Why the cult of Churchill lingers on

The historical inaccuracies in The King's Speech are a sign of cynical populism

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.

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage