Churchill’s words unite parliament and the public by Richard Jones

A look at Darkest Hour (PG)DH

Winston Churchill might have been under extreme duress during May 1940 yet all that stress caused by constant German air raids and the mooted evacuation of Dunkirk never detracted from his brilliant speeches.

In Joe Wright’s magnificent film the new Prime Minister (Gary Oldman) copes heroically against internal Tory Party rumblings and the diffidence of King George VI.

Indeed, the stuttering King (a great performance from Ben Mendelsohn) was only grudgingly able to offer Churchill the Prime Ministership.

He prefers Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the prince of appeasement along with ousted PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) who, of course, had returned a year earlier from Berlin with the infamous Peace In Our Time document.

I know we look back now with all the knowing and smart ‘I told you so’ routines but in mid-1940 Hitler and Goering’s Luftwaffe looked unstoppable.

At the time it took a courageous PM who had to endure the jibes of ‘Have you forgotten Gallipoli’ — when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in charge of the 1915 landings where thousands of Allied soldiers were killed — as well as internal party factional strife to ensure Britain would not fall.

His first major radio broadcast to the public at large when still a newly-appointed PM has gone down in history as one of the great rallying cries.

And in the House of Commons when he makes his opening speech as the country’s new head there’s a nice touch.

The Tories sitting behind him are all watching Chamberlain. If the party chairman waves his handkerchief at the end they’re to cheer. If not,  they’re to remain mute.

Of course given Churchill’s exceptional way with words the hankie is waved and the members clap and cheer.

The Prime Minister receives great support at home from wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and private secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James) while in the Commons a future PM in Sir Anthony Eden (Samuel West) is one of his most important backers.

Director Wright has added one touch of his own. Even though Churchill never ever travelled on a London double-decker bus nor on the Tube Wright has the PM in an underground station waiting for the next train to Westminster.

On board he asks the passengers near him for their thoughts. Everyone – men, women and children – tell Churchill they’re with him and he should never seek a peace arrangement with Hitler.

We don’t know until he’s addressing a randomly convened meeting of his backbenchers, on his way to head up a War Cabinet meeting, that he’d jotted down the names and brief thoughts of those Tube travellers.

But he had and to the cheers of his backbenchers Churchill relays the public’s views.

It was a nice touch from Wright and script writer Anthony McCarten.

Churchill, of course, had to endure the jibes of some Cabinet ministers about his drinking habits. “What about your bottle of champagne for lunch, another one at dinner and all those whiskies throughout the day,” one jeering Tory remarks.

Yes, he was a heavy imbiber and also suffered from depression leaving him bed-ridden for periods. But he was a non-stop worker.

Churchill does take a break from the War Cabinet at one stage to ring President Roosevelt. Incongruously, it’s from the washroom adjacent to his private toilet in the downstairs bunker where the WW2 operations are planned.

Roosevelt promises to park a whole swag of fighter planes adjacent to the border with Canada where British pilots can take charge.

But of course the highlight of Churchill’s first month in office, and remember the film covers mainly May 1940, is his brilliant rallying cry in the House of Commons in very early June.

“We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets.

“We shall fight them in the hills. We shall never surrender,” thunders Churchill to rapturous applause from both sides of the Commons.

Oldman delivers the speech brilliantly. Naturally once heard it’s something one never forgets as it’s been ringing down the decades ever since mid-1940.

And silently urging Churchill on from the public seating in the House of Commons is secretary Miss Layton who, of course, typed up the speech.

Understandably Oldman is the raging hot favourite to win the 2018 Academy Award for best male actor. You’d think there’d be a major outcry if he doesn’t end up with this year’s Oscar.


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