Last year I made a mistake on stage at the Albert Hall. Fortunately I wasn’t performing, but instead producing a 70th anniversary program for Radio 2 to commemorate D-Day. We were lucky enough to have Sir Patrick Stewart reading the words of Winston Churchill as part of a show hosted by Jeremy Vine and Dermot O’Leary, with music from the BBC Concert Orchestra. I thought it would be a nice idea for Sir Patrick to sit in a leather wing-backed chair centre stage as he delivered the Prime Minister’s lines. ‘The trouble is, it’ll make him look as if he’s in an old people’s home – everyone else is standing,’ Sir Patrick pointed out. He was right. And so the chair went back to the props store. Churchill’s wartime speeches and clever quips didn’t deserve to be delivered so passively, almost hidden from view.
I love the small details that occur in the middle of such important historical times, (did you know that some British officers wore pyjamas under their battledress on D-Day to prevent chafing?). As a result, the scripts and books I write seem to have plenty of stories about Winston Churchill. He can always be relied on to surprise. A great example of this occurred one evening in May 1941; the Prime Minister was at Chequers settling down to watch one of his favourite films, when he was told that Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess had been captured in Scotland. Churchill declared loudly, ‘Hess or no Hess, I’m going to watch the Marx Brothers!’. Not quite the reaction you would expect from a world statesman...
Churchill's wartime speeches and clever quips didn't deserve to be delivered so passively, almost hidden from view.
A similar incident happened a few days after D-Day; Churchill was desperate to cross the Channel and join his troops so he sent a telegram to General Montgomery, ‘We do not wish to be a burden to you and your headquarters. We shall bring sandwiches.’ Delightful!
Churchill also provided one of the finest coincidences of the war. On the 30th April 1945, the day Hitler shot himself, and his body was burnt by his loyal staff, Churchill too caught fire. Sitting up in bed at Chequers, and smoking a cigar, Churchill was dictating to Marian Holmes, one of his secretaries, when she smelt burning. John Peck, another duty secretary, started pointing frantically at the Prime Minister. Cigar ash had set light to the lapel of his bed-jacket, and Churchill was so absorbed in his work he hadn’t noticed. Peck said, ‘You’re on fire, sir. May I put you out?’, ‘Yes, do’, Churchill replied unconcerned.
Winston Churchill appeals to people for many different reasons. Sir Patrick loves him because of this inspiring wartime speech: ‘You ask, what is our aim? It is victory. Victory at all costs. Victory, in spite of all terrors. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival!’.
One of my lasting memories is of Patrick delivering those lines to a packed Albert Hall and a radio audience of millions, and it was certainly all the more powerful because he was standing.
Jonathan's book Hitler's Last Day is published by Short Books Ltd and available from Amazon
Hello Jonathan a while ago you quoted a remark by "Peter Masters from a book Striking back which he wrote about his and others experiences as commandos.It is not a very well known book but one of the few written facts by the writer and his comrades. Peter died some years ago and there are very few of the actual troop left. Should you be interested in knowing more about these men, my husband Colin Anson was a close friend and are in touch with Alice his widow. regards Alice Anson