February 8, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 03

By Robert Hardy

Chartwell, the hard winter of 1980-81: all round the Churchill house the roads were icy; snow was thick across the Weald of Kent. The house was full of action, with a large film crew, actors, noise, equipment, lights, cables, slush turning to mud, as we worked on the eight-hour script of Southern Films’s The Wilderness Years, in which I was striving, against the odds, to be the Rt Hon Winston Churchill.

Mary Soames suddenly arrived to see what was happening in the house where she grew up, laying bricks with her father, loving him absolutely. We met among the chaos and cables in the hall, between Churchill’s painting of flowers in a silver vase and the stand of his canes and sticks. She looked bewildered, regarded me and said: “The suit is about right—goodness, what a mess!”

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I asked if she would like to come to my trailer in the snow on the lawn and ease her shock with a whisky. Once inside she examined me more closely: “That bow tie arrangement is very good. Papa seldom got it really neat.” Suddenly she took my hand, gazed at the ring I wore and said, “What’s that? Where did you get it?”

I took the ring from the third finger of my right hand, where Churchill wore his, and gave it to her. I explained that I had this copy made by Garrards, who told me they knew all about the Churchill ring. I think they had made the original, certainly repaired it. On the almost square bezel the Spencer and Churchill crests were cut deep.

Mary was astonished: “Oh my goodness, we used to tease Papa, as children—slip it off his finger while he snoozed and hide it. He would feign rage, in the end find it, and play ‘Bear’ with us under the table.”

After her visit I sent her a telegram: “A bright gleam has caught the hopes of our enterprise, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.” From then on we kept in touch, and when the filming finished, realising I could no longer wear the ring, I wondered if I dared, and finally did dare, to offer it to Mary. I told her I would leave it at Garrards, where if she cared to have it she might go one day and collect it for herself. Not really expecting a response, in two days I got a wondrous letter from her, from which I quote:

“16th September 1981

“My dear Mr Hardy [a touching mixture of formality and friendliness]: I called upon Mr Argles at Garrards last Friday and—do you know—the ring fits my (rather large) finger perfectly—so I hope I did right. I wore it away from the shop and it has not left my finger (3rd right hand) since.

“I find it very difficult to thank you at all adequately for a really heartwarming thought. I am deeply moved. In these rather difficult days for us it has given me courage to wear the replica of the ring my beloved father wore for all the years I knew him, in good times and in bad; it has been like a talisman—and will continue to be so.

“I have of course been gripped by the first two episodes of The Wilderness Years and I think it is very good. It is such a relief to feel one is watching something which strives at every turn to be near the truth.”

What she in her kindness said of my own attempt made me feel I was forgiven for all presumptions. She continued:

“It is of course very hard for the generations who knew them all, and hardest for those who knew them well, to be detached….But I say to people, these are not reflections in a glass, these are images and how true and real the imagery is should be the test. So far I find it wonderfully interpreted, and I can see how you have studied him and got inside him. I was terribly tensed up before the first episode, and now I look forward with a confident interest to the next ones….my sister Sarah with whom I compare notes shares my views. Thank you with all my heart for your wonderful gift which will be a constantly worn and treasured possession to me all my days.”

From that time on I have so many memories of times spent with this great lady: aristocratic, straightforward, generous, open-hearted, gentle, able to be sharp—I have been told on occasions “don’t be so silly!”—humorous, witty, poised, loyal, with an extraordinary ability to get people to meet others with whom she thought they would become friends.

I felt her courage very soon after the death of Christopher, her husband, in 1987. I was driving her round Hyde Park Corner, and asked if she felt up to all that was on her plate that day. “Yes, if I concentrate on what I have to do, and on other people, all is pretty well, but you’re right, it’s miserable.”

We flew together to the 1990 Churchill Conference in San Francisco. At Heathrow we splashed out and bought expensive caviar for the journey; at the gate, after one look at Mary, they upgraded us to first class. The fun and conversation only ceased when Mary’s eyes closed and sleep came, as it did often in restaurants, increasingly as the years passed, withdrawals abruptly ended when Mary rejoined the conversation as if she had missed no part of it.

Many times we would be together with Celia Sandys, her niece, and their family at their house in the depths of Savernake Forest. Celia is a true friend and her youngest son Alexander is my godson. There were dog walks there and in London, visits to exhibitions…at one, as I arrived, she held out her arms and said “Papa!”

I remember her seventieth birthday party where her son Nicholas gave the best family tribute I have ever heard, and the wittiest; and my eightieth birthday party nine years ago, where her cigars astonished a few.

There was a weekend in Yorkshire with the Peels, her son-in-law and her daughter Charlotte: Mary said to me, “Let’s go for a walk”; soon she stopped and said: “I want to tell you a secret, a very exciting secret. The Queen has given me the Order of the Garter, just like Papa. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited!”

I asked if she was now a Knight of the Garter, a KG: “Goodness I don’t know, I simply must find out!” Her son-in-law knew: she would be a Lady of the Garter, an LG. I was honoured beyond measure she had told me, and the awe I always held her in deepened.

Now she has left us. She and her Papa used to have quite emulous cigar competitions, to see whose ash could be kept unbroken longest. I have had a feeling that when her ash truly outlasted his she would slip away to join those she loved and missed. I wish she had not decided to go, but it is what she needed. We who are left will treasure her all our days.

Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy CBE, for thirty years an Honorary Member of The Churchill Centre and Societies, is broadly acknowledged as the most accomplished actor ever to play the role of Winston Churchill, beginning with The Wilderness Years (1981), for which he received a BAFTA award. He has frequently participated in conferences and events, making notable addresses at the Reform Club during the Second Churchill Tour in 1985 and at the 1992 Churchill Conference in San Francisco. We last honored him (Finest Hour 148: 9) on his 85th birthday in 2010. His presence among us honors us much more. RML  • PHOTOGRAPH AND ARTWORK BY WOOTTON VILLAGE TALKS WWW.WOOTTONTALKS.CO.UK

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