strike) and Tim Price’s Nye (about Bevan and the founding of the NHS) – have only scratched the surface. Tony Jayawardena, who starred in Nye as Churchill, was rightly proud of being a pioneer as a south Asian actor. But his performance struggled to escape the usual expectations of gruff gravitas.

Pioneer: Tony Jayawardena as Churchill in Nye
Pioneer: Tony Jayawardena as Churchill in Nye - Johan Persson

There was something more strikingly innovative about the Old Vic’s recent musical about Sylvia Pankhurst (Sylvia), which gave the role to young black actors in its two runs (Delroy Atkinson/ Jay Perry), with Winston comically torn between his mother and Clementine over votes for women. But, again, this came across as more of a novelty item than a sustained inquiry.

This could be a fertile time for Churchill representation. On the one hand, with war raging in Europe, the prospect of conflict looms as it did in Hitler’s time. When Zelensky addressed Parliament in 2022 to urge more support for Ukraine, his words rousingly echoed those of the great man: “We will fight until the end at sea, in the air….” Then, of course, there are the raging ‘culture wars’. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, his statue in Westminster was vandalised with the words “was a racist”; the protests about Gaza ignite recurrent concern about it.

V for victory: Winston Churchill in 1942
V for victory: Winston Churchill in 1942 - Hulton Archive

The charge-sheet against Churchill is worth addressing. Some circulating contentions – viz his authorising troops to fire on Welsh miners, or exacerbating the Bengal famine of 1943 – are routinely debunked by scholars. But even his biographer Andrew Roberts concedes, in relation to accusations of Churchill being a ‘white supremacist’, that “biological racism… was considered scientific fact when Churchill was growing up” and that he held a “lifelong belief in the superiority of the British people over all others”.

Rather than leaving it to vandals to score points, isn’t it better to embrace Churchill as a figure of Shakespearean richness, tilting between genius and fallibility, his career immense, every detail mattering, not everything salutary? He’s so significant to the national psyche, he needs examining, warts and all. Otherwise, between sanitised accounts and stoked contempt he will be lost for good.

Almost 60 years since his death, and 150 years since his birth, more clearly still needs to be said. And Churchill, upon whose fate the free world depended, would surely relish being at the centre of debate, and battle. As Roberts himself has put it: “[Churchill] is on the front-line of the culture wars and he’d be happy with that because he was on the front-line of every war.” When it comes to doing him justice, we need much more blood, toil, tears and sweat.