|Toronto: Winston Churchill statue at City Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Cover of The Gathering Storm|
Today I just happened upon the last few minutes of the film “The Gathering Storm”, in which Winston Churchill was portrayed by Albert Finney. I have seen it twice before, and it reminded me of what an extraordinarily brilliant actor Finney was, just those last few minutes of the film. He arrives outside the Navy Department in London in a cab with his wife, played by the peerless Vanessa Redgrave.
He makes a pretty little speech to her, thanking her for he says, “loving me as I never expected to be loved,” such a speech as would melt the heart of the toughest among us.
Then he entered the department, strode in, muttered as he passsed to the attendant, “I am the new First Lord.”
“Yes, I know, sir.”
Winston stops, inquires, “How do you know?”
Because, says the functionary, they received a notice of the appointment.
“And what did the notice say?” Winston asks.
“Winston is back, sir,” said the attendant.
Finney stops at the head of the steps, turns around, takes a puff of the cigar he had carefully lit while sitting in the cab, especially to prepare for his entrance.
“Winston is back,” he said, and then, pumping both fists in the air and shouting, “Yes, and so he bloody well is!” What an ending for any film!
For someone who like me, as a young kid in the furthest of British dominions had heard those amazing speeches on the radio, those few minutes were enough to evoke the whole heroism of Churchill’s stepping forward to fulfil what he always knew would be his destiny, to lead his people to victory. One needn’t be a died-in-the-wool Tory to appreciate the emotions surrounding this old man.
Many years after hearing the speeches I was in the House of Commons in London on the occasion of his 87th or 88th birthday, not long before he died in 1965, when he was paid fulsome tributes by members on all sides of the House. I had already watched on numerous occasions when he had appeared at the doors to the Commons. Arrogant and self-confident to the last, after the doors were thrown open for him, he would wobble on his stick to his seat in the front row of the government side of the House, turn his back laboriously to the seat, and flop down into it, never to move again until, after Question Period, he would stir into action, force himself to his feet, and totter out. Only once did I hear him speak when, in response to the birthday wishes offered him he rose and said, “the House is very kind,” and sat down again. It was known at that time that it would have been worth anyone’s life who tried to help him.
I have never been an admirer of Churchill the politician --- he was small-minded and vindictive in his attitudes to the many races who populated the Empire of which he was so proud ---- and I think the British people were at their absolute best when, the war over, they turned their back on him and elected the Labour party to power. But no one can denigrate the role he played during the war when taking over Britain in the worst days of its trauma, he rallied the people to believe their victory was inevitable. Years later, when I was working on a conveyer belt in a factory in London with members of the working class, I found echoes among them of the spirit Churchill had inculcated into them: they had considered themselves unbeatable, and now that the war was over they kept assuring me it was impossible for anyone like me who had not lived through it to understand how they had felt, and why they had won.
It may be true that the victory would never have been won without American arms, and the gallant defence of the Russian homeland by the Soviet Army. But if anyone deserves credit for making those things possible it is probably Churchill.
Anyway, those few minutes of seeing Finney as Churchill blew me away again: it was an impersonation so exact as to seem almost like a reincarnation of the man. Only Finney could have pulled off something so daring.
I have never forgotten his performance in the John .arden play, “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight,” in which he played the role of a Scottish leader accustomed to staging cattle raids across the border into England in the 1530s, irritating Henry VIII. To play the role --- it was written at the time when tribal leaders were rising to prominence in the Congo --- he needed to be able to project the sense that he was a leader of men, and Finney, although a young actor of 28 in 1964 when he played the part, managed this extraordinary feat with unforgettable aplomb. I can testify to that, because it is 50 years since I saw it, and it remains for me one of the outstanding performances I saw in London during the many years I frequented the theatre.
So, Finney and Churchill, two quintessentially English figures, each of them larger than life, who provided me with some of the most memorable experiences from the 11 years I spent living and working in England.