Website: Churchill: The Lost Interviews
Starring Richard Beenham
‘A brash, Northern, Sir Winston Churchill reflects on the people, places and occasions of his life in this series of recently ‘uncovered’ interviews with the great man…’
I’ve started this review at least ten times. When you over think something the words become harder, but when you’re so determined to do something justice thoughts keep circling until they’re good enough to escape satisfied.
Churchill: The Lost Interviews is something magical; taking to the digital age the picaresque hilarity best remembered in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
The parallels are uncanny, and it would be no shame for the team to admit that inspiration came from the Fraser himself. The faux website, with a slick but severe elucidation of the ‘recent discovery’ on the ‘About’ page, is a beautiful homage to the ‘Explanatory Note’ of every Flashman novel. Fraser, writing as himself, tells the tale of how the series, purporting to be autobiographical, were rediscovered after fifty years and are not quite as history would have you remember their subject. The duty of taking them to the world falls on to the author, as they do to the historian Toby DeWinter.
DeWinter says he is a historian but it matters not if he is. The construct is a fake but the origin, like Fraser being an actual author, is enough to throw in an element of speculation. Indeed, so successfully did Fraser bring off the chicanery that some critics, particularly in America, believed the Flashman memoirs to be authentic.
Fraser, who died in 2008, was a literary giant that is quietly acknowledged but has never attained the posthumous profile he deserves. More urgently, despite the last Flashman, (Flashman on the March) being published in 2005, there has been no obvious heir.
Churchill seems an odd but a highly plausible choice. Like Fraser both have used an established character, identifiable by key traits that can be turned on their head for comic effect. Flashman, hero possessing all those Victorian qualities of gallantry, chivalry, and imperial condescension is a deceitful fraud with a penchant for cowardice, bullying and whoring.
Churchill, a robust, rotund and redoubtable maverick is the distillation of all that we consider great about Britain at war; his image pithy one-liners, a penchant for drink and cigars. Everyone has and can hear that voice, booming down the ages saying “we’ll never surrender!”. Defiance and oratory are no bad twin pillars for a mausoleum, but there exists a cult and bubble around Churchill that sees him do no wrong. Any racism or sexism or petulance is dismissed and subsumed by the body of anecdotage that makes him great. He gets away with much of it because he was larger than life and impish in the face of the starkest of circumstances.
A bit too cerebral for a review? Possibly. The point is this, though: for all the hilarity of Churchill, in this, the 50th anniversary of his death, even he is in need of a hefty dose of iconoclasm. Can the Lost Interviews do the trick?
In short, yes, with room for more. The joy of Fraser’s Flashman was his style and the historical context in which the novels are set. Making the Charge of the Light Brigade an accident caused by a hungover Flashman’s flatulence startling a horse was among many moments of pure unadulterated joy.
DeWinter’s writing and humour are just as sharp, with Beenham’s Northern Churchill giving a bombastically, totally inappropriate ‘insight’ into events and people. Of special mention? Hermann Goering: “Goering…he was like a fucking peacock”. How many of you read that in a Northern accent?
A Lancashire hailing, working-class Churchill is stunningly hilarious. The British class system is an anachronism, defined by the stratified protocol that is always hilarious when the pomp is juxtapositioned and decontextualised. Churchill, for all his monetary woes, is still held in the public zeitgeist as ducal and aristocratic. What funnier way to poke fun than to make him a foul-mouthed, pint-swilling Northerner?
The interviews are never quite satiric or farcical. They are in the purest sense funny. For all the omnipotence of Churchill’s anecdotage, he has never been portrayed in a side-splitting way, probably because so much of the humour about Churchill comes from the real thing with a pantheon of anecdotes and put-downs rivalled only by Oscar Wilde (everyone can recite the ‘if I were your wife I’d poison your coffee, if I were your husband I’d drink it’ quote).
Beenham jests on his Twiter that he’s the definitive Churchill. He’s not far wrong. He may well be second to Albert Finney for being able to convey the sheer joy de vivre of the man. I can think of no other comedian or actor that has so meticulously and comprehensively indulged a parody of Churchill for humour’s sake alone.
The portrayal is matched by the writing and research, that both reflect a deep knowledge of the subject as well as his popular image. The writing is a rare occasion of actor and script working in complete tandem. De Winter is clearly a student of his subject and has combined this with a beautiful appreciation of irony and iconoclasm.
The whole performance, like Flashman, is at its finest when meshing historical fact with some lewd insight and a well-placed cuss word. I’m reminded of Stephen fry’s glorious articulation that a life without swearing is no life at all. It remains one of the great mysteries of life if Churchill swore, and public zeitgeist has it that he preferred wit to expletives (although I hazard a guess that he indulged).
Drawbacks? The title credits, while a joy on themselves, can be tedious when trying to watch at least fifteen videos in one sitting. Likewise, while the format of Churchill in a pub is splendid, there’s scope for other comedic surroundings. Indeed, it would be a pleasure to see the physicality of Beenham’s Churchill out and about – the thought of him standing by his ‘own’ statue, saying that it ‘looks fucking nothing like me, does it’ already has me in stitches.
Of the future? You heard it here first that it won’t stay digital for long. The performance and styling demand a visit to the Edinburgh Festival.
Churchill: The Lost Interviews joins the echelons of picaresque performances. Should you watch it? I’m not doing my job right if it took you this long to watch it.
Watch Churchill: The Lost Interviews here.