By John Walton
A bookstore hidden down a curving Edinburgh backstreet, its rough wooden shelves crammed with history, classical passion and beautiful early editions; an antiquarian owner practically covered with his own thin layer of dust. I was holding a worn book with yellowing pages, a navy hardback cover, and a look of having been once loved.
Back on tour with Potted Potter, the photo of a young man I had glimpsed in the Cabinet War Rooms was constantly on my mind. Who was he? What was he doing in a cavalry officer’s uniform? And why wasn’t he fat, middle-aged and balding? I needed to find out more. I was not only curious, I sniffed a story.
The book in my hands was ‘My Early Life’, Churchill’s description of his youthful days from first memories to nascent parliamentary success. Limping home from my gruelling schedule (two incredibly high-energy shows a day, every day, for a month – don’t let anyone tell you acting is an easy life) I plunged into a hot bath and began reading; immediately I was hooked. As a child I had adored the adventure stories of Dan Dare, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Willard Price. Here was someone living that life for real, ricocheting around the world in a blur of action, high society and hilarity. One moment he was fleeing from his governess, next he was rioting in a music-hall; finally, he escaped from the South African Boers and became an international celebrity. Audacious tales were strewn with huge personalities: Winston’s father Randolph, a maverick politician who ultimately destroyed his own career; his mother Jennie, a glamorous New York socialite and unparalleled beauty; Mrs Everest, Winston’s nanny and closest friend. Alongside these principals was a roster of fascinating and often hilarious supporting characters: Prime Ministers, Princes, workers, clergymen, Dickensian teachers and my favourite, Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.
Reading ‘My Early Life’ was like discovering a different world, one so often suppressed by our country’s collective embarrassment over the colonial era. In the young Winston you could see the tenacity, bravery and leadership that would echo and reverberate into the future; at this point though his destiny was anything but certain. There was tender honesty, the tragically unreciprocated adoration Winston had for his father, the young man’s constant money problems and the impetuousness that would often be his own undoing. Written by Churchill decades later, the entire book also had a fascinating tint: the dying rays of what Churchill himself called a ‘vanished age’. The aristocracy’s grip on power was diminishing, the labour movement growing, and by the book’s end mechanised guns were swiftly bringing an end to the gentlemanly pursuit of war. Yet this was still a time where British officers played party games on the way to battle and fretted about smuggling champagne to the front lines.
As I suspected, the book was ripe for adaptation. Moreover, it’s central character was an intoxicating storyteller pumped full of bravery, arrogance, wit and sheer bloody-mindedness. I knew immediately that there could be only one actor on-stage. At the time, I imagined that might be myself. I re-read the book, this time making notes at the top of every page, eventually constructing an intricate timeline of his early life. Then I sat down at my sitting room table and took a notepad, ready to begin writing. Nothing. Nothing came out at all. I sat for a bit longer. Still nothing. I had assumed that writing a play would be easy: string together the bits of the story you want to tell and fill the gaps in-between. How wrong I was. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, and quickly, the rest of the world took over. A translating project took over my creative juices, and for the next two years, the project would be relegated to a constant niggle in the back of my head. Until, that is, I stumbled across Freddie Machin…