Winston Churchill has now won a Golden Globe. A very odd thought indeed. His victory comes as a character in The Crown, the new Netflix television series about the ascension of young Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in the 1950s. The Crown was awarded a Golden Globe Sunday as television’s Best Dramatic series.
Winston Churchill distrusted television. “Being an old and old-fashioned animal,” he once admitted, “I am no enthusiast for the TV age, in which I fear mass thought and action will be taken too much charge of by machinery, both destructive and distracting.” Churchill found it inconceivable that television might play a role in politics. With his retirement looming, however, in 1955, he agreed to make a screen test for the Conservative Television and Film Department. He was filmed at the Conservative Central Office seated behind a desk. “I am sorry to have to descend to this level but there is no point in refusing to keep pace with the age,” he informed the camera before proceeding to recite a poem from Punch magazine about the ducks in St. James Park.
“I should never have appeared on television,” he declared, when the film was later privately screened for him at Chartwell, his home. The clip would not ever be shown to the public.
I found myself thinking of this as I watched The Crown. Addictively distracting and only sporadically destructive, the 10 programs comprising the first season (of what is projected to be a 6-season enterprise) are exceedingly well-acted and scrumptiously ornamented. The verismo of costumes and settings is colossal. The writing, largely by Peter Morgan (the playwright behind The Audience, the screenwriter behind The Queen), is crisp and revealing. The actors inhabiting young Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy – also a Golden Globe winner), and her consort, Prince Philip (Matt Smith), are exceptional, ferreting out the turgid humanity beneath the regal public surface of this most enigmatic of still-breathing celebrity couples.
The take-away performance, however, is John Lithgow’s as Churchill himself. Lithgow, an American and a 6-foot-plus American, at that, is not an obvious choice for the 5-foot-7-inch Sir Winston, who was half-American (by his American mother, Jennie) but all-British in style and speech. What Lithgow pulls off, with a pronounced stoop and impeccable Churchillian elocution, is absolutely riveting – an instantly recognizable impersonation deepened by the childlike, often childish, essence that Lithgow locates in England’s glowering lion. His Churchill occasionally pouts, frequently fusses and positively creaks with descending age. Yet he rises to the moment again and again, precisely as the real Winston Churchill did.
His relationship with the young queen is beautifully portrayed. Churchill indeed knew “Lilibet” from infancy. His protectiveness of her was fierce and deeply felt, yet he also expected greatness from her, mentored her early on in order to encourage that greatness, then served her as his sovereign to the end. The Crown encapsulates all of this eloquently.
What has most impressed me personally about The Crown is how many new customers it is bringing into Chartwell Booksellers, my Churchill-centric bookshop in midtown Manhattan, particularly its unexpected expansion of Churchill’s allure to women under the age of 30. This is a demographic that, until now, in my bookish realm, Winston Churchill has never before (you should pardon the expression) penetrated. Young ladies , newly inspired by The Crown, have lately been finding their way to the store, eager to learn more about Winston Churchill. Some want the best biography. Others want to read a book by him. Unlike my mostly male customers, none have yet asked me a question abut Churchill’s cigars.
This really is quite fascinating. Lithgow’s Churchill skews toward the most doddering of any previous filmed characterization. Yet, by pairing this geezer with the 20-something Elizabeth, The Crown has given us a kind of father/daughter continuum in which the fledgling comes of age before our eyes, as the elder declines. Rather than diminishing Churchill, this dynamic has humanized and ennobled him — for many young female viewers in particular, to judge by my own admittedly narrow sampling.
The episode that most decisively conveys this is barely about the Queen at all. It seems to be the favorite among my new non-male clientele and, may I say, it is my favorite too. Titled “Act of God,” this fourth episode in the series recreates a little remembered, true ecological disaster: a suffocating black “Fog” (we would today call it smog) that descended upon London on December 5, 1952 and refused to disperse for five days, sickening hundreds of thousands and ultimately killing as many as 12,000.
As so often in this series, the facts here are stretched and massaged until they flirt with fiction. The dramatic impact, however, is overwhelming. The key plot point revolves around the aged Prime Minister under-estimating the fog’s toxic significance because he refuses to apprehend its ecology. This incapacity is hammered home by Peter Morgan’s script with increasingly didactic force and escalating political consequences for Churchill. Simultaneously, Morgan spins an utterly mesmerizing sub-plot about a young and innocent new secretary at Downing Street whom Churchill notices. Their chaste appreciation for one another grows after the young lady purloins a copy of Churchill’s memoir, My Early Life, from his desk and reads who and what this old man truly was. Her life, however, is tragically cut short by an onrushing London bus in the blinding fog. The sight of her corpse at the hospital moves Churchill to tears and then action. With Churchillian greatness, he at last tackles “The Fog” and all that has to be done.
How could any young lady not see just a bit of herself in the lovely, literate, doomed “Venetia Scott?” I hunted for some reference to her, and to “The Fog” itself, in my Churchill reference library. Venetia, it quickly became clear, is pure fiction, however excellent fiction; her name, a spin, I suspect, on Venetia Stanley, a real-life cousin to Churchill’s wife Clementine, who was the teen-aged fixation and perhaps mistress of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith through the early years of World War I.
“The Fog” does not even merit a mention in the official Churchill biography by Sir Martin Gilbert, or in any other Churchill biography that I glanced at. All the more credit to Peter Morgan for latching onto it as the perfect button-pusher for a contemporary audience, deployed in his television fantasy about Winston Churchill’s young Queen. Well played.