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.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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