Finest Hour 179, Winter 2018
By Justin Reash
Justin Reash is Deputy Editor of Finest Hour and works at the University of Michigan.
Churchill. Chartwell. Cinema. How did an unused room on the lower level of Chartwell become a portal for Churchill’s escapism? By chance, as it happens. Though not a subject found in many books or academic studies, films played an important role in Winston Churchill’s life. They were an extension of his personality. Like painting, watching movies helped him to relax.
Furthermore, as an artist himself, films allowed Churchill to criticize and explore the creativity of others. But movies held another attraction for him. Stories are told on the screen, and Churchill was passionate for stories. He wrote stories, spoke stories, and painted stories. Thus, films were yet another medium for him to live his storied life.
Churchill’s love for the cinema produced memories for people beyond himself. His granddaughter Celia Sandys says that some of her first memories of Chartwell, her grandfather’s home in Kent, are those of watching films in rooms that smelled of “Napoleon brandy and cigars and my grandfather saying ‘let it roll’”— which was the signal to start the film. Lady Williams of Elvel, who as Jane Portal worked as a secretary to Churchill from 1949 to 1955, remembers spending many weekend evenings in the cinema and how much pleasure it brought her boss.
Celia and Jane recently discussed the Chartwell cinema together at the 2017 International Churchill Conference in New York City. Based on their memories and those recorded by others, we can tell the story of how, thanks to good friends and new technology, Churchill’s treasured home became the epicenter for one of his great passions and most important forms of entertainment.
Failed but Fateful Gift
The cinema setup at Chartwell was a present to the former Prime Minister and his family. Lady Williams was working for Churchill when his friend Sir Alexander Korda, a leading film producer and director (see p. 12), desired to give Churchill a gift . The filmmaker and politician had a long relationship going back before the Second World War, when Churchill had agreed to act as a consultant to Korda’s planned but never realized production about T. E. Lawrence. In 1934 Churchill, “signed a contract with London Films [Korda’s company] to edit a series of films.”1 Author Mark Helprin has even claimed that Churchill used Korda as a go-between to President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.2
The friendship continued aft er the war. Out of office following the general election of 1945, Churchill resumed his professional writing by starting work on his massive six-volume war memoirs. Busy as always, Churchill typically worked late into the night on the project by dictating to secretaries, who became understandably exhausted. In 1950, Korda had an idea to improve the process.
Lady Williams remembers: “At lunch one day, Korda said to Churchill, ‘I’m so anxious for you because you’re never at leisure; you’re never with your family! There’s a wonderful invention; it’s called a Dictaphone. I’d like to give you one.”
Korda suggested that the Dictaphone be installed in Churchill’s bedroom. This was close to the study, and Churchill did much of his work in bed. One wall of the adjoining bathroom was removed, and a cupboard was installed to hold the machine.
Dictaphones had first been developed in the early twentieth century by the company that later became known as Columbia Records, which traced its own foundation back to Alexander Graham Bell. Like gramophones, the machines initially relied on wax cylinders to record sound. In 1947, however, Dictaphone introduced what it called Dictabelt technology to cut a mechanical groove into a plastic belt. This created a permanent recording, which was admissible in court.
After one of these new Dictaphones was installed at Chartwell, Churchill’s excited family informed him at dinner that all he had to do was speak into the machine, and a secretary would later produce a transcript, thus sparing her another late night at the office.
“The next morning at 8:00 am, after a night of fun,” Lady Williams recalled, “I was suddenly summoned to Churchill’s room. Upon entering he said to me, ‘take it away. I don’t like it. I can never work like this. I must be able to dictate, to hear the English language as I speak it and not to a machine’—so it was removed.”
The Cinema Arrives
After the ill-fated Dictaphone was banished, Churchill sent a letter to Korda, which the filmmaker replied to immediately. “I entirely understand your views of the Dictaphone,” Lady Williams remembers Korda writing, “but I do want to give you a substantially good gift, so I’m giving you a cinema.” In contrast to the reception he gave to the Dictaphone, Churchill “was thrilled,” Lady Williams stated.
What had been a dining room on the lower ground floor of Chartwell was perfect for a cinema, which could seat up to thirty people. The cinema’s furnishings included ceiling pendants with enamelled shade, a pair of slatwood duck boards, an RCA Victorphone high fidelity amplifier, and (concealed in an adjacent room) two 35 mm projectors. Living close by in the village of Westerham was a retired cinema projectionist, Mr. Shaw, who was called in to install the equipment and, afterwards, show the films that Churchill hosted. “This is Mr. Shaw,” Churchill would say when introducing him to guests, “He’s a Labour man but quite a nice fellow.”3 Mrs. Shaw assisted her husband by collecting the reels.
The cinema was on the east side of the building facing the terrace lawn and lakes. The windows were blocked up so that a large screen could be installed across the entire wall at one end of the room. A central aisle was installed with permanent seats reserved for Churchill and his wife Clementine. Churchill’s nurse Roy Howells described these seating arrangements in his memoirs: “Sir Winston had a huge chintz covered armchair to the left of the centre aisle about halfway down the long room. On his immediate left was another armchair, usually occupied by his principal guest, and on the other side of the gangway was a six-seater settee where Lady Churchill would sit with the other guests. Behind this luxury row were four rows of hard chairs, filled at every weekend showing by housemaids, butler, cook, gardeners and their wives, secretaries and car drivers.”4
A winding room adjacent to the cinema included a Hilton and Hilton pianoforte in mahogany case, a refrigerator, a deal table to which the winding apparatus was fixed, fish tanks, cupboards, and a cigar cabinet. Once completed, the makeshift cinema became the gathering place for all Chartwell guests, from family members to the future Prime Minister Edward Heath.
A frequent audience member was Churchill’s namesake grandson. “I used to enjoy being up in the projection room with Mr. Shaw,” Young Winston recalled. “He and I would watch the film through a small glass panel in the wall and wait for the telltale mark at the top right-hand corner of the screen, which was the signal that the reel was about to run out and it was time to start the second machine to insure perfect synchronization, so that the reel change would pass unnoticed. If the film was particularly long like Gone with the Wind—another of Grandpapa’s favorites—we would have a fifteen minute break while brandy glasses were recharged, cigars relit, and anyone who wanted to could, to use one of his naval expressions, ‘pump ship.’”5
Howells recalled, “The films were sent down by rail from London, and whenever Sir Winston was at Chartwell he saw at least three a week.”6 One of the responsibilities of Lady Williams in her secretarial appointment was to select possible films to be shown in the Chartwell cinema. “It was my job to choose the movies we watched,” she recalled. “Every week I’d ring the secretary at Alexander Korda’s office and inquire which films were available.” “I was then given a list to choose from. Some of my choices were not a huge success, but more were. I knew that if there were any historical films available he’d be very happy.”
Screenings always took place after dinner, usually at about 9:15, though they were frequently delayed, because many times Clementine would have to chivvy her husband along as he lingered over brandy and coffee at the dinner table. Lady Williams or another secretary would have typed up a plot summary of the available films so that Churchill could read these and select the one he wanted to see.
Churchill enjoyed period films, especially if it included his favorite actor Laurence Olivier. Henry V (1944) was one of his most beloved films, with Olivier playing the victorious king (see p. 25). How unsurprising that Churchill enjoyed this film version of Shakespeare’s dramatic tale, complete with the English conquering a foreign foe. As he later did while watching Richard Burton play in Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953, Churchill recited the lines along with Laurence Olivier while watching Olivier’s 1948 film version of the play. He would then run upstairs to check his memory against a copy of Shakespeare’s text. Another favorite was Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), a film noir classic depicting an American investigating a suspicious death in post-war Vienna. Starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, the movie was produced by Korda and voted the greatest British film of all time by the British Films Institute in 1999.7
Churchill’s taste in films covered many genres. He especially enjoyed historically based films such as War and Peace (1956), which was the first truly lengthy film to be shown at Chartwell. For ease of viewing, it was shown over two nights. Other war films that he liked included The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and The Longest Day (1962). One war film he admired, no doubt in part because of the fact that it dramatized an experience he had lived through himself, was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the first all-talking non-musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Westerns, the prototypical American entertainment export, also ranked high on Churchill’s list. He watched Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) many times but would watch “any Western just as long as there were lots of horse riding and gunfighting in it,” Howells remembered.8 Westerns featuring Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart all found their way to Chartwell, as did, inevitably, films starring the King of Westerns, John Wayne. Churchill, however, did not know that the “Duke” was a distant relative—a fifth cousin twice removed who idolized Churchill (see FH 172).
Clearly Churchill loved films with lots of action, swashbucklers as well as Westerns. But his taste also ran to other styles. The 1952 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Importance of Being Earnest and the 1958 musical Gigi were both big hits. “If he did not like what he had seen,” recalled Howells, “he would grunt one word ‘bloody.’ If he liked it, he used to say ‘Remarkable.’ Nothing else.”9 Witness for the Prosecution (1957) went over especially well, since it had two of his favorite stars, Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich.
Like most men of his era, Churchill was a fan of Greta Garbo, but his most beloved actress was Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh. Not only did her films play frequently at Chartwell, especially 1941’s That Hamilton Woman (see p. 23), but Churchill went to see Olivier and Leigh on stage in Titus Andronicus, then one of the most rarely performed Shakespeare plays.
One film that Churchill never saw, unfortunately, was David Lean’s sweeping 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. Churchill had been friends with Lawrence when the two worked together to settle the Middle East after the First World War. Lawrence had been a guest at Chartwell several times and impressed young Mary Churchill when he wore his robes to dinner. Alas, the Chartwell cinema was not geared to accommodate the widescreen film that Churchill no doubt would have found mesmerizing.
One of the most unusual films to be screened at Chartwell was the twenty-seven-part television documentary produced in 1960 and 1961 by Jack LeVien. Based on Churchill’s memoirs, The Valiant Years featured the voice of Richard Burton reading extracts from the books. The complete series was shown in the Chartwell cinema over the course of four special sittings. Howells, whose “nursing” tasks included sitting behind Churchill in order to supply him with cigars and light them, recalled that “more than at any other time, I was conscious of his greatness as I saw film flashbacks of him at his peak and heard his deep voice rasping out his wonderful wartime speeches.”10
The Animal Kingdom
Historian Andrew Roberts spoke to the 2016 Churchill conference about Churchill’s famous lachrymosity. According to Lady Williams, her boss cried often while watching films, especially if they featured animals. Here the Walt Disney studios filled the bill. The heyday of the Chartwell cinema coincided with the time that Disney was producing his True-Life Adventure series, which pioneered the field of the nature documentary. The Living Desert (1953) proved very much to Churchill’s liking, for example, especially since it was filmed in Technicolor, which he found increasingly preferable to black and white.
Another Disney film Churchill was bound to love was The Incredible Journey (1963) about two dogs and a cat that successfully make an epic journey across Ontario, Canada, to rejoin their family from whom they had become separated.
“Sometimes as a supporting program,” Howells remembered, “a special film would be shown of Sir Winston down by the fishponds feeding a little red robin. This robin appeared every time he went down to feed the fish, and Sir Winston was so fond of it that he had the film made. It lasted about a quarter of an hour and was invariably shown when any special guest was down. It always came on to round off the evening after the main feature.”11
A less satisfying animal film that Lady Williams once selected was a French release that told the story of a boy who rescues a white stallion from the marshes. The boy and horse form a close bond, only for the horse to be killed by hunters at the end of the film. Afterwards, Churchill went up to his secretary with tears pouring down his face and asked, “How could you?”
After Churchill’s death in 1965, Chartwell was opened to the public by the National Trust. According to Katherine Carter, Chartwell’s Project Curator and Collections Manager, Clementine Churchill insisted the cinema room be restored to its previous condition. “Lady Churchill wanted the house to represent the golden age of Chartwell, that being its pre-war layout,” Carter said. Unfortunately, no photographs of the original cinema are known to exist. In 2016, however, the room was temporarily restored to a vintage cinema setting as part of a tradition whereby Chartwell is rearranged each Christmas.
1. https://www.winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/ finest-hour-119/churchill-and-lawrence-imagining-scenarios/
2. https://www.winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/ finest-hour-123/datelines-churchill-korda-and-prewar-intelligence/
3. Roy Howells, Simply Churchill (London: Robert Hale, 1965), p. 63.
5. Winston S. Churchill, Memories and Adventures (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1989), p. 56.
6. Howells, p. 63.
8. Howells, 64.
9. Ibid., p. 65.
10. Ibid., p. 64.