Robert Gorelangton

Playing Churchill

Warren Clarke is the latest in a long line of actors to take the role of the great statesman

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Where would gentleman actors be without Churchill? No prime minister has given as much work to the profession as Winston (though Blair comes a close second), patron saint of jowly thespians of a certain age. Churchill now features in a new stage play called Three Days in May, about the British war cabinet in May 1940. The great man is played by Warren Clarke, whose fleshy fizzog is well known to fans of the 12 series of the BBC’s Dalziel and Pascoe — he plays Detective Superintendent Dalziel. A splendidly robust actor, he has roughly the same baby-fed-on-whisky looks as Churchill. In this he doesn’t wear rompers, instead you get the Churchill outdoors look — spotty bowtie, homburg and cigar.

‘He was balder than I am,’ Clarke says over coffee and a shared bag of Galaxy Minstrels after a matinee performance in Milton Keynes. ‘I am about the same age he was in 1940 when the play is set — in my mid-sixties. His face was like a football. Mine’s big but it’s not so round. His hair was thinner. I have had mine cut, but I am buggered if I am going bald for my country.’

He’s got the gravel in the voice, the vocal slur which the ‘Narzees’, as Churchill called them, put down to the drink. Clarke is unusually experienced as Winston. As a young actor he played him in the 1974 mini-series Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, starring Lee Remick. ‘I had a great time doing that. I liked the man. Churchill didn’t hold any terrors for me. Then when I agreed to do this, I looked at the footage again and I thought “Shit, I’m going to have work harder than I thought.” But it’s the voice that grabs the audience. If you don’t attempt it and get it right, they’ll say “Where the hell’s Winston?” I am a smoker, which helps.’

Clarke chomps cigars on stage despite the ban on stage smoking, which has made realistic portrayals of almost anyone in the mid-20th century near impossible. In this show, Churchill’s beloved Romeo y Julieta Cubans are electronic props, emitting a sad odourless vapour which the non-smoking Hitler would have been proud of.

So how does he sound? Clarke gives me a taste. The context is the French prime minister’s visit to Churchill at No. 10 (not far from the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall where the play, currently touring, will be presented from 31 October) in the run-up to Dunkirk. The sentence he warms up with is: ‘Premier, good to see you. Jock, why haven’t you given Musshure Reynaud a drink?’ Jock is Jock Colville, Churchill’s young assistant private secretary whose diaries have partly furnished the playwright Ben Brown with his material.

It’s very much his own performance, a low revving growl with a very human feel to it, but inevitably it also sounds like an accretion of all actor Churchills — from the mellifluous Richard Burton to the patrician Robert Hardy to the pub landlord-like Albert Finney. None of them, though, is a patch on Churchill’s own studied performance of his part.

‘I’ve got the easiest job in the play,’ says Clarke. ‘If I go wrong, my good fortune is I can slur my way out of it. Neville and Edward [Lord Halifax] can’t, the poor bastards. A lot of the play is from the war cabinet agenda. But it’s conversational too, like when I beg Halifax in the garden not to resign. At other moments, you’ll see the bulldog come out. He was well known for losing his rag. That’s a very Churchillian thing. It’s like an Exocet.’

This latest portrayal is pretty flattering compared to the terrible panzering Churchill used to get from dramatists. Howard Brenton’s 1974 Marxist romp, The Churchill Play, portrayed him as a lump of booming fascist lard coming back to life from inside his coffin. In Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth’s 1967 play, it was alleged that Churchill connived at the death of the Polish General Sikorksi — a baseless accusation and from a German to boot.

These days Churchill is either romanticised (he was the subject of a West End musical, Winnie, which bombed) or, as in this case, more rightly depicted as a complicated rogue who took on the so-called Respectable Tendency in government. But showbusiness loves him because he was funny, outlandish, and produced through his theatrical mastery of the English language, to quote Roy Jenkins, ‘a euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory’.

The play shows the new Prime Minister Churchill from 26 to 28 May 1940, using every trick in the book to win over his powerful Tory colleagues Halifax and Chamberlain, who wished to do a deal with Hitler mediated through Mussolini. It was the moment Britain — if not Churchill himself — wobbled, and it was subsequently hushed up.

Like a lot of actors who have played Churchill (Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech was the last), Clarke’s background is working-class. His father was a stained-glass maker in Manchester who fought in North Africa, in Sicily, and at the bloodbath of Monte Cassino, and who at the end of the war re-glazed the shattered churches in Naples, where the mayor even offered him a permanent job.

When young Warren told his father in the 1970s that he had got the ultimate character part, all he got back was ‘I’m pleased you are working, son.’ ‘But it’s Winston, Dad!’ As Clarke tells it, there was a pause on the phone. ‘Yeah, well, I suppose he were the right man for the job at the time.’

That grudging Mancunian admission sounds utterly authentic. This new play makes clear it was the support, grudging or not, of the working man on which Churchill (unlike snooty Halifax and the tainted Chamberlain) alone could count. ‘It’s been described as a thriller but it’s not that. Hitler doesn’t jump out of a wardrobe with a machine-gun. But not many people know the background to those days in May when Churchill showed such incredible courage.’

Interestingly, after the war, Clarke’s family became friends with a very talented former Nazi. He was the German paratrooper Bert Trautmann, who won the Iron Cross and ended up as goalkeeper for Manchester City, which Clarke supports. ‘But that’s another story,’ he says, needing his pre-show catnap — another trait he’s picked up from Churchill.